By Rick Markley
With most of the media attention focused on emergency room nurses and doctors, it’s easy to forget that firefighters and EMTs are also on the COVID-19 frontlines. Given the lower population density and call volume, volunteer and paid on-call departments don’t run as high a risk as do career departments. But, volunteer members do run a tangible risk and need to take proper precautions.
Many, if not all, departments have adopted higher levels of protection for members when on scene and elevated rig and station sanitizing practices. Many are limiting the number of personnel on scene. Some departments have stopped sending support responders to EMS calls unless requested; others have added duty shifts and only toning out on-call firefighters for larger calls. Departments struggling to find enough masks have resorted to using SCBA on suspicious calls.
While it may seem volunteer departments are left to sort through this crisis on their own, they are not. The fire service is pooling its intellectual resources to help departments navigate these tough times. Here’s a look at what’s available.
The National Volunteer Fire Council set up a page on its site dedicated to COVID-19 resources. One area to pay close attention to is their Volunteer Firefighter Support Fund. That fund is set up to assist active volunteer firefighters experiencing COVID-19-related financial hardship with up to $350. They are also running webinars and Facebook Live chats. The schedule is regularly updated. There is also a list of links to relevant federal agencies such as CDC, FEMA, OSHA and the U.S. Fire Administration.
The International Association of Fire Chiefs, which has a robust Volunteer and Combination Officers Section, also has a COVID-19 landing page on its site. IAFC has two updated dashboards showing COVID-19 incidents and PPE needs. Both dashboards pull data from surveys fire departments complete. The site also has resources from federal agencies as well as a schedule of IAFC weekly webinars. Another useful item is their decontamination infograph, a single-page document that shows how to clean COVID-19-contaminated equipment.
Our career brothers and sisters at the International Association of Fire Fighters also composed a COVID-19 page on their site. On it, they offer best practices for cleaning PPE after a suspected contamination. Here’s what they have to say.
- Dispose of disposable respirator, respirator filters, gloves and other disposable equipment/supplies used at the scene as bio-hazardous waste.
- If the turnout gear or station uniform is visibly contaminated by bodily fluid, it should be placed in a biohazard bag at the scene and washed following prescribed laundry procedures. Chlorinated bleach shall not be used with any fire fighter protective clothing. Fire departments should follow the decontamination guidelines in National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1851, Standard on Selection, Care, and Maintenance of Structural Fire Fighting Protective Ensembles.
- Non-disposable respirators shall be cleaned and disinfected in accordance with manufacturer’s recommendation.
- For decontamination of non-disposable equipment, follow manufacturer and departmental standard operating procedures.
- Vehicles used to transport persons suspected of having COVID-19 should be cleaned by staff wearing protective equipment, using a bleach solution as a disinfectant cleanser.
- See the EPA’s list of Registered Antimicrobial Products for Use Against Novel Coronavirus SARS-Cov-2, the Cause of COVID-19 as of March 3, 2020.
Lexipol opened its online COVID-19 training platform to individuals and entities such as fire departments at no charge. Users are required to register before getting access to the training materials. Individuals can take courses and review policies. Fire departments can assign courses to its members and track their progress. These include a COVID-19 course for first responders and local government, accredited refresher training (influenza, communicable diseases, personal protective equipment) for frontline employees, accredited incident management and disaster communications training for leaders, and downloadable policies and procedures.