Tamworth firefighters are concerned fill-in firefighters from Newcastle or Sydney could bring COVID-19 into the local station.
But Fire and Rescue NSW (FRNSW) will tomorrow challenge a statewide ban, issued on Friday by the Fire Brigade Employees' Union (FBEU), ordering union members not to travel long distances to relieve at other stations.
Firefighters based in Tamworth, who have asked to remain anonymous, contacted the Leader to complain about the policy of rostering staff from as far as 500 kilometres away onto shifts in the city.
They said they feel it's only a matter of time before the policy caused a local outbreak of the pandemic, forcing the station to close, or worse.
A firefighter from Salamander Bay had recently filled in at a Tamworth brigade, they said.
But Tamworth Acting Superintendent Peter Nugent has rejected their concerns, saying the station has stringent protocols protecting the health of local firefighters and, ultimately, the community.
"As long as we're following all our protocols I really don't (think there's any merit to the complaints)," he said.
Safety measures include a sign-in sheet, and ordering firefighters with flu-like symptoms to remain home. They have been developed in cooperation with the union.
"We want fit and healthy firefighters on deck ready to respond," Superintendent Nugent said.
FBEU State Secretary Leighton Drury said the government had put saving money ahead of protecting firefighters' health, describing the policy as "crazy".
He said an asymptomatic firefighter could easily become a vector for the pandemic.
"What we could see is multiple fire stations going down, and that's what we don't want," he said.
"We are already stretched way too thin. We do not have enough firefighters as it is now and if we get an infection into one or two stations, then fire services and fire coverage could suffer and our communities will suffer."
Firefighters are also regularly called to respond to incidents in age care centres or hospitals, he said. An infected firefighter could easily be the source of a community outbreak.
Mr Drury said a policy of limiting travel would cost the government overtime and be more difficult to implement. But it would mitigate a risk of spreading the virus he said was genuine.
Firefighters can't follow social distancing rules, he said.
"We're one of those industries that has to work closely with each other.
"It is a real risk, and we can limit that, and I think this is a very easy thing to limit. I think this goes a long way to addressing some of these concerns at really no real cost to the employer."
On Friday the union issued what is called a code red, which among other things orders members not to perform relief shifts outside their "zone".
Mr Drury said one staff member has already been asked by FRNSW to violate the code red, and had refused.
Another firefighter from the Central Coast was asked on Monday to fill in a shift in Newcastle, a hot spot.
"Why would we put someone at possible risk when you've already got people up there already that are dealing with that risk?" Mr Drury said.
"They're already facing that risk, why would we send somebody from a different area into it?"
Last week an entire station in Wagga Wagga walked off the job because FRNSW tasked a Victorian firefighter with working a shift within the unit, he said.
A spokesperson for FRNSW said they had implemented extra hygiene and decontamination practices, increased personal protective equipment measures for frontline staff and established an incident management team to manage staffing and emergency response arrangements during the pandemic.
"FRNSW has developed policy aligned with NSW Health guidelines to maintain safe business-as-usual operations in line with other state-based emergency services, NSW Ambulance and NSW Police," they said.
"FRNSW has legislative responsibilities to maintain fire protection and community safety. With all of these measures put in place across the organisation, FRNSW believes the threat to public safety by maintaining operational capability is low."
The spokesperson said the members of the Wagga Wagga fire station had taken voluntary leave.
The industrial dispute over the code red will go to the industrial relations commission tomorrow.