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Sparks Fire faces complaints for COVID-19 handling after fire station temporarily closed

By Bob Conrad
City of Sparks Fire Department. Image: City of Sparks.

A City of Sparks fire station was shut down last week for decontamination after a firefighter tested positive for COVID-19. Employees believe a lack of stricter policies led to the station’s temporary closure, and city officials today said new policies have been put in place.

Sparks firefighters were fighting California wildfires. Three came home with cold-like symptoms, and one, who was asymptomatic, went back to work. He then tested positive for COVID-19. 

“Because three personnel had cold symptoms, Sparks Fire put in practice a new policy that all personnel returning from wildland assignments would be tested and be required to wear a mask until results came back,” said Julie Duewel with the City of Sparks. “Thus, all four personnel were tested for COVID.”

Duewel said the city followed the state’s guidance for healthcare workers, which allows healthcare providers to work even if they have been exposed to COVID-19.

“The one person that tested positive did not have any symptoms and felt completely normal and healthy. This person was scheduled to go back on shift and was allowed to go back on E-41 at 12 noon,” she added. “Sparks Fire was notified by Washoe County Health Epidemiology on 9/16/20 that the one person that did not have any symptoms and felt normal, tested positive for COVID. The other three personnel tested negative.”

Because of the positive test result, and the firefighter working two days while presumed positive, fire station 4 was shut down. 

“My biggest concern was the fire station being closed.”

-Sparks Councilmember Charlene Bybee

“Personnel that were working on 9/16/20 with the positive case were sent home and the station was closed so a cleaning contractor could come in and sanitize the station,” Duewel said. It reopened the next morning at 8 a.m.

The department allegedly did not have a COVID-19 plan in place, and some firefighters blamed Sparks Fire’s leadership. Duewel acknowledged new policies were enacted, such as mandatory quarantines for firefighters returning from wildfire assignments, and the city is no longer sending firefighters to out-of-state fires. 

The closure of the station took officials by surprise, but Duewel said the station did not get any calls during the shutdown.

“My biggest concern was the fire station being closed,” Sparks City Councilmember Charlene Bybee said of the situation. 

She said firefighters have personal protective equipment for local medical calls, but having firefighters on wildland fires out of state presents new challenges. More than 50 Sparks personnel have assisted Arizona, Utah, California, Idaho and Colorado this year.

“It’s a fluid situation,” Bybee added. “I wanted to be clear if we had policy and were communicating it.”

Duewel said the new policies include changes to the mask-wearing policy and mandatory quarantine for firefighters returning home from wildfires until they test negative for COVID-19. 

The person who tested positive was wearing a mask while working the two days prior to the positive diagnosis, Duewel said. “And recently, all personnel are required to wear a mask at all times.”

Airport firefighter tests positive for COVID-19

The Reno-Tahoe Airport today also disclosed one of its firefighters tested positive for COVID-19. Airport spokesperson Brian Kulpin said he had been off duty and did not expose others in the workplace.

“In the past seven months, the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has had 8 employees test positive for Covid-19 out of more than 270 employees,” he said.

Read more news about COVID-19 in Reno



dianna natali September 23, 2020 - 11:12 am

Brilliant, suspected covid case, test him then send back to work to potentially infect city residents while responding to 911 calls.

At the end the solution to this terrible decision making process is to quit assisting partner agencies in controlling wildfires around the West in this unprecedented fire season. Another great decision OMG.

Kira Joseph September 22, 2020 - 8:54 pm

Why is part of their answer to not allow firefighters from the city of sparks to aid in wild land fires? Someone has to help!

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