Emergency workers take the lead on coronavirus
By Sue Tiffin
As calls for physical distancing – staying metres apart from each other, staying home, not socializing with people from outside of your own household – became more urgent, reminders online that first responders and health-care workers “step forward while the rest of the world steps back,” and images of doctors, nurses and first responders holding signs that read “stay home because I can’t,” began spreading.
Minden Hills fire chief Nelson Johnson said his captains have asked what will happen should they become infected – do they go home, where they might spread the virus to their family?
“We have to weigh the risk with the outcome for this stuff, too,” said Johnson. “That’s a very big question, something that we now have to look at, and figure out how to deal with that.”
Modern-day fire departments respond to more than just fires, instead responding to numerous hazards, including medical calls.
“It’s kind of changed a little bit, it’s still the big red trucks, and still the most amount of people we can get there, but before, let’s say for a structure fire, it was all hands on deck, let’s work hard and get in there,” said Johnson. “So we’re going to treat it a little bit like a hazmat incident, where only one vehicle goes in, makes the assessment, and then determines the best placement for each vehicle and what kind of equipment do they need to make sure that they’re safe prior to getting in there. We’re basically going to be doing that for all of our calls now.”
Johnson said the fire department has the equipment they’ve always had, including self-contained breathing apparatus, but are coordinating with other fire departments to do a loaner program for items such as the ever-popular N95 mask.
“Whoever’s got more can give to the places that are in need of some, and then I know the fire departments, the suppliers and distributers and the Ontario government are all working hard to fix up that shortfall, because it’s not just us,” said Johnson.
The news is on every day, all day, for Johnson. He gets updates from the province every day at around 10 or 11 a.m., as well as a daily update from the Office of the Fire Marshal, and a regular update from the Ontario Association of Fire Chiefs.
“I’m also in relationships with the surrounding counties, so we have an email going out to each other every day of what we’re doing, we ask those questions also – who’s doing what, and what helps and what works in your area, and can we use it in ours?” said Johnson. “Someone might be doing something that’s a little bit different that might be the right thing for us to do, that will make the operations streamline or safer.”
Additionally, he said the fire department also works with other services including ambulance, police, hydro: “they’re all part of the community so we have to make sure that we look after them, they look after us.”
The biggest concern for Johnson, he said, is if his volunteer staff gets sick.
“Then how do we replace them?” he said. “Although we have mutual aid agreements, but what if those departments get sick and they’re counting or relying on us? And so, we have to make sure that we don’t overtax or burden our volunteers here.”
One of the solutions, said Johnson, is to operate with a tiered-response matrix, having one platoon responding at a time, so that the full team isn’t being exposed to the same hazards, or becoming tired with calls.
“We have a wonderful, great group of volunteers that have stepped up to the plate and dedicated their time to ensure the community is safe here, and that time has come away from their families and their other obligations to the community,” he said. “And in this time of emergency, they have shown that they will be there to help whoever needs it. I’m very proud of them.”
The Ontario Provincial Police are taking several steps to keep both members of the OPP and the community safe during the pandemic, said Sergeant Jason Folz, community services and media relations coordinator for the OPP central region headquarters.
“The health and well-being of all OPP members and our communities are a top priority,” he said.
Members have been trained and are equipped with personal protective equipment, to help in circumstances where OPP must be in contact with people who have been infected.
“It would be up to the individual member to decide when to use their issued PPE,” said Folz. “It is pretty safe to assume that anyone could be carrying the virus based on the information from public health officials. Members will be practicing safe distancing as well as other recommendations for safety. There are times our members must get closer than the recommended distances and these are the times PPE and good hygiene will hopefully assist.”
The OPP has restricted public access to all OPP detachments and administrative facilities. Regular operating hours with enhanced screening have been put in place at OPP facilities. Additionally, the OPP is limiting the processing of routine criminal record checks/vulnerable sector checks until further notice, and Folz recommended residents contact their local detachment in advance of requiring any detachment-based service.
The OPP encourages the public to report less serious incidents online at www.opp.ca/reporting to keep 911 lines free.
In preparing for the COVID-19 outbreak, Jo-Ann Hendry, deputy chief, paramedic services for the County of Haliburton, said additional supplies have been ordered, while the county’s Emergency Control Group is meeting regularly to monitor the situation.
At this time, she said, the local paramedic team has enough equipment to stay safe.
“We have ordered additional equipment and some items are in short supply but suppliers are sending them out as they can get them” she said.
Daily updates from the province are being shared with staff.
“Paramedics are still functioning as usual with crews prepared to handle calls due to COVID-19, but also our regular emergency calls,” she said.
Hendry said paramedic services are not getting more calls at this time, but are prepared to handle additional calls if necessary.
“We know that this is a very difficult time for everyone, and we want people to know that the health and safety of our community is our primary concern,” she told the Echo. “Our team of paramedics is here and actively working around the clock. We ask that everyone do their part to keep our community safe.” She noted that the best way residents can keep themselves and their family safe is to practice social distancing and hand hygiene, only go out when necessary, and practice self-isolation if symptoms of COVID-19 are present to slow the spread of the virus.
“We are impressed with how much the community is working together to help one another, and we hope that this will continue as long as necessary,” she said. “Stay safe.”