Homemade gowns (made from house wrap), face shields, surgical masks, cloth masks, gloves and hand sanitizer made from a local distillery
In addition to serving as the Northeast Regional Director for NFPA interacting with emergency responders, code enforcers, building personnel and government representatives; I also serve as the fire chief of a small volunteer fire company in the northeast corner of Connecticut.
In recent weeks, our department has been dealing with the same two relentless enemies - changes in response protocol and PPE shortages - that responders in more densely populated areas are contending with. The only difference between the urban and rural experience is the magnitude of the problem.
Keeping our volunteers safe and healthy so that we can continue to respond to calls for service in our community is our number one priority.
In the past, we would routinely take “universal precautions” of wearing gloves, and at times, masks while providing patient care. With the advent of COVID19, we now wear gloves, masks, face shields, and even gowns if we are providing any up-close EMS response. This virus spreads so easily that even when precautions are taken responders are still getting infected. For a small company like ours, even if one or two responders are exposed, it will take most of the company out of service for a significant period - making an already difficult situation even more difficult.
So, now, when an alarm is rung, all members report to the station - not to the scene as is typically the case. We are limiting the number of responders we send to the scene to assist the ambulance service too. If an officer passes the scene while reporting to the station, they may stop and size-up the situation. Officers now have primary personal protective equipment kits, including gloves, two masks (one for the patient and one for the fire officer), and face shields in case they must render patient care before the apparatus, or an ambulance arrives.
The second major concern centers around the shortage of protective equipment available at this critical time. Normally, we stock a small cache of PPE and reorder when supplies get to a certain level. Fortunately, we had a small surplus left over from the Ebola outbreak a few years back. As has been well reported, when the magnitude of COVID-19 became clear several weeks ago, first responders began to order supplies from their vendors only to be told that most items were unavailable until, in some cases, August!
We looked to state and federal agencies for assistance in obtaining supplies but were told that their caches were depleted, as well. So, my days are now spent on the phone or in my Jeep searching for PPE. We’ve been blessed to have thoughtful citizens making homemade cloth masks for our department. Businesses have stepped up too. A plastic film manufacturing facility in Massachusetts provided face shields and a pipe insulation company in Connecticut switched over a manufacturing line to make gowns from their insulation material. More recently, a local distillery donated gallons of sanitizer solution to local responders. When the Connecticut Department of Public Health makes supplies available for response agencies, I head to the distribution point at a local ambulance company for reinforcements.
In recent weeks, I’ve certainly become familiar with the terms supply chain and burn rate. One has slowed to a crawl and I hope that the other never gets any momentum. The tricky part for any size department is that there is no way of telling what the call volume will be tomorrow, next week or three weeks from now. In our area, the outbreak is scheduled to peak within the next 2-3 weeks. We will continue to creatively collect PPE; and hope it will be enough if coronavirus rears its ugly head in these parts.
It’s important to note that the changes responders are facing are not lost on the communities that they serve. Recently, local citizens voiced their concerns on social media, asking what will happen if local first responders are heavily impacted by the virus? Normally, we do not have to reassure the public that our volunteer fire company will be there when someone calls 911; but in these unprecedented times, we are taking steps to put the public at ease via Twitter and Facebook. We send out daily messages of encouragement and try to inject a little humor to lighten the mood during these dark times.
We want our neighbors to know that even when things seem hopeless they can count on us to be there when they need us.
As departments across the country work to address these and other fire and life safety issues in their communities, NFPA is continuing to provide information and resources that can help support their efforts on multiple fronts during this challenging time.