(Meghan Housewright is Director of the NFPA Fire & Life Safety Policy Institute, which supports policymakers around the globe in protecting people and property from fire and other hazards with best practice recommendations and approaches to develop and sustain a strong fire prevention and protection system.)
As doctors across the U.S. face the crush of COVID-19 cases, some are turning to social media and #GetMePPE to deal with the critical shortage of N95 respirator masks, gowns, facial shields, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). Repeated reuse of single use items, meant to protect patients and medical staff alike, is now routine, as is seeking community donations of unused or homemade gear.
Add to the doctors, nurses, and other hospital employees who desperately need these supplies: America’s first responders. Firefighters and paramedics are on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, transporting sick patients and responding to calls out in the community. Unsurprisingly, some are becoming infected, or forced into isolation after interacting with those who have tested positive. In Washington, DC, 141 firefighters and paramedics are in self-quarantine after three members of the department tested positive for the virus. Last week, the San Jose Fire Department reported that around 10 percent of the city’s department is self-quarantined, while 13 responders have tested positive. This is happening to departments all over the country.
As first responders burn through their PPE supplies to reduce their risk, departments face shortages that will only grow with the pandemic. Action is needed now to help all workers on the front lines stay safe. But in the face of sky-rocketing global demand, what does that action look like?
A growing chorus, including the medical establishment, the mayor of New York City, Congressional Democrats, and the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank have called for the federal government to step into the breach. Under the powers of the Defense Production Act (DPA), the government could require U.S. businesses to accept government contracts for needed goods and services and oversee the distribution of that matériel to states and localities based on need, among other measures. While President Trump has signed orders allowing the DPA to be used to address coronavirus, he has not followed through by invoking its authority for specific actions. Instead, the president has argued the country is not yet on a supply precipice and that the voluntary efforts of U.S. industry will be able to meet the demand.
U.S. manufacturers, like 3M, are indeed moving swiftly to supply as much of the demand as they can. But as states, localities, and hospitals alike hunt for PPE in a crisis that is not just nationwide, but worldwide, the eruption of inevitable bidding wars have pushed prices well past the point of most public safety agencies. And while some in Congress have proposed more stimulus funding to directly aid the medical effort, that money won’t address the scarcity. The certainty of large government contracts will help manufacturers who can.
When the virus made landfall in the U.S., the national strategic stockpile, with 12 million N95 masks on hand (and another 30 million surgical masks), had roughly 1% of the PPE supply the Department of Health and Human Services estimated the crisis could demand: 3.5 billion masks. In the face of such staggering demand, the World Health Organization has called for a 40% increase in the production of PPE and other supplies. As firms consider how they can bring new production on-line, experts note it will likely take three to five months to actually begin production. The sooner they start, the closer we come to ending the shortage.
Need today is dependent on existing capacity, most of which occurs overseas. Much of that is in China, which until recently, has prioritized its own epidemic needs. As they gradually pivot toward meeting worldwide demand, cooperation between countries is now essential to workers on the front lines of the virus.
In the U.S., every 24 seconds, a fire department responds to a fire. Well before this crisis, every 1.3. seconds, a fire department responded to a call for medical aid. Our nation’s first responders were 24-7 well before this national emergency. Now, just as doctors and nurses still must treat other patients despite an ER full of coronavirus, firefighters will still need to respond, no matter the emergency. The U.S. is fortunate that its responders are such a strong part of the Fire & Life Safety Ecosystem. These are the people who make sure a house fire does not become a fatal fire or that a hazardous material spill does not become an environmental catastrophe. These are the same people who cut victims from car wrecks and bring them to the hospital. Their health is critical to the everyday safety of the community.
And while first responders may be at capacity now, the coming months could be worse. Land managers and fire officials are keenly aware of the challenge posed by virus-caused attrition to wildfire season. In Los Angeles, the crews that normally clear brush to lower fire risk have been delayed; in Washington state, they’ve been forced to cancel training for new firefighting personnel. All of this while the Western U.S. is under drought conditions from historically low snow and rain.
As a nation, we’re failing the first responder who today is responding to patients without proper PPE. If we let this continue into tomorrow, we are most certainly failing ourselves. Given the scale of the crisis, the U.S. needs every tool available pressed into service to meet this towering need.
For additional NFPA content and insights, visit www.nfpa.org/coronavirus.
As we navigate the evolving situation with COVID-19, we remain committed to supporting you with the resources you need to minimize risk and help prevent loss, injuries, and death from fire, electrical, and other hazards.