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In Boston, more first responders sidelined by the coronavirus pandemic as 2 firefighters test positive, 17 in isolation

Engine 50 firehouse in Charlestown.
Engine 50 firehouse in Charlestown.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/David L Ryan, Globe Staff

Two Boston firefighters have tested positive for coronavirus, and 17 members of the department are in self-isolation, authorities said Tuesday, substantially increasing the number of first responders in the city who have been sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the department, of the two firefighters who tested positive, one works in an administrative capacity and does not respond to emergency calls. Public health officials are following up with the second firefighter. Both were in self-isolation before their diagnosis, according to the department. The 17 firefighters in self-isolation at home provide regular updates to the department’s medical team.

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Other public safety agencies in the city have also been affected by the virus. Authorities have said one EMT in the city is a confirmed coronavirus case while four others are restricted from patient care pending clearance from public health authorities, and a Boston police officer is a confirmed COVID-19 case.

Interim Fire Commissioner Jack Dempsey said in a statement that protecting the health and safety of department members is a top priority.

“We have reviewed our policies to make the changes necessary to ensure we are following the necessary guidance from public health officials, such as maintaining adequate supplies and actively practicing social distancing in our firehouses to minimize any potential exposure,” said Dempsey.

Boston Fire Department has more than 1,400 members and current staffing levels are one officer and three firefighters per piece of apparatus. Company strengths have been reviewed during the pandemic, and all of the department’s members have received training for procedures for an infectious disease response, the department said.

Other Boston departments that feature many front-line, first responder jobs that do not include a work-from-home option have also adopted precautions amid the unprecedented pandemic.

Boston EMS, for instance, has 385 EMTs and paramedics, and all EMTs are wearing a minimum of a surgical mask and gloves at every call when providing direct care. Some calls may require additional protective equipment, according to the agency.

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Dispatchers are asking specific questions based on federal criteria for coronavirus, according to Boston EMS. That agency’s ambulances are equipped with protective equipment, as “well as standard cleaning solutions to sanitize the ambulance after transport.”

The Boston Police Department, meanwhile, has more than 1,900 officers available for duty.

Boston police Sergeant Detective John Boyle, a department spokesman, said this week that the department has a protocol for the coronavirus pandemic “but we’re not releasing what it is.”

At a Monday press conference, Mayor Martin J. Walsh suggested the department has changed the way it does roll calls, which are briefings that take place in stations at the start of shifts, but Boyle declined to detail that change. Walsh also indicated police are practicing social distancing where they can.

Boyle declined to say how many officers are on duty in the city on any given shift. He did say that Boston officers are equipped with protective gear.

Coronavirus has also prompted City Hall to implement significant workplace changes.

“Due to public health considerations, the City of Boston has been triaging employee functions and sending employees to either work from home or adjusting work hours for social distancing since early last week,” said Emme Handy, the city’s chief financial officer, in a statement this week.

Handy continued, “This is a constantly changing situation, so we aren’t able to share employee numbers as of yet.”

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At City Hall, building access is limited to the first three floors, and the only services available for walk-ins are the offices of the parking clerk, registry, taxpayer collection, tax assistance, and elections, according to authorities. The City Council offices have been closed to the public for more than a week.

City Hall is advising the public to stay away from municipal buildings unless they have an immediate need for services that cannot be provided online nor by phone.

“City of Boston departments currently have a limited number of employees on-site to provide critical services,” read a letter from Walsh to city workers last week.

Elsewhere, Rich MacKinnon Jr., president of the Professional Firefighters of Massachusetts, a statewide group that represents more than 12,000 firefighters, said by phone Tuesday that five other firefighters in the Commonwealth have tested positive for the virus. Of the five, two are from Worcester, two are from Billerica, and one is from Brookline, he said.

Travis Andersen of Globe staff contributed to this report.



Danny McDonald can be reached at daniel.mcdonald@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Danny__McDonald.