All was quiet at West Metro Fire Rescue’s Station 1 on July 23. That is, until a recording of a woman’s voice rang through the bay, announcing an emergent medical alert.
Within seconds, the station’s firefighters, paramedics and the on-duty officer burst through a set of swinging doors.
“We’ve got a woman in labor,” announced Lt. Brian Worth as he charged toward the ambulance.
In less than a minute, the ambulance has pulled out of the large garage and headed in the direction of the emergency. The protocol for these emergency workers once they hear an alert is the same as always: change shoes, grab any needed equipment, hop in the ambulance or fire truck.
Only now, they’re also pulling on personal protective equipment such as masks, eyewear and gowns and preparing for the chance that the person in need of their help could also infect them with COVID-19, the potentially deadly virus sweeping the globe.
Fire departments and emergency responders across the Denver metro area have been forced to adjust their procedures in an attempt to help contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We just had to respond very, very quickly to the changing environment ... the landscape changed overnight,” said Jeremy Metz, West Metro Fire Rescue’s EMS chief. “Almost daily we were getting new updates or new guidance. Sometimes several times a day things would change.”
For Metz, some of the biggest changes have been in how his staff responds to 911 calls, he said. In March, the department began responding to any medical calls in a full coverall, including gloves, eyewear and a mask.
“It takes them a lot longer to put the ensemble on to respond to the call than traditionally it would be,” Metz said.
Then, once the emergency responders arrive on the scene of the 911 call, they face another new challenge: communication barriers. With their voices muffled by masks, getting basic patient information can be a challenge. And as the summer heats up, wearing personal protective equipment, or PPE, has become an issue, causing fatigue and discomfort, Metz said.
As the pandemic has stretched on, dispatchers have improved their questions for 911 callers and now can better predict if the caller presents a risk of spreading COVID-19 to first responders. As a result, responders are able to gauge how much PPE is necessary, sometimes opting for less intense protection.
“If we didn’t implement these PPE procedures, we could have had way more providers infected than we do,” Metz said.
Between March and mid-July, 12 of the 424 employees of WMFR tested positive for the virus, he said.
Another way that 911 procedures changed during the height of the first wave of the pandemic is in the ways they treated patients. From April through May, certain breathing treatments for respiratory patients were limited.
“We were really watching our numbers. We were responding to approximately 10 suspected COVID patients per day,” Metz said.
Dispatchers also began encouraging patients with non-life-threatening medical symptoms to remain at home in isolation.
“We were still able to deliver appropriate care and do procedures but it certainly did interfere with normal day-to-day operations,” Metz said.
South Metro Fire Rescue also changed the way they handle 911 calls, said Lt. Lindsey Miller. Normally, dispatchers would immediately send three to six people to respond to a call but as the pandemic began to ramp up, they began asking more questions to determine how much of a response is needed.
“Now, if possible, we scale back our interactions with patients,” Miller said.
As of July 10, SMFR had 10 members of their staff test positive for COVID-19, according to a spokesperson.
EMS services weren’t the only aspect of emergency response affected by the virus. The Douglas County Emergency Management Center also experienced difficulties.
“From our perspective, it definitely adds a challenge to us in terms of our response,” said Tim Johnson, director of the Douglas County Emergency Management Center.
When responding to events like wildfires, it’s important for EMC personnel to enter the physical center and then work together with a variety of agencies to contain the situation. With social distancing being one of the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus, only a limited number of people can enter the facility now.
“We eventually went to a virtual EOC (Emergency Operation Center) and you lose something when you go virtual,” Johnson said. “It’s that spontaneity.”
For the most part, though, confronting structure and brush fires is one of the only things still familiar to firefighters, Miller said.
“If we respond to a structure fire, I know what I’m going to put on and I’m going to execute that 911 call just like I’ve done for the entirety of my career,” Miller said. “It’s great to be able to help people and feel like that hasn’t changed.”
Because there isn’t usually interaction with the public during these events, PPE isn’t required, he said.
Even just hanging out in the fire station has changed. In the beginning of the pandemic, firefighters tried to only interact with the staff from their station, Miller said.
“Initially for two to three months, we operated in extreme silos,” he said. “We did our best to maintain social distancing within our fire stations.”
With that being said, this wasn’t always easy.
“It can be very difficult for five to eight people to live and work together for 48 hours without being in close contact with each other,” he said.
Adding stress to a stressful job
While many firefighters already define their job as stressful, risk-intensive and busy, the addition of a pandemic worsened those conditions. Now, instead of just worrying about themselves getting injured, firefighters have the added concern of bringing an illness home to their family members, Metz said.
“In our profession there’s always been risks associated with our job,” he said. “We do the best we can to mitigate those risks as much as possible.”
The many uncertainties associated with the virus have also added stress to these first responders’ lives.
“Our morale throughout this has been very high but you can really sense that it’s starting to wear on all the providers,” Metz said.
For Miller, during the period at the beginning of the pandemic, which was filled with anxiety and unknowns, it was harder to sleep at night, he said. He noticed that same fear in some of his colleagues.
“In a profession that shrugs off fear, those folks on the older and younger end of the spectrum, there was a lot of unknown,” he said. “That brought fear into our fire service that I had never felt before in my 15-year career.”
Miller believes the station has begun to finally adjust to the pandemic and the accompanying anxiety, he said.
“We’ve learned how to do things differently,” he said. “I think we’ve turned a corner and adapted.”
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