Menlo Fire implements changes to their safety equipment and procedures to slow community spread of COVID-19

by Contributed Content on March 21, 2020

With six personnel, out of just under 100 firefighters placed off duty in the last few weeks, until either their COVID-19 test comes back negative, or they are symptom free after a 14-day self-isolation period, the Menlo Park Fire Protection District is trying to navigate, prepare and prevent, an unexpected draw down on its most precious resource, its firefighters.

“Our Fire Paramedics and crew members are on the front lines of this epidemic, daily attending to emergency medical incidents that represented about 65% of the 9,300 emergency incidents we responded to in 2019,” Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman. “So stopping community spread is of vital importance to us and job one right now.

“That said, we can’t afford to have our first responders on the sidelines while they are waiting for testing, testing results and/or to complete a mandatory 14-day quarantine, if they are symptom free. If this gets worse, which is what we are planning and preparing for, then it could become both overwhelming and unsustainable.

“That assessment is based upon the size of our workforce and our ability to staff our 12 emergency response units per day with an effectively sized force of 33 personnel. Understaffing and station closures could place the whole community at risk and that’s why we are taking these unprecedented precautions.”

Going forward, depending upon the emergency medical incident type, firefighters will now wear medical gloves, a mask and safety glasses so everyone will have a level of protection from transmission. Patients will also be asked to come outside if they are able and weather conditions allow. If they can’t, they can stay inside, especially if they have difficulty getting up and/or standing and walking.

Menlo Park Fire District Firefighters have responded to at least a dozen “suspected” COVID-19 medical incidents so far. Most recently, one crew did everything right, they met the patient outside and were wearing their proper protective equipment (PPE). The patients breathing treatment required that he wear an oxygen mask and he was given a nebulizer by the attending fire paramedic for breathing assistance.

After the patient went to the hospital, the crew was later advised that he tested positive for COVID-19 and that they were considered “exposed”, because the nebulizing treatment aerosolizes the patients moist exhalation, or breath. Simply stated, the firefighters were considered exposed because they were wearing inadequate eye protecting glasses and it was feared that their eyes still could have been exposed to a vaporized mist. All three have not exhibited any symptoms and are quarantined until March 28th, at which point they can return to work.

“That incident made us take a big step back and collectively look at what was being recommended, what we were doing and say, we can do better so that this doesn’t happen again,” said the Chief.  “The unpredictability and time it takes to get a test, let alone the results and the 14 day quarantine really helped to ‘rally the troops,’ so to speak.

“Melanie Starz, our Emergency Medical Services Manager and Deputy Chief Jim Stevens led the way, working with our Paramedic’s, Captains, Labor Group (Firefighters Union) and Chief Officers to come up with better ways for us to safely treat and interact with patients who may be COVID-19 positive, and to make sure that we don’t accidently spread it to others, including other firefighters, or their own family members.”

This weekend the Fire District will also implementing a COVID-19 two-person first response unit. Any time a suspected COVID-19 call is reported by Fire Dispatch, or called for by one of their other nine on-duty Captains or two Battalion Chief’s, this unit will respond so as to minimize exposures to the rest of the workforce. If they get busy, there are plans in place to add a second and even third similar unit.

“We strongly believe that these collective strategies and pro-active moves will help make us successful. In our profession you need to quickly adapt, improvise and overcome!” said the Chief. “This weekend, we will provide you with the latest information, when the COVID Response Vehicles goes into service.”

For updates on local community impacts and emergency operations, visit the Menlo Fire website.

Photo courtesy of Menlo Fire: Fire/Paramedic Carlos Carpenter demonstrates what new personal protective equipment (PPE) firefighters will be wearing to a COVID-19 medical response incident 

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