Local Fire Departments Stretched by Pandemic

COVID-19 took hundreds of South Florida first responders temporarily off the job

NBC Universal, Inc.

Fort Lauderdale firefighter Julio Castillo’s job is not the same now as it was a year ago.

From disinfecting vehicles after COVID calls to cleaning personal protective gear, more precautions and time is involved in every step. 

Castillo caught the virus last summer and had to separate from his family, quarantining away from work at Fort Lauderdale. 

“It was a rough period,” Castillo said. “After so many months, it’s normal that there’s COVID fatigue but those precautions we’re taking is what’s saving us from having a major issue.” 

The head COVID-19 researcher at Fort Lauderdale, Battalion Chief Garrett Pingol, tells NBC 6 Investigators more than 200 employees had to quarantine in 2020, with 51 confirmed cases.  

Pingol was one of them. So was his spouse. 

“By day two or three, the body aches were tremendous. It hurt to sleep. There were points when rolling over in bed was uncomfortable,” he said. 

Pingol believes they got infected out of work, adding his department has implemented a number of protocols to flatten the curve and keep staff safe, from a testing pilot to rigorous cleaning. 

Records show Fort Lauderdale Fire has been able to keep numbers relatively low, but other departments were hit hard.

At Miami-Dade County Fire, the amount of employees infected or in quarantine exploded last December to 423 – a 100% increase from the previous month and the highest number reported since the pandemic began.

A spokesperson told us they currently have 76 people out of work – a small percentage from the approximately 2,700 employees.  

An extreme example was in Oakland Park. In July, nearly half of the fire department caught the virus, forcing the city to shut down one of its three fire stations for two days. 

“There must have been some type of super spreader event,” said Oakland Park Mayor Jane Bolin. “I was certainly in a state of shock and a little nervous, what are we going to do?” 

Oakland Park called on neighboring Fort Lauderdale to pick up shifts. 

NBC 6 Investigators found the pandemic also hit the departments’ budgets.

Miami-Dade Fire spent more than $25.7 million in overtime, according to a public records request filed with the county. That’s down from 2019 but a spokesperson says it’s unprecedented for a year without a major hurricane.  

Records show Hialeah Fire spent more than $4.5 million, more than $1 million increase from the year before. That includes training, staff and other resources. 

According to the mayor, Oakland Park spent nearly $55,000 in overtime and to pay back Fort Lauderdale to cover shifts.

“There’s a lot more cost in there that you cannot put your finger on,” Mayor Bolin said. “What it does to morale, what it does to our firefighters who are working constantly. It’s taxing.” 

Pingol tells us Fort Lauderdale Fire first responders had to cover shifts over Christmas and New Year’s Eve, adding to overtime costs. 

“COVID has impacted our funds in the long run and we have to find ways to make the dollars stretch,” Pingol said.

Much of the overtime cost will fall on local taxpayers unless the departments can get additional funding through the state or federal government. 

The city of Miami and Broward County Fire have not respond to NBC 6 public records requests on the number of cases and overtime costs.

Contact Us