Fire chief, schools boss step up amid staff shortages - SanTan Sun News SanTan Sun News

Fire chief, schools boss step up amid staff shortages

February 4th, 2022 development
Fire chief, schools boss step up amid staff shortages

By Ken Sain, Staff Writer

On the morning of Jan. 17, Chandler Fire Chief Tom Dwiggins got a phone call from his staff: They had a shift they couldn’t fill because of the latest COVID-19 outbreak.

So, for the first time in 12 years, he grabbed his gear and headed out to work a shift on the truck.

“Like the rest of the world, and certainly in the United States, since Christmas Eve … we’ve had over 45 firefighters come up positive,” Dwiggins said.

Cases are up across the country. There were 73 City of Chandler employees who were out of the office on Wednesday because they tested positive. Those who could were working from home.

Dwiggins rides out with crews once a year when he does his station visits, but this was different.

He tweeted about his first truck shift in a dozen years, but said the story shouldn’t be about him.

“That shift is not about me,” Dwiggins said. “It’s about the professionalism of our firefighters. That’s really what this is about. I just wanted to give them a break, because they have been amazing.”

He said he saw firsthand the COVID protocols people like him have put in place and how they are working in the real world.

For nearing two years the pandemic has challenged first-responders. They are exposed to the coronavirus daily, and because they are considered essential health care workers, they face strict quarantine requirements if they test positive.

The chief said many firefighters have had COVID at least once, and some have had it twice. They also risk taking the virus home to their families and must look after them while taking on extra shifts, or staying late to cover for other sick firefighters.

“That’s what keeps me up at night,” Dwiggins said. “How do we keep them healthy? Keep their morale up? Through it all they have maintained their professionalism and have not missed a beat.”

That’s why Dwiggins said everyone in the organization may be called on to work an extra shift, including him.

A similar problem happened earlier this month in Chandler Unified School District, where there has been a shortage of substitute teachers. Superintendent Frank Narducci and his top executives all showed up for the first day of the new term, ready to fill in if needed.

“We stopped in at our high-risk schools to see if there was any help needed,” Narducci told the Governing Board Jan. 12.

The district used social media to appeal to parents, putting out a call for parents to apply for sub positions and increasing the daily pay from $115 to $145.

It worked.

“I want to thank our community, because they have turned in over 10 applications to ESI [Educational Services Inc.], who works with the hiring of our substitute teachers,” Narducci said. “When we were at 43, Dr. [Wendy] Nance was told by ESI, that that was the most applications they ever got for one school district. When we hit 100, they said, ‘What are you guys doing out there?’”

Nance, the assistant superintendent in charge of human resources, said the shortage was severe, but that CUSD still had it better than other districts in the area.

“Since we came back from winter break we’re probably averaging about 10 percent,” Nance said. That means about 500 to 550 teachers out. The high came on Jan. 10 with about 600 out.

Nance says they typically are able to fill about 92 percent of that with substitute teachers. However, with the current spread of COVID-19 that number dropped to the low 80s.

“But we were still higher than our neighbors,” Nance said. “We just divide and conquer: if there’s any school that was hit particularly hard, our departments are willing to go in and assist them.”

Katie Nash, who is president of the Chandler Education Association, said part of the problem is some substitute teachers don’t feel safe stepping into a classroom during a pandemic.

“We have a number of substitutes who don’t want to come in because the case counts are too high,” she said. “What are we going to do when we have so many staff out?”

The people who recently filled out an application to substitute teach will have to submit their fingerprints and go through a background check before they can start working.

It’s not that easy, of course, to fill in for a firefighter who calls in sick.

Dwiggins recently told City Council that he expects the current wave caused by the omicron variant to peak soon, and then decline fast.

“Now, what you’re seeing is what they’re calling an ice pick,” Dwiggins said. “And that is a humongous raise, with that said, it also means that it’s going to come down very quickly.”

He said the countries that saw the Omicron variant first are already seeing the number of cases drop. He said the variant does not appear to be as severe as others, and that most vaccinated people are not being hospitalized.

He said they call a rise in the number of cases and a fall in the number of deaths “decoupling,” and if that should happen, it would be a sign the end of the pandemic is near.

Dwiggins did give some hope for everyone who is tired of living through a pandemic.

“The chief medical officer of Banner talked yesterday on the news and said 2022 we’re going to hit an endemic, where we go from this response, reactionary mode to how do we live with it moving forward.”

Dwiggins said until the health crisis is over, he expects his firefighters will continue to shine.

“The selflessness of our firefighters to ensure that the City of Chandler has the highest level of experience has been something,” he said. “They have answered the bell every single time, and it’s been tough.”