How COVID-19 Has Impacted Firefighting

Thinking back just a few months ago, we were operating just as we always had – nothing out of the norm. Our daily emergency response had been the same for years and we felt confident that we were very safe utilizing those traditional protocols. Our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) on an emergency medical call was usually limited to nitrile rubber gloves. On rare occasions, an N-95 face mask was introduced as part of the PPE ensemble, if you were lucky enough to have one on your truck.

COVID-19 has changed everything for us now. Everyday citizens are now more aware of infectious control in their daily lives than ever before. Previously the average person only washed their hands before they had a meal. Now, it’s become common practice for everyone to wash their hands multiple times throughout the day and even carry a small bottle of hand sanitizer in their pocket or bag. Wearing some form of face mask has also become mainstream.

I believe we would all agree that approximately 75% of the average call volume for any fire rescue organization is predominantly an emergency medical response. Most of the time, our members are responding to a medical call that will require some level of PPE. I served as a paramedic on an advanced life support engine for several years.  Once, early on, I walked into the house with my gloves in my hand due to the nature of the call. It was reported that a person had fallen from the roof of the house, so I was not expecting there to be an immediate need for any form of PPE. As we walked inside, my partner began pointing to the blood on the door jams and walls.  We donned our gloves and went to work on treating the patient. From that point further I never entered a scene without the most basic PPE, gloves. It appears now with COVID-19 that basic PPE may be expanded to an N-95 and some form of eye protection. As with the initial implementation of wearing gloves, this will take some time for firefighters to buy into operating in this manner.

Many departments have moved to having their Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) ask a list of questions to determine the possibility if the patient/caller may have signs and symptoms of COVID-19. These same organizations have developed protocols that dictate the response and how to handle the medical call. 

Not only has the way we handle medical calls changed, we can expect fire service organizations to be hit hard in their budgets. With most budgets growing over the last few years this is a significant change that will have a devastating effect on fire departments. Fire chiefs have already been told by city or district administrators to cut their budget to prepare for the economic impact of the pandemic. Just recently I saw comments on social media from firefighters that had heard the rumors of potential budget cuts and they were demanding to know why the fire chief had not planned for a budget emergency like this. To the fire chief’s defense, he has a limited budget to start with, and has most likely allotted every dime to the very best equipment and training to support the organization.  International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) President Gary Ludwig, reported “that the IAFC projects that as many as 30,000 firefighters could lose their jobs over the next year”. To keep things in perspective, consider where you spend your money. Support businesses in the district that you work in and support that community. Help out that local restaurant, convenience store or manufacturing plant to keep that money in the district.

As I wrap up this blog, we have now encountered a whole new problem on top of the COVID-19. As some regions are experiencing a slow-down of cases, many people are choosing to return to normal activity and not make any attempt to stop the spread of the virus.  It’s important to ensure that you and your crew are well prepared for anything that you may encounter, while always attempting to retain your safety protection level of PPE for infectious control.  As this may become difficult, make every effort to reduce your level of exposure, while treating all patients at any incident. Departments need to be prepared to respond to daily changes in the current pandemic landscape. No one knows what the future looks like.

Things have changed. It’s been shocking to see how at risk we really are, but it has been great to see how quickly we have adapted. Stay safe and healthy.

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