Roundtable: COVID-19 advice, 911 no-nos and keeping your crews healthy

Four agencies explain how they're keeping their communities up to date on COVID-19, give advice on when to call 911 and how to avoid taking COVID-19 home or back to the station


All 50 states in the United States have confirmed cases of COVID-19. As of today, there are more than 53,000 cases in the U.S., and 728 Americans have died from the novel coronavirus.

Furthermore, new data gathered by Johns Hopkins University has concluded that there are currently 438,750 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide.

These numbers change by the hour.

Police, fire, and EMS responders, some wearing masks, gowns, and gloves to protect against the transmission of the new coronavirus, respond to a medical call in Seattle Tuesday, March 24, 2020.
Police, fire, and EMS responders, some wearing masks, gowns, and gloves to protect against the transmission of the new coronavirus, respond to a medical call in Seattle Tuesday, March 24, 2020.

As a result, millions across the world have been quarantined, borders are being closed and politicians are scrambling to breathe life back into the economy.

While all of this is occurring, doctors, nurses and first responders, which include police officers, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, dispatchers and correctional officers, are responding and providing care – even if that means they get exposed and fall ill in the process.

And, although there have been many guidelines for transmission prevention provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, like washing your hands for at least 20 seconds, avoiding close contact and sneezing or coughing into your elbow, many fire and EMS departments are taking it upon themselves to educate their community.

In order to get a better idea of how fire and EMS organizations are keeping the public informed, I interviewed four different agencies from around the U.S.

Below, you'll find their recommendations on how they're communicating with their communities about COVID-19, advice on when to – and when not to – call 911, and how crews are making sure they don't take COVID-19 home or bring it back to the station.

How to keep in constant contact with your community

Many fire and EMS departments are keeping the residents of their communities informed via social media and local government websites.

In Bensalem, Pennsylvania, officials with Bensalem Township posted a COVID-19 PSA to YouTube. The video, which features Bensalem Mayor Joseph DiGirolamo and Dr. Gerald Wydro, Bucks County Regional EMS Director and Jefferson Health's Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine, discusses protective measures that can be taken against COVID-19.

Tom Topley, chief and executive director of Bensalem Rescue Squad, said they're also using the township's local government channel to post updates, closings and information regarding the novel coronavirus.

"We are planning a public appeal to anyone who has amassed N95 masks to donate them to emergency services. We are quite low," Topley said.

Topley said they're also posting on Facebook to let the community know their number one priority is the safety of their residents.

"We posted pictures on our Facebook page to show the public that we are decontaminating our vehicles and equipment on a regular basis," he said.

Jefferson Health's Vickie and Jack Farber Hospital for Neuroscience's Mobile Stroke Unit going through decontamination.
Jefferson Health's Vickie and Jack Farber Hospital for Neuroscience's Mobile Stroke Unit going through decontamination. (Photo/Bensalem EMS via Facebook)
Bensalem ambulances are decontaminated using the TOMI Sterimist system.
Bensalem ambulances are decontaminated using the TOMI Sterimist system. (Photo/Bensalem EMS via Facebook)

Let the public know when they should – and should not – call 911

Over the weekend, the Newport (Oregon) Police Department posted a Facebook post urging citizens to not call 911 because they ran out of toilet paper. Yes, you read that right. Toilet paper.

They urged callers to not tie up the emergency line and reminded them that they must be resourceful and patient.

In Centennial, Colorado, Metcom, South Metro Fire Rescue's dispatch center, has one simple piece of advice: if a caller is having symptoms that they feel is related to COVID-19, then they need to provide detailed information immediately upon calling 911.

This can include information like if you're experiencing a fever, if you've traveled recently or if you've been in contact with someone who has been exposed to COVID-19. This allows dispatchers to provide correct and thorough information to crews so they can be prepared to provide proper care.

When a 911 call does come in, Metcom asks these three questions at a minimum:

  1. Do you have a fever?
  2. Are you having any trouble breathing?
  3. Do you have a cough?

If the 911 caller responds "yes" to any or all of the questions, then they are subjected to a more in-depth screening to determine how crews should respond – including what PPE they should wear and how many members can care for the patient to limit exposure.

"Metcom has also developed a dashboard with information of exactly how many of these calls we receive and will identify clusters should there be any targeted areas in our district with an increase in sick calls," Connor Wist, PIO at South Metro Fire Rescue, said.

Share best practices with other fire, EMS agencies regarding proper PPE

Donning personal protective equipment before arriving to a call isn't a new idea for first responders.

However, a University of Massachusetts Amherst study has found that the median incubation period for COVID-19 is just over five days. According to the study, over 97% of people who develop symptoms do so within 11.5 days of infection.

This opens fire and EMS responders up to potential exposure due to a patient not presenting COVID-19 symptoms at the time of the call.

Jason Deal, a former flight paramedic and current Metro Moore County (Tennessee) Emergency Management director, said they're providing crews with the appropriate PPE to wear during calls as well as proper cleaning supplies to use after a patient is dropped off.

They're also aware that danger lies in crews bringing possible COVID-19 exposure back home with them or at the station.

"We have procedures in place to foam hands before entering the living quarters and then washing hands with soap and water," Deal said. "If they are exposed, we have an alternate location of site that they can go to so they do not have to take it home to their family."

He reminds crews to be vigilant about their safety and wear their PPE as recommended.

"Safety first should stay the concern," Deal said. "Only send in the number of personnel needed to complete the call. Do not expose anyone that is not needed."

Have a short-term and long-term plan in place

You can never be too prepared.

A 100-page federal plan was recently laid out by the Trump administration after they said the COVID-19 pandemic could last up to 18 months or longer due to several waves of illness.

"South Metro is taking all steps necessary to limit exposure to our line employees, staff and community members," Wist said.

At South Metro Fire Rescue, they have postponed all station tours, engine demonstrations and ridealongs. "We are also postponing all other events, classes, meetings and activities that are taking place in our community rooms through the end of March," Wist added.

These meeting areas include community rooms at stations and headquarters.

"Operations also has plans in place in preparation for serving our community should things progress quickly," Wist said. "If our crews have an exposure to a patient who comes back as positive presumptive to COVID-19, we will be working with those impacted on the steps we are taking to ensure they are well taken care of."

As a first responder, you must remain calm and level-headed during turbulent times. Continue to stay prepared. Be vigilant in protecting yourself, your colleagues, and your family and loved ones. Most of all, stay safe.

Editor's Note: How are you making sure your department stays on top of the ever-evolving COVID-19 threat? Let us know in the comments below.

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