The Reedy Creek Improvement District has had a reduced staff since March 2020, when the parks initially closed due to COVID-19. Though other operations have almost entirely returned to normal, Reedy Creek is still short-staffed. The union is currently in arbitration with the district regarding the issue.
Jon Shirey, president of the Reedy Creek Firefighters Association, believes that the department’s lack of staff is already costing people their lives. He relayed a story to Orlando Sentinel about a woman at Bay Lake Tower who died of a heart attack on Saturday. While the Magic Kingdom area used to have two rescue teams, only one was staffed at this time. Shirey believes that had there been more staff available, they may have been able to save her life.
“Time is tissue; time, in this case, is life-saving,” he said. “The average person has about four to six minutes to be in cardiac arrest without some of these life-saving treatments before there’s permanent brain damage or irreversible death.”
“We’re putting people who are visiting Disney in danger,” Tim Stromsnes, the union’s communications director, said.
Walt Disney World spokesperson Avery Maehrer said these claims are not true, however. “The safety of everyone who comes to Walt Disney World Resort has always been extremely important to us,” he said in a statement, “and we are grateful to all the first responders who continue to keep our property safe.”
Reedy Creek has reportedly not increased its firefighter staffing since 1989. In the over thirty years since then, Walt Disney World has expanded to include Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Blizzard Beach, and more.
“Disney doesn’t build a theme park and then say, ‘Hey, we’re going to take a third of the employees from the Magic Kingdom, from Animal Kingdom and [Hollywood] Studios and we’ll supply Epcot with the employees.’ When they build a park, they open up and they hire employees,” Sean Pierce, a lieutenant paramedic, said. “So why isn’t the fire department doing that?”
When Pierce started working at Reedy Creek in 1997, the minimum staff was 30 personnel per shift. According to Shirey, the minimum staffing is currently 26 firefighters spread across five ambulances and four fire engines. Before COVID-19, one shift had 32 firefighters across eight ambulances and four fire engines.
These firefighters are not only responsible for responding to emergencies at Walt Disney World Resort, but also to nearby sections of I-4 and State Road 429.
Shirey noted that they are also responsible for evacuating guests from rides and transportation, including the Disney Skyliner, which has had several issues.
Stromsnes even said, “I wouldn’t go on the Skyliner, because I think we’re grossly understaffed to do an effective rescue on that.”
Reedy Creek has been heavily relying on outside fire departments. The Orange County Fire Rescue dispatched 33 calls to the Reedy Creek area between September and November of this year, an increase from 18 during the same time period in 2019. The Osceola County Fire Rescue dispatched three calls during this time, having dispatched none in 2020 or 2019. Though the help is needed, outside departments aren’t as familiar with Walt Disney World locations, which can delay them.
“If there is a big event,” Shirey said, “we’re not even remotely close to being able to handle it on our own.”