When firefighters and paramedics hear the tone out over the radio these days, they are listening for a new, critical piece of information.
Does the caller have symptoms of COVID-19 — fever, cough, loss of smell?
If they do, a whole new set of protocols kicks in.
For responders that means they need to gear up and take extra precautions when dealing with the patients to help keep them safe and minimize their exposure to COVID-19.
In weekly online meetings, local fire chiefs have been hashing out the details on what personal protection equipment to wear, sanitary procedures, testing and contact policies.
The fire chiefs and Lifeline ambulance officials spoke with the Roundup during one of the first responders’ weekly ZOOM meetings to explain the changes.
“We have a pretty standard intent, whether we show up first or Lifeline shows up,” said David Staub, Payson’s fire chief.
It helped that Pine’s Fire Chief Gary Morris had worked in Seattle during the SARS epidemic, which hit Canada in 2003 and then spilled over into Seattle.
Morris therefore suggested Rim Country dispatchers ask additional questions on a 911 call to minimize the risk.
“We all agreed on some basic questions and implemented them pretty quickly after Feb. 4,” said Morris.
Then the chiefs focused on personal protective gear.
“We were watching how the numbers evolved and realized if we had a wave, we would run out (of PPE),” said Morris.
With help from the Gila County health department, Morris found enough PPE “for a projected wave.”
If on a suspected COVID-19 call, arriving paramedics take extra time to don protective gear instead of racing to the door in their uniforms.
“This is not a rush-in type of event as if having a heart attack or stroke,” said Morris. “It may take five minutes to suit up.”
First responders wear a medical grade mask, safety glasses, surgical gloves and a gown. Outfitted like a TV crime show coroner, it’s a look that alarms some patients.
“We would describe it as a full PPE, medical PPE,” said Hellsgate Fire Chief John Wisner.
And only one first responder approaches the front door.
“One to limit the number of people involved and two to not use our supplies,” said Morris.
Once finished with the call, first responders wash all clothes and take a shower.
Even the day-to-day firehouse operations have been altered, said Wisner.
Wisner said firefighters check their temperatures twice a day. “They have a whole lot more cleaning and sanitizing.”
The overall purpose of the new procedure ensures the least number of people get exposed to the virus, said Staub.
So far, first responders have avoided transporting any positive coronavirus patient. No Rim Country first responder has tested positive for COVID-19, but there are also not enough tests to broadly test all first responders. Nationally, The EMS1.com website lists 25 first-responder deaths from COVID-19, but far more have gotten sick or spent time in quarantine after unprotected exposure.
“We have to be symptomatic or known to have contact with a positive COVID-19 patient,” said Wisner.
Lifeline has its own policies to determine if an employee needs a test.
The company has a nurse navigation line to determine if a patient’s symptoms show a coronavirus infection.
“We establish a risk level,” said J. Valentine, the Lifeline regional director, to determine potential exposures. The company tests any suspected of exposure to coronavirus. So far, none of the EMTs have COVID-19.
“Knock on wood ... we have taken precautions,” said Cris Lecher, administrative superintendent for Lifeline.