Not Surprisingly, First Responders are Responding to Changes in a COVID-19 World

“We have an obligation to the customers we serve … But we also have to protect our members because, if we don't protect them, who's going to answer the call for 911?” Phoenix Fire Captain Rob McDade told a local news station during a recent report on the coronavirus or COVID-19.

Responders respond

Captain McQuade is not alone in his thinking. Emergency response departments everywhere are stepping up their service and capabilities in the wake of the dangerous coronavirus that is sweeping the globe. To reduce risk of exposure, emergency response organizations have been making adjustments to their protocol; and for most, the new normal consists of screening 911 callers, adjusting response tactics, donning more PPE than usual, frantically searching for more of that gear and elusive testing kits, self-quarantining because of potential exposure or confirmed infection, protecting their families and loved ones from being exposed to anything they may have exposed to, taking patients to alternative sites, and preparing for reduced resources and manpower.

911, what's the nature of your emergency?

Dispatch has always played a critical role in emergency response, but now the men and women on the line are asking 911 callers whether the sick or injured party (and others in the home) have been outside the country, exhibiting signs of fever or flu-like systems, or have come in contact with anyone that has been tested. These are critical protection measures so that responders can protect themselves when they go into certain emergency situations. Rhode Island public safety dispatchers are taking things a step further by requesting, if at all possible, that patients meet them outdoors where they will have their temperature taken. Paramedics and EMTs then call ahead to hospitals so that health care professionals can prepare for patient intake and provide guidance on the best ways for responders to deliver patients once onsite. States are setting up testing sites in vacant hotels, cruise ships, other buildings, and mobile field units/alternative sites to allow for increased testing, more rapidly. If it is determined that a patient needs transport to a healthcare facility – family members will likely be unable to join them in the ambulance unless that patient is a child or has special needs. Loved ones are also directed to contact the hospital directly to determine if they can visit patients.

Changes in access

In some cases, the screening tables have been turned on responders JEMS reports that nursing homes and other care facilities are screening paramedics as they come in to pick up patients because they stand a strong chance of being virus carriers. Wes Ward, EMS Battalion Chief for Center Point Fire District in Alabama told JEMS, “We don't want to be a route of transmission of the disease throughout the public. That was a problem with the SARS disease in Toronto and we learned a lot from that.”

Shortage of supplies persist

Enhanced 911 call intake procedures also inform the way that paramedics and others dress for certain calls. If a patient seems to be infected or at risk, responders are donning PPE including masks, goggles, gloves and gowns. There is an alarmingly low supply of protective gear available for hospitals and responders. Fire departments, labor unions and elected officials have voiced concerns over this sad and dangerous reality. Typically, departments overwhelmed by a disaster rely on mutual aid or an agreement to share first responders and resources, but COVID-19 likely won't adhere to man-made boundaries - making it less likely to tap into neighborly assets.

Testing is still largely reserved for the elderly, individuals with underlying health problems, and those suffering from more severe symptoms. Vice President Pence recently recognized the importance of testing those working on the front line, President Mike Pence said, “It is important the tests are available for the people who are most in need, and our health care workers and first responders that are helping and supporting them.” On the very same day Pence spoke about the issue, a policy maker in Florida suggested that first responders “take one for the team” and build immunity by getting infected by the virus in a controlled setting.

The downside of delayed responsiveness

The list of responders affected by the virus continues to grow. The first confirmed case of coronavirus occurred over two months ago in Kirkland, Washington. More than 40 first responders in that community went through a 14-day quarantine period – some sheltered in place at home while others holed up at a fire station that re-opened last weekend after a thorough cleaning. Some firefighters remain in home quarantined there. The number of infected firefighters continues to jump in cities and towns all over America. Last week, 80 remained under quarantine in San Jose, California, and the city temporarily shut down two fire stations. Similar efforts took place in Brooklyn – and are increasingly happening in communities all over.

Community communications is key

There are a lot of positives to take away from this global pandemic and one, in particular, is the proactive way that emergency response organizations are communicating to the public about local emergency preparedness decisions, changing protocol, social distancing, and sharing the hazards that are occurring as a result of the coronavirus. We are seeing fire departments, EMS, and others working to minimize frustrations, provide best practices, and debunk misinformation via media outlets, social media channels, department communications platforms, and regularly scheduled press events. Leaders are addressing local exposure issues, reminding us to not mix disinfectants that can generate dangerous, toxic fumes, and sharing guideline from different organizations. Emphasizing the importance of social distancing, and getting the word out about local changes related to firehouses (station visits, tours, community events and any other interaction that might put the public and emergency response personnel at risk). All these changes and communication efforts go a long way in alleviating concerns, defusing misinformation, empowering the public, and keeping people safe.

For the latest COVID-19 information from NFPA visit this landing page - As we navigate the evolving situation with COVID-19, we remain committed to supporting you with the resources you need to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards.

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