Mound Fire Department averaged a greater response rate to its service calls over the past 10 months of the pandemic than it has in the past five years.

MFD logged an average of 20.82 fire fighter hours per service call for all of 2020, a nearly 16 percent increase (or three additional firefighters per call) from 2019 when that rate was 17.58.

Going back to 2016, the department has typically seen response rates in the 17-18.5 range, historical department data show.

A month-by-month breakdown of service calls and firefighter hours shows that 2020 response rates pre-pandemic, in January and February, were still higher this year than last but that this difference was less than it was during the pandemic. April, the first full month of the state-mandated shutdown, provided the greatest difference, and the department averaged 26.68 hours per call in April of 2020 to 2019’s 18.04 hours per call.

Mound Fire Chief Greg Pederson attributed the difference to having more of the department’s paid on call firefighters working from home during the pandemic and so better able to respond to calls.

“If there’s a silver lining in COVID—and there’s not many—that’s one of them,” he said of getting more responders.

MFD IMPACTED BY COVID-19

All in all, MFD has fared pretty well throughout the pandemic. For instance, it never had to change its status to “offline” like the department in Plano, Minn. did last November when widespread exposure to COVID-19 laid it low for a time.

But the impact has still been felt: the rush for PPE at the beginning (and a lucky stockpile of low-grade hazmat suits from years back, just in case), along with adjustments to training protocols and how EMS calls, the bulk of any department’s calls, are handled, have each left their mark.

“We’re doing well with it but every fire department is dealing with this in some way,” said Pederson.

Added to the strain on labor and that hunt for PPE is the financial piece. MFD didn’t receive any CARES Act dollars from the cities in its service area—Mound, Minnetrista, Spring Park and Shorewood—said Pederson, but by department calculations it would have been eligible for just under $54,000 in reimbursement and that for just the months March through October.

Most of those expenses, about $47,000, were linked back to administrative time and firefighter training. MFD started following guidance from Metro EMS last spring that drastically altered its response to EMS calls.

“We’re sending in typically one person to do either a threshold evaluation at the door or they go in and evaluate the patient. In the old days, it would be all of us going in. Now we’ve had to change that whole thing to try to protect the patient and us,” said Pederson. “We’ve changed so much. Everything we do is as a team. There’s four or five of us in a truck together, we train together. Everything we do is as a group, so we’ve had to have major changes in how we operate.”

Since the pandemic began, MFD has broken up its larger group training nights into six smaller groups, and whereas training sessions might previously have taken an hour and a half and required one or two captains to lead them, they now might take three hours due to staggered start times and require four to six captains, said Pederson.

The department also lost 210 personnel days to COVID-19, whether through exposure or quarantine. Most of the days lost, 130 of them, were lost between September and December, the same perdiod when the less lucky Plano department had to signal it was “offline,” a situation MFD was able to avoid. Pederson said his department has a strict policy of 14-day quarantine after known exposure to COVID-19, regardless of a negative test result and despite Minnesota Department of Health having adjusted down early in December the recommended quarantine period from 14 days to 10.

Pederson said the increased response among firefighters and the absence of CARES dollars won’t hurt the budget much, but that “it is an attention-getter.”

“It’s probably a 10 or 12 percent increase from what we were anticipating for payroll back in July 2019,” he said. “Good news, bad news, I would call it good news: we have more people.”

Added MFD Capt. Tim Palm, referring to both the present era of COVID-19 and to the recruiting landscape overall, “It’s a tough racket out there for a lot of these fire departments to get people to join now.”

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