Fire Prevention Inspectors Want Masks While Enforcing Social-Distancing

The Chief


March 30, 2020

City Fire Prevention Inspectors are playing a key role in enforcing the coronavirus social-distancing regulations aimed at slowing its spread but have not been issued the Personal Protective Equipment masks their union believes they should have.

They received gloves and hand sanitizer from the Fire Department. Their union, Emergency Medical Service Local 2507 of District Council 37, also wants more of both.

‘Not Handling Medical Calls’

Fire Department spokesman Frank Dwyer said in a phone interview that the Fire Prevention Inspectors were not issued masks “because they are not responding to medical incidents.”

“We are outside with the task force of inspectors for occupancy verification making sure that barbershops and salons are closed, as well as making sure there are no public gatherings in the parks,” union member Darryl Chalmers said.

The 400 FPIs are still carrying their normal workload, which includes inspecting all of the city’s fire-suppression equipment and construction sites that remain active.

They are also responsible for scaling and inspecting water towers atop residential buildings, inspecting building stock, industrial sites, tunnels, bridges, regional gas pipelines, and other critical infrastructure.

Cites Close Proximity

Mr. Chalmers said in a phone interview that his members were particularly concerned that in the midst of the pandemic they had not been issued a mask for when they are doing work in close proximity to others, as when they are supervising the testing of fire-suppression equipment in a restaurant’s kitchen.

“You have to get a lot closer than six feet to be close enough to the person conducting the test to make sure it is done properly,” he said.

Both Local 2507 and DC 37 Local 3621, which represents the EMS officers, are pressing the department to give their members more protective masks and offer them COVID-19 testing. They currently must arrange their own tests.

So far, the FDNY has 50 members who have tested positive, one member hospitalized and close to 200 out sick, including Local 3621 President Vincent Variale, who said in a phone interview that he was recovering from the coronavirus.

Says Worst Has Passed

“The worst of it was the last three days,” he said. “My fever was high and the throat pain was terrible. Now, it has subsided somewhat.”

Mr. Variale said he called his physician and they had a tele-medicine conference during which time they went over the COVID-19 checklist. “He prescribed me some medication for the symptoms,” he said. “I asked him if I should get tested and he said I could, but it would not make a difference because the treatment was the same.”

The Local 3621 president said he was self-quarantining for another 10 days on the second floor of his home; his wife leaves him his food in the upstairs hallway.

Local 2507 has managed to secure 20,000 surgical masks.

Joseph Wilson, a labor historian and consultant for Local 2507, said that the pandemic highlighted the role unions can play in protecting worker safety, and by extension the broader community.

Advocacy Vital

“The coronavirus crisis is hitting the front-line workers in the Fire Department, the EMS workers, the Fire Prevention Inspectors from the top to the bottom,” he said during a phone interview. “And it is their union that’s trying its best to advocate for their health and safety, because if that workforce goes down, both the public safety and public health are undermined.”

Mr. Chalmers believes that even before the pandemic hit the FDNY did not give sufficient recognition to the role played by the uniformed Fire Prevention Inspectors in protecting public safety.

Despite their status as peace officers who are trained in fire science and get assigned hazardous duties, Fire Prevention Inspectors are treated no differently when seeking Firefighter jobs than the general public: they must take a competitive exam. Local 2507 late last year called for them to be given the same edge now afforded Emergency Medical Technicians.

The EMTs are eligible to take the promotion test for Firefighter, which is used ahead of the open-competitive list to fill vacancies. Firefighters’ maximum salary is roughly $35,000 higher than top pay for EMTs and FPIs.

Mr. Dwyer said, “The Fire Inspectors have been doing an extraordinary job day and night throughout this pandemic inspecting between 700 to 800 business and areas of public assembly a day. There have been only a few instances where they had to escalate with threatening a fine. New Yorkers get it, and they are complying.