Burnaby firefighters responding to medical calls will appear a little more otherworldly than usual for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of new protocols put in place to protect firefighters and residents from the deadly virus, firefighters needing to get closer than two metres from another person during a medical emergency will be wearing the same breathing apparatus they would in a smoked-out building.
“We’ve taken a really aggressive approach in changing our response to medical emergencies to motor vehicle incidents, any engagements that result in our people having to engage with people within a two-metre radius,” acting fire Chief Dave Samson told the NOW. “We’re going to rely on our SCBAs, our self-contained breathing apparatus.”
Firefighters, who usually respond to medical emergencies in their station uniforms, will now also be swathed in head-to-ankle coveralls.
Samson acknowledged residents might be surprised by the new look, but the department decided to take the step to protect firefighters and the public, especially in light of shortages of regular N95 medical masks.
The new set of protocols for responding to medical emergencies is just one of the changes that has come out of a COVID-19 taskforce the department has struck in partnership with the Burnaby firefighters union, IAFF Local 323.
Samson gave the union credit for bringing the idea of a taskforce to the department and said he was grateful for the resources the union brings to the table thanks to its affiliation with firefighters across North America through the International Association of Fire Fighters.
“This group’s just done amazing work already to make significant changes to our fire station protocols, our response protocols, our cleaning protocols and just really educational components for our people to get up to speed, because it’s been a massive learning curve,” Samson said of the taskforce.
Samson said the department’s main challenge is keeping firefighters healthy, so they can continue their essential service to the public during the pandemic.
No one at the department has yet tested positive for the virus, according to Samson, but eight firefighters are currently in self isolation – seven for travel-related reasons and one because of possible exposure to a positive case.
“We have not reduced any of our level of service to the citizens right now,” Samson said. “We are still providing the same level of service but just taking a bunch more precautions to make sure that we’re keeping our members safe as well as the rest of the public.”
Firefighters on shift are practicing social distancing at fire stations, and cleaning has been stepped up significantly, with crews cleaning two times per shift, day and night, according to Samson.
“Firefighters, officers – everybody’s participating,” he said.
As for cleaning supplies, he said the department is working on contingency plans for “absolutely everything.”
To conserve hand sanitizer, for example, it is being used only during incidents outside the stations. Inside the fire halls, crews have been directed to wash their hands with soap and water.
“We’re continually adapting to what we need to do,” Samson said.
He said the department is also working on contingency plans for dealing with a shortage of firefighters if they become ill with COVID-19.
“We’re looking at a whole bunch of different things because it really varies depending on what’s happening, what our levels are,” Samson said. “We’re just going to keep those plans to ourselves right now and keep working on them.”
There is one way the public can help, though, according to Samson.
“Please stay home,” he said. “Please stay home; we need you to stay home. We are here 24/7, but we need you to stay home, so we can come help you.”