Recording: Ga. FFs given contradictory advice over virus testing

Audio published by union officials reportedly reveals a shift commander telling firefighters they will be considered "AWOL" if they leave work to get tested


Susan McCord
The Augusta Chronicle, Ga.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — An Augusta firefighter said he and others were told they could not leave work to get tested for COVID-19, despite being exposed to the virus and reporting symptoms of coughing and vomiting.

Augusta Fire Chief Chris James did not respond Monday to questions about whether firefighters reporting symptoms were required to remain on duty or work overtime while they await test results.

This screenshot from a Facebook Live video shows Augusta Professional Firefighters Association President Mike Tomaszewski speaking at a news conference last week. Tomaszewski and union officials published audio this week that appears to show a shift commander telling firefighters they cannot leave work to get tested for COVID-19, even if they have symptoms. (Photo/Augusta Professional Firefighters Association)
This screenshot from a Facebook Live video shows Augusta Professional Firefighters Association President Mike Tomaszewski speaking at a news conference last week. Tomaszewski and union officials published audio this week that appears to show a shift commander telling firefighters they cannot leave work to get tested for COVID-19, even if they have symptoms. (Photo/Augusta Professional Firefighters Association)

The department sent a news release Monday stating it was doing in-house testing and had handled what were five cases according to CDC guidelines.

Tuesday, fire spokesman Jason DeHart denied that firefighters were kept on duty at work while awaiting their test results.

"If a firefighter is symptomatic, they are pulled off duty to be tested," he said.

Fire Lt. Trey Macky said he and others were required to remain at work, despite being exposed to COVID and reporting symptoms.

Macky said he made a recording while he and other firefighters spoke with shift commander Keith Lively about being tested. Fire Capt. Michael Tomaszewski, the president of the Augusta firefighters union, made the recording public Monday.

In the audio, a voice identified as Lively said the firefighters, members of an engine company with confirmed cases, could not leave work to be tested.

"You will be abandoning or being AWOL," Lively is heard to say on the recording.

Lively also said on the recording that the medical director for the department, Phillip Coule – chief medical officer for AU Health – was giving unrealistic advice.

"Dr. Coule said if anybody say they got symptoms, you got to let them go home," the speaker said. "Dr. Coule ain't got to run no fire department."

The speaker also said it was "the first time" the crew members told him they had symptoms.

Audio (provided by IAFF 3357):

DeHart said if Lively made the statements, they "are inconsistent to any department policy or directives." The department will investigate the allegations, he said.

Lively would not comment on the statements on the recording. "Any comments that I have I direct to Chief James," he said.

Macky and Tomaszewski said it was Lively on the recording.

"As soon as you hear him, anybody in the fire department would say that's Keith Lively," Macky said.

CDC guidelines for firefighters exposed to COVID-19 include taking their temperature before work, regular monitoring and actively encouraging sick firefighters to stay home, while sick leave policies should not be punitive.

According to the city's Monday statement, the department has been testing firefighters at several stations, with assistance from Coule.

The department has conducted testing for the public at fire stations around the city. James has stressed the importance of getting tested, wearing a mask and staying home if at risk for the virus.

The department's Monday statement, not attributed to James, said it had sent home five firefighters who tested positive for COVID-19.

Most of those present for the discussion with Lively did not test positive for the virus in the department's testing, while some are waiting on test results, Macky said.

The department is short on staff after numerous resignations and retirements over the last two years, and Tomaszewski said it was down 75 personnel, equal to almost an entire shift.

James implemented a mandatory overtime policy to cover the shortages and has said high turnover plagues fire departments across the country.

The policy may result in as many as 20 firefighters working overtime during a given day, according to Tomaszewski.

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©2020 The Augusta Chronicle (Augusta, Ga.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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