Fla. fire, EMS personnel say they are short-staffed at Disney World

Members of the Reedy Creek Improvement District say they are bracing to be stretched even further during the holiday season, putting guests at risk


Katie Rice
Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — A woman at a hotel within Walt Disney World had a heart attack in the middle of the day this past Sunday.

The call came from the Bay Lake Tower hotel near the Magic Kingdom while the only rescue vehicle for the area was on another call, according to union members of the Reedy Creek Fire Department, which serves the resort.

“If there is a big event, we’re not even remotely close to being able to handle it on our own,” said Jon Shirey, president of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Association.
“If there is a big event, we’re not even remotely close to being able to handle it on our own,” said Jon Shirey, president of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Association. (Photo/Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service)

A call log from the department showed a medic team arrived within nine minutes of dispatch, but it took over 13 minutes for a rescue unit from another zone to arrive and 20 minutes before the woman was given epinephrine, a critical treatment. The woman died that afternoon.

Had more people initially responded, she likely would have received the drug sooner and would have had a better chance of survival, Jon Shirey, president of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Association, told the Orlando Sentinel in an interview.

“Time is tissue; time, in this case, is life-saving,” he said. “The average person has about four to six minutes to be in cardiac arrest without some of these life-saving treatments before there’s permanent brain damage or irreversible death.”

For the first responders at Disney, the call realized their worst fear: that the short staffing they say the department has been working with for years would endanger guests and possibly prove to be fatal.

As the resort welcomes a busy holiday season, its firefighters and paramedics say they are bracing to be stretched further. They claim they are increasingly relying on outside fire departments to respond to calls and take people to hospitals, which can lead to delayed care at vital times.


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The union is in arbitration with the district over the staffing issue, pushing for more first responders.

“We’re putting people who are visiting Disney in danger,” said Tim Stromsnes, the union’s communications director.

Disney spokesman Avery Maehrer called the union’s claims about safety at Disney “simply not true.”

“The safety of everyone who comes to Walt Disney World Resort has always been extremely important to us, and we are grateful to all the first responders who continue to keep our property safe,” he wrote in a statement.

Union members say the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which runs the resort’s emergency services, reduced staffing when the parks closed in March 2020 as part of an agreement to avoid layoffs, and now they are not adequately staffed to respond to a fire at a resort hotel, much less a large-scale emergency.

“It’s a huge danger,” Shirey said. “If there is a big event, we’re not even remotely close to being able to handle it on our own.”

Eryka Washington, Reedy Creek spokeswoman, responded by saying Reedy Creek prioritizes safety and ensures the fire department has “appropriate levels of fire and medical services at all times,” including at Disney’s theme parks.

She confirmed that the district did not lay anyone off while the parks were closed because of the pandemic and paid EMT staff’s salaries for 16 weeks while they were at home. Washington did not provide any details on the minimum staffing agreement and would not provide additional information about the union’s staffing claims on the record.

In the case of the heart attack, the fire department used to have two rescues assigned to the Magic Kingdom area, but smaller shift staffing has led to gaps in coverage, Stromsnes said.

Washington said the response times for the call were normal and four units were at the hotel within 14 minutes of the call.

Shirey was not on the call, but he said normally an engine and a rescue arrive at the same time for such incidents and having additional units would have sped up treatment. The call log shows an engine was assigned within two minutes of the medic unit but was canceled on the way as another engine responded and arrived 14 minutes after the medic unit was assigned.

No new staff, firefighters claim

Firefighters say Reedy Creek has not increased its firefighter staffing since 1989. In those 32 years, Disney has added another theme park — Animal Kingdom — another water park — Blizzard Beach — several new hotels and expanded the Disney Springs shopping district.

Sean Pierce, a lieutenant paramedic, said he started working at Reedy Creek in 1997, when minimum staffing was 30 personnel per shift. He said as calls for help increase and the resort expands, firefighters are expected to do more with less.

“Disney doesn’t build a theme park and then say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a third of the employees from the Magic Kingdom, from Animal Kingdom and [ Hollywood] Studios and we’ll supply Epcot with the employees.’ When they build a park, they open up and they hire employees,” he said. “So why isn’t the fire department doing that?”

Minimum staffing per shift at the Reedy Creek Fire Department is currently 26 firefighters spread across five ambulances and four fire engines, Shirey said.

These 26 people are responsible for responding across Disney’s theme parks and hotels and accidents on neighboring sections of I-4 and State Road 429.

The union alleges Reedy Creek has continued to operate on the temporary staffing agreement made as the pandemic started, resulting in smaller staffing even as Disney returns to normal operations. That deal is the cause of the arbitration, Shirey said.

Pre-pandemic, the department had 32 firefighters between eight ambulances and four fire engines per shift, Shirey said.

A national standard for firefighting set by the National Fire Protection Association recommends at least 42 firefighters respond to fires in high-rise buildings, defined as those with floors higher than 75 feet “above the lowest level of fire department vehicle access.”

During peak times, Magic Kingdom used to have up to three medic units of two people each in the park, while Epcot and Hollywood Studios had two and Animal Kingdom one, Shirey said.

Now, all parks except Magic Kingdom have one medic unit in the park, he said, placing two people in charge of the initial medical response for thousands of guests and staff.

Magic Kingdom has two units, but their shifts only overlap during peak hours, Shirey said. The theme park is the most-visited in the world, with nearly 7 million visitors in 2020 and 21 million in 2019, data from the Themed Entertainment Association showed.

Neither Disney nor Reedy Creek would discuss the specific staffing allegations raised by the union.

The staffing also affects members of the special operations team, which evacuates riders from complex rides and transportation when they break down, including the monorail and gondola system, Shirey said.

Rescue from the Skyliner could take 60 to 90 minutes for each of the gondola’s 300 cabins with optimal staffing, he said. Fellow firefighters refuse to ride it.

“I wouldn’t go on the Skyliner, because I think we’re grossly understaffed to do an effective rescue on that,” Stromsnes said.

When the Skyliner stalled in October 2019, it stranded passengers in the air, at least one without necessary medication, for nearly three hours.

The district’s website shows it is hiring firefighters and paramedics. Shirey said the district told firefighters they were looking to start the process in January, but Washington would not comment on that.

When the union has brought up its concerns, the response has been that the call volume does not show the need for larger staffing, Shirey and other firefighters said.

“They’re not worried about staffing for the ‘what if’ calls, but ... that’s exactly what we’re here for,” Shirey said. “We are here for those ‘what if’ situations, those truly traumatic incidents, and so to not staff with that in mind just seems kind of foolish.”

Relying on other departments

Fewer firefighters mean fewer resources, especially vehicles able to take patients to hospitals, and the Reedy Creek Fire Department has increasingly called on nearby agencies for assistance.

From September through November 2021, the Orange County Fire Rescue dispatched 33 calls to Reedy Creek’s coverage area, an increase from 11 over the same timeframe in 2020 when the parks were operating at reduced capacity because of the pandemic, and from 18 in 2019, data provided by agency spokeswoman Lisa McDonald show.

The Osceola County Fire Rescue dispatched Reedy Creek calls three times this year over those three months, compared with no calls in 2020 and 2019, representative Andrew Sullivan said.

Reedy Creek’s mutual aid data conflicts with those numbers, showing Orange County assisted with 29 total EMS and fire calls and Osceola County seven over that timeframe this year, compared with 14 and 0 in 2020 and 9 and 0 in 2019, respectively.

Firefighters say these calls are becoming more frequent this month. On Dec. 4, Orange County responded to three calls from Reedy Creek, county data show. Reedy Creek’s logs show one call.

Andre Perez, president of the Orange County Fire Fighters Association, said mutual aid calls take away from the agency’s services for county residents.

“As [Reedy Creek’s] call load increases and they are unable to respond their full resources to those calls, then that puts a strain on our system,” he said.

County firefighters take longer to respond to Reedy Creek calls and are not as familiar with Disney locations, both of which can cause delays, Perez said.

McDonald said the department was “not aware of any issues of access on Disney property” and conducts collaborative training with Reedy Creek at Disney.

A letter of warning

On June 14, the union’s secretary Pete Simon wrote Greg Hale, Disney’s chief safety officer, about the fire department’s staffing amid increasing call volume. Hale responded that the matter should be discussed with the fire department.

“I am confident that the Fire Department administration will maintain an appropriate level of staffing to support the taxpayers in the District,” Hale wrote in an email provided by Shirey.

Five days later, a person dining at the Boathouse restaurant at Disney Springs had a seizure. Reedy Creek firefighters responded but did not have an ambulance available, Shirey said.

An Orange County Fire Rescue team arrived within 22 minutes of dispatch, agency spokeswoman Ashley Gipson said.

Concerned, Shirey emailed Hale that the delay demonstrated the firefighters’ worries.

“Had this call been of a more serious, life and death matter, I can assure you this Guest would be dead,” Shirey wrote. “They would not just be dead, but they would have died in front of quite the large audience of fellow diners, all wondering why the fire department sat on scene for nearly an hour instead of transporting. For my crews’ sake, for the sake of the fire department and Disney reputation, I urge you to at least dig into this issue a bit further.”

Shirey said Hale did not respond.

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