The continued rise in confirmed cases of COVID-19, no longer a slow creep upward but an exponential increase day by day, has prompted changes at local fire departments as personnel balance the now oft-touted “6-feet” rule of social distancing with some of the basic functions of their jobs as first responders.
Response to fires and major EMS calls like personal injury or car crashes have changed little and “it’s pretty much business as usual,” said Greg Pederson, fire chief for Mound Fire Department (MFD).
Most of the changes have been made to the more routine medical calls, which make up the bulk of most departments’ call volumes, and MFD is taking its cues from the Metropolitan Emergency Services Board. A March 20 document from Metro EMS outlined new recommended protocols in handling EMS calls in the midst of pandemic and covers the call from dispatch to decon.
Dispatchers are now asking callers whether they or the one needing help has signs or symptoms associated with COVID-19: coughing, fever, shortness of breath.
An initial threshold evaluation is made on site that limits contact as much as possible, asking a single responder to assess patients from the doorway or through a window before entering a building and to enter only if needed.
The guidelines also include recommendations for the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), which includes not just the gloves and surgical masks that have become almost expected, even in the grocery store aisles, but also the more limited N9 masks for cases of closer contact. Eye protection, too, should be worn for all calls, reason being, said Pederson, “You can close your mouth but you can’t close your eyes on a call.”
Pederson said that MFD has implemented other precautions, too. Previously, five responders would arrive at a medical call in a single rescue truck; now, the five-man team is divided between two rigs, each with two or three responders.
Decontamination of all forms – from basic hand washing to cleaning of equipment – has been a big priority, said Pederson. “The bar’s been raised big time on that.”
Pederson said that things have been going smoothly with the new measures and that none of his 40 firefighters has gotten sick, despite being on the frontlines.
“We’ve changed this stuff both for the firefighters’ safety and for their families’ safety, and we have to prevent all of our people getting sick at once,” he said.
Pederson said there have been incidents where people have not given honest information about their symptoms to the dispatcher, but that these were few. “For the most part, people in the community are taking it seriously,” he said.