EAST GREENWICH – After 21 members of the East Greenwich Fire Department tested positive for COVID-19 last week, the neighboring Town of North Kingstown is providing public safety assistance for local residents and emergencies. At the beginning of the week, East Greenwich had only eight firefighters eligible to work.

“We have eight firefighters that are eligible to be in the field,” said East Greenwich Town Manager Andrew Nota last week. “Clearly, that’s not going to cover us on a 24/7 basis for the next several weeks. Those numbers just don’t work and it’s not possible to make that happen.”

The call for help went out to North Kingstown last week after nearly two dozen members of the East Greenwich Fire Department tested positive for the novel coronavirus on Tuesday, Nov. 24. The East Greenwich Fire Chief and Fire Marshal had tested negative. Twenty firefighters and one administrative employee, meanwhile, tested positive, causing East Greenwich to temporarily shutter one of its fire stations. According to Nota, the outbreak within a public safety entity, which he labelled as a “crisis within a crisis,” had been planned for since the start of the pandemic.

“The two communities were able to put together a plan that we thought would be in the best interest of both communities and allow us to continue to safely provide high-quality public safety services to residents in both communities,” said Nota.

The East Greenwich Town Manager also said members of the fire department have been regularly tested for COVID-19, and that a lack of symptoms in those ultimately testing positive could have been cause for why the department did not realize an outbreak was occurring sooner.

“I have to believe that probably everybody seeing those results come in were probably in shock at the moment based on the rate of positive results that we were seeing,” said Nota.

Mutual aid is a concept among public safety departments that neighboring entities will provide assistance when needed. For example, if there is a large structure fire in East Greenwich, firefighters from North Kingstown could respond to assist and vice versa. The efforts remain in a health crisis, when one town sees a significant number of firefighters or police officers out of work due to illness, and the partnerships are crucial to upholding local public safety. Rhode Island benefits from its small size and close proximity in this arena, because neighboring towns are able to assist each other more easily and generally without burdensome extra costs.

“That’s how these things work on a weekly and daily basis, unbeknownst to most residents,” said Nota of general mutual aid agreements.  

Yesterday, East Greenwich Fire Chief Bernard Patenaude, Nota and East Greenwich Senior & Human Services employee Bob Houghtaling provided an update to the public about the partnership.

“[North Kingstown] moved their apparatus into East Greenwich Station 2, they’ve been covering our district and some of theirs, and it’s allowed us to give the town the same or better coverage than we normally have,” said Patenaude. “It’s really worked out well for both towns.”

“North Kingstown is doing a great job and we’re working really well together,” he added. “We always did, but this is really an exemplary mission.”

On Wednesday, Nov. 25, the East Greenwich Town Council convened an emergency virtual meeting to address the situation, where Nota provided an update on the outbreak within the fire department and council members wished those infected a speedy recovery and asked questions about public safety services under current conditions.

“East Greenwich is a small town,” said East Greenwich Town Council President Mark Schwager. “And many in our community know our firefighters on a first-name basis. And I want the firefighters to know that they have the support and the good wishes of our community and we wish them a speedy recovery.”

“This is one of the items we had to be ready for,” said council member Michael Donegan to Nota. “And you were ready for it and fortunately, our partners have responded. Had they called us and needed us, we would have done the same, that’s what you do in a community.”

Donegan also asked the chief about the level of service that can be provided right now with the partnership.

“Right now, we’re able to staff exactly as we would without this issue being present,” said Patenaude. “If we lose more people or if North Kingstown loses a greater number of people, we’ll have to contract and reallocate resources.”

According to Nota, the need for help had not cost the town any additional resources as of last week, and the town manager said resources could be moved around if the need arose.

“Whether it’s cost neutral or not, I think the council understands that these were actions that had to happen,” said Nota, “and we would address the costs one way or another, whether or not there was a cost associated with them.”

Councilors also thanked the remaining eight East Greenwich firefighters for working through the situation and discussed a letter of thanks to the Town of North Kingstown for stepping in to assist during a vulnerable time.

“Happy to do that and go far beyond that,” said Nota.

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