Precautions put in place more than a month ago at Clark County’s fire departments have largely prevented employee exposures requiring quarantine.
All of the agencies told The Columbian that staff are employing practices that conserve their caches of personal protective equipment. But they are also ensuring the gear is being used when responding to calls and when inside their own facilities.
To date, the Vancouver Fire Department has had three firefighters tested for COVID-19, one of which came back positive. Department Division Chief Robb Milano said all of the firefighters are taking the crisis seriously, which has significantly reduced the risk of getting sick, despite their line of work.
At Clark County Fire & Rescue, firefighters have not knowingly treated any patient confirmed to have been sick with the virus. They have treated people with what doctors are referring to as COVID-like illnesses. Because the tests initially could take up two weeks for results, it is unknown whether any of them tested positive, Chief John Nohr said. None of the agency’s firefighters have become sick or needed to be quarantined, he said.
Two Clark County Fire District 6 firefighters quarantined themselves in early March, for seven days, after they were exposed to the first known COVID-19 patient in the county. Since then, there has been no further need for quarantines among staff, Operations Chief David Russell said.
AMR Northwest, the ambulance service contracted for the majority of the county, has placed 27 employees on “paid quarantine” for precautionary reasons but has had only one employee who tested positive, Regional Director Rocco Roncarati said. Two employees were being quarantined last week, but they returned to work Monday, Roncarati said.
Officials at each of those agencies said the triage questions that dispatchers at Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency are asking of 911 callers have been essential to staying safe. If someone reports they are feeling unwell, those details trigger something called the emerging infectious disease questionnaire list.
Since last month, the questions have changed slightly to better fit with new information that’s been learned about COVID-19 and best practices for preventing its spread.
“We’ve changed the questions around to be more practical to the changing response to (the virus). Instead of first asking people if they’ve traveled, we ask if they have been exposed to someone who’s tested positive,” CRESA Operations Manager Kris Devore said.
Milano said that all Vancouver fire staff have been following the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control, the Clark County medical director and Clark County Public Health since before the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect.
Most of the changes over the past month have involved increasing risk prevention for both firefighters and patients, Milano said. Vancouver firefighters are now wearing simple masks — surgical or cloth — while out in public and within stations when they are unable to maintain social distancing, he said.
“We are also using PVC rain suits as splash protection on medical calls due to the lack of available surgical gowns. Vancouver Fire Department has been moving towards purchasing all reusable PPE due to the national shortages,” Milano said.
A single Clark County Fire & Rescue firefighter dons full protective gear for every medical call that crews are dispatched on. The firefighter makes contact for an initial assessment, and then informs the crew about what level of personal protective equipment is needed, Nohr said. The department reached out to suppliers early on in the pandemic. The proactive preparations, and a steady flow of donations, have kept the staff well equipped, Nohr said.
Like all other county fire departments, Clark County Fire & Rescue crews are still asking people to come to their front doors, if possible. The fewer firefighters who have to enter homes, the less they are potentially exposed to COVID-19, Nohr said.
Life at the stations has changed, too. Training has been scaled back to reinforcing individual skills; the chief said he’d like to return to team-building exercises whenever that becomes possible.
“Responding to a house fire isn’t a one-man job. The technical, team-based training we do is important,” Nohr said.
Fire District 6 crews have reusable suits for medical calls, Russell said, as well as air-purifying respirators purchased years ago when there were worries about H1N1 influenza. There is regular deep-cleaning going on at the stations, too, he said.
“We’ve been using those respirators the whole time, so other than increased diligence by our guys there haven’t been many changes over the past month, beyond researching and purchasing reusable PPE,” Russell said.
Calls for service down
Devore, the operations manager at the county’s dispatch center, said overall call volume has slightly decreased, most noticeably calls involving AMR.
People are either calling about COVID-19 or a true emergency, Devore said.
Vancouver fire’s total call volume is down compared to the same time last year. It has seen an increase in calls coded as “sick patient,” but it’s hard to say whether the jump is related to the virus. Milano said nearly every medical patient is being treated as potentially COVID-19 positive.
Clark County Fire & Rescue calls have been down about 10 percent over the past three months when compared to the same time period last year, according to the fire chief. Generally, the agency sees a yearly increase of about 7 percent due to the area’s growing population.
“So, I would say it’s a little bit more of a reduction, because we usually see increases in call volume every year. Because of the population growth in the district, we generally have more calls, so it is surprising,” Nohr said.
Fire District 6 has also seen its calls for service drop about 10 percent in the past two weeks. Russell said there have been more COVID-19-related calls, which generally come across the radio as a sick person or someone with shortness of breath. There is an uptick in those kinds of calls and downtick in everything else, he said.
Officials at the agencies said they believe the overall decrease in calls could be attributed to residents’ current aversion to having contact with emergency responders or taking a trip to the emergency room.
“Anecdotally, we think people, out of fear, are avoiding the hospital system in general,” said Milano, echoing others.