By Adam Jackson
Like most members of the fire service, I was not prepared for this new enemy.
I remember hearing of about the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, which seemed a world away at the time. I didn’t pay much attention to what was happening until I heard about an outbreak at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. Now this virus was in our state – and in a city just 40 miles from my department.
The chief was on vacation, so our deputy chiefs convened a meeting of our command staff. We gathered at headquarters and began discussing how we were going to prepare for and respond to these new COVID-19 calls.
As the health and safety chief, I had spent time developing health and wellness programs, ensuring that our department was following Washington state laws regarding worker safety, and reviewing accidents, injuries and an occasional exposure. None of these “routine duties” had prepared me to answer the variety – and volume – of questions that were coming at me during the first few weeks of the pandemic. Those early weeks seemed like one long nonstop meeting.
I remember thinking these ongoing strategy sessions reminded me of the World War II movies I routinely watched growing up. A room full of generals around a mock battlefield. In the “War Room,” there were always small replicas of troops and equipment that would be pushed around on the table as the generals discussed their upcoming plan. And here we were, discussing our plans about the proper PPE, when it should be worn, how to disinfect it, what do we use to disinfect it … the planning went on and on.
Like many departments, we have policies dealing with airborne and bloodborne exposures. These were created with the thought that it would be one or maybe a few firefighters getting exposed on a single call. There would be time, there would be plenty of equipment, and it would happen very infrequently.
Now everything had changed.
To reduce the chance of an exposure, we wanted the crews to wear their air-purifying respirators (APRs) on almost all calls, which soon changed to all non-fire calls.
I was asked if we could we support this new process? The cartridges on our APRs had always been changed after each call. Now I was being asked if we have to change the cartridges, or how can we clean and disinfect our APRs in the field so they could be worn to the next call. This had always been done back at the station for the few times a year they were normally worn.
After contacting the manufacturer and reading various research online, I came up with a new process to achieve our PPE strategy. I kept looking for a specific piece of information that would cover exactly what we were doing, but it wasn’t out there. I had to make a decision based on my judgment, which was a bit unnerving. Two months into the COVID-19 crisis, the CDC and NIOSH published the information I had desperately looked for.
The return of the chief was welcomed. While all of us worked well together, having his experience and perspective was reassuring.
We were also dealing with lots of questions from the firefighters who were concerned about the virus: Could they take it home with them? What should they do if they came down with it? Where should they go if they can’t quarantine at home? How long do they need to quarantine? Do they need to wear hair covers?
The list of questions was long, and I certainly didn’t have all of the answers.
When firefighters at surrounding departments began getting infected with COVID-19, things only became more intense. It didn’t take long for dozens of firefighters in surrounding departments to become quarantined.
I was spending hours a day reading information from the CDC, NIH, IAFF, IAFC, Washington State DOH, as well as reaching out to departments around the Puget Sound to figure out what best practices everyone was putting in place. I was very happy that all the departments I spoke with were more than willing to discuss lessons learned. We shared documents, algorithms, equipment vendors and equipment. It was truly a united effort. To date, none of our firefighters have been infected with COVID-19.
We put together a testing processes for our staff, reached out to a local RV dealer, which donated the rental of 12 RVs for firefighters who can’t be quarantined at home, and used every vendor contact we had to ensure our firefighters had the PPE they needed.
Each day the War Room reconvened to deal with the next issue and plan for the next operational period.
We quickly switched to an IMT model with defined work periods and workflows. This helped to keep us on task and gave us a clear process to follow.
I had been fortunate enough to take a bloodborne pathogen class at the University of Washington just before the COVID-19 outbreak. I was able to reach out to my instructors, who were infectious disease experts, to ask for advice and counsel. They were incredibly helpful, and I truly appreciate their assistance.
We are now months into this outbreak, and we have settled into a new normal. Firefighters are social distancing in the stations; masks are worn when they can’t. The public is not allowed into the facilities, and most training has been canceled. The non-uniformed support staff is working from home, commissioner meetings are done on Zoom, as are many other meetings.
While we don’t know how long this is going to last, I can’t be more proud of the effort and professionalism of our department, along with the rest of the fire service, has displayed.
This quote from the Anchorage Fire Department sums it up perfectly, “I am not here for me, I am here for we, we are here for them.”
About the Author
Adam Jackson is the Assistant Chief of Health & Safety for Central Pierce Fire & Rescue in Washington. Adam has been in the fire service for 26 years. He has an Associate’s Degree in Fire Protection and Technology and a Bachelors Degree in Communications. Adam enjoys camping with his family, cycling and paddle boarding. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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