NOGALES, Ariz. (KVOA) – Back in June, the Nogales Fire Department had six firefighters test positive for COVID-19.
Another group of firefighters was in self-isolation. The department was down in manpower.
Now, they are still down, but not because of the virus.
“Put more work with less people it’s strenuous on the department, on the personnel there," said Tony Meras.
Meras knows all too well about having to do more with less. He retired in July. After nearly 27 years in service, he received a “Notice of Intent to Terminate” from Fire Chief Jeff Sargent.
“They put on the letter that I knew I was COVID positive and sick since June 1 and I was working with the intent to get everybody sick, which is not true," Meras said.
Meras wrote an 11 page rebuttal letter.
“I had proof to show that I didn’t,” he said. “I didn’t know I was sick. I was symptom free, I was working multiple agencies and I was even tested before I went to work that showed I was OK to work,” Meras said.
Meras wrote on June 3.
He responded to “multiple times to the Grand Port of Entry where I assume patient care for positive COVID-19 patients, which I documented.”
His entire family took a COVID-19 test June 12 when a family member tested positive for the virus. Nine days later, his test came back positive.
The News 4 Tucson Investigators went to the fire department to speak with Chief Jeff Sargent.
How can you fire someone because they were sick?
"That is a specific personnel incident and a specific personal incident that I am not going to talk about,” said Sargent.
Meras chose not to fight it, but that was just the beginning. Many firefighters say this has been occurring since Jeff Sargent became chief over a year ago.
A four page anonymous letter goes into detail. It was sent to the mayor of Nogales on Aug. 28. It says it was written to bring attention to a very “disturbing matter”, “threatening the safety and well being of the community”.
It goes on to say, “the environment has become so toxic, that with so much stress, it is unsafe to perform the duties required of the men that are constantly under scrutiny”.
Chief Sargent said this isn’t the only anonymous letter.
“There’s some issues here, and you’re at the crux of it, are you being a good chief? I think so, and I think the City Manager will tell you the same thing. We’re trying to move forward trying to solve issues that existed prior to my arrival and it’s causing stress.”
Captain Leo Lopez, a 29-year-old veteran, says his concerns is for the community.
“People are asking why did the ambulance take so long to arrive at the scene? It is due because staffing levels have gone down, people don’t want to show up to work, people are afraid to show up to work,” he said.
Chief Sargent says he can’t tell us why they’re unhappy.
“But I will tell you the main focus of what we’re doing moving forward is accountability,” he added. “Things people haven’t been held accountable in the past.”
So are Nogales residents safe?
“Absolutely,” he said.
You are not fully staffed? “Yeah, like I said we’re hiring.”
While Sargent says he’s working to hold people accountable, some of the firefighters who still work there say they beg to differ.