RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — There are 1,300 fire departments across North Carolina — and seemingly that many ways for them to keep track of their COVID-19 numbers.
Wanting a clearer, more streamlined picture of how the pandemic is affecting those first responders, the state and RTI International teamed up to change that, creating a voluntary system for those departments to report their data to the state and feeding it into a heat map.
“The registry is going to help us get a handle on, what do the trends look like in North Carolina?” said Dr. Robert Furberg, one of the leaders of the project at RTI International and a firefighter in Chapel Hill.
“Where do we see those trends manifest most clearly, and then how do we get resources of whatever type — funding, educational support, direct outreach and follow-up — how do we get those things mobilized and sent to the right place?”
The map — the nation’s first such state-level map dedicated to fire department data — is available only to fire service and public health officials, not the public. Among the key metrics it tracks are case numbers, quarantines and vaccinations.
And while Durham County Sheriff Clarence Birkhead is mandating his employees get the COVID-19 vaccine, state Fire Marshal and Insurance Commissioner Mike Causey says he’s “not a fan” of such a requirement for firefighters.
“I certainly think that’s the right of the sheriff, or if a company wants to do something like that, that’s their right,” said Causey, who in a letter to Gov. Roy Cooper last month urged him to give firefighters top priority for the inoculation. “But personally, I wouldn’t make it a mandate. I just use education … and let people make their choices.”
Fire fighters face a heightened risk for COVID-19 both because many of them work 24-hour shifts with physical distancing a challenge and because of the increased possibility of interacting with people infected with the virus.
According to Causey’s letter to Cooper dated Dec. 3, 225 firefighters across the state have been exposed to COVID-19 with 125 quarantined, 39 isolated and one dead.
“There is increased risk because of the nature of work that these people do,” Furberg said.
The map pools together data from those reports and is presented as a a map that shows where the numbers are highest and how many firefighters are unavailable.
Causey called it “a big help” when “you look at this map and we can say, ‘Here’s a problem area.’”
Furberg says a key is that it helps state leaders “to advocate more effectively on behalf of the members of the fire service when they engage members of the Legislature at the state level.
“If fire departments are having a hard time managing the operational crisis when 30-plus members have to go into quarantine, these are gaps that need to be filled,” Furberg said.
“These are open seats on trucks that someone needs to be in,” he added. “The pain of this is real, and it’s known, but there aren’t good numbers to report and convey this experience to other decision-makers and lawmakers who can make more resources available to these departments.”
Furberg says there was “a soft launch” a week ago and about 120 departments — slightly under 10 percent — signed on.
“I think any level of adoption or uptake is helpful,” Furberg said. “The more who do it, the better, obviously. But even from sort of a case-study kind of perspective, if those departments who choose to report are reporting the need for additional resources, the tool has served its purpose.”
CBS 17’s Joedy McCreary has been tracking COVID-19 figures since March 2020, compiling data from federal, state, and local sources to deliver a clear snapshot of what the coronavirus situation looks like now and what it could look like in the future.