Dispatchers stop asking 911 callers about COVID-19 symptoms, raising concerns for firefighters

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Callers to 911 in Houston will no longer be asked if they are experiencing COVID-like symptoms, changing a months-long practice to pass on the information to first responders. Firefighters are now told to treat every call as if the patient or home is COVID-positive.

Houston Fire Chief Sam Pena said the change is an admission of the widespread nature of the virus in the city and out of concern that callers were not always offering true information.

For months, Pena pleaded with the public to give honest answers to protect firefighters, who have sustained large numbers of COVID-forced quarantines.

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The change was announced on the same day the Houston Fire Department attended a funeral for Captain Leroy Lucio, Houston's first firefighter to die from COVID-19.

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Capt. Leroy Lucio's family maintained a vigil outside his hospital room for weeks.

Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association president Marty Lancton told ABC13 he can't understand why the department would want less information for firefighters instead of more.

"Less information to the men and women on the front lines responding to calls is dangerous to firefighters, paramedics and citizens of Houston," Lancton said.

Chief Pena explained the change to HFD members in a memo obtained by 13 Investigates. "The prevalence of COVID-19 is high in the Houston area and COVID-19 cannot be 'ruled out' in the field nor appropriately screened via OEC. In the best interest of HFD members' health and well-being, all addresses and patients should be considered as possible COVID-19 positive places and patients. No attempts should be made or opinions formed to consider and treat any patient as 'non-COVID.'"

MORE: Read the full letter

The change is the second in recent weeks affecting COVID-19 information in dispatch. Earlier in July, the department stopped logging addresses of COVID-19 positive patients in the city-wide dispatch system. Chief Pena says that was taking too much time to enter thousands of cases in an antiquated system one by one.
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