A general rule for staying safe during the COVID-19 pandemic has been to isolate from people to avoid spreading the virus.
Dealing with the pandemic has been an interesting situation for first responders who interact with the public, including the elderly who are vulnerable to the coronavirus.
Beatrice Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Daake said the department was fortunate to have started preparing for the pandemic early.
“Back in late February our medical director, Dr. Don Rice, got ahold of me and said there was this virus coming and we needed to be ready for it because it might turn into a real pandemic,” he said. “I’m glad we did, because it was on our radar screen but we weren’t really thinking at that time like it turned out to be.”
The department already had a limited amount of N95 masks on hand, but was in need of more. Today, Fire and Rescue workers use them frequently.
“We’re doing what we can with what we have,” Daake said. “I kind of looked at this as being a marathon, and it’s turned into an ultra-marathon. It’s like we’re on a campaign and going with the flow, doing what we can to make sure we help our citizens.
“There will be an end eventually, but it’s going to take some time.”
There are two options for medical calls, tier 1 and tier 2.
Tier one is for low threat levels of COVID-19, and require responders to wear basic items, like masks, gloves and eye protection.
Tier 2 includes full jump suits and large masks with N95 filter systems. A tier 2 call is a patient who has COVID-19 or is presumed positive through a series of questions dispatchers ask when taking a call.
Craig Fisher with Beatrice Fire and Rescue said he’s never experienced anything like the current pandemic in his 27 years in the industry.
“H1N1, swine flu, bird flu, those were always around and we did some precaution for that, but not to this extent,” he said. “It just never really went to this level of protection.
“We’re not just protecting ourselves with this equipment, we’re also protecting other people. The patient, the patient’s family, not only myself but my family so when I go home I’m not spreading it either. You have to look at it as a community thing, not just an individual. I’m doing my job, I’m protecting people.”
Additional gear is the change the public sees, but numerous steps to sanitize at the station have also been taken.
Ambulances are sanitized after every call and the doors are left open after cleaning to allow them to air out. Gurney sheets are changed after every use, and patients are given an N95 mask.
“We do a lot more safeguarding, we do more decontaminating than in the past,” Fisher said. “It’s deeper now. We also try to encourage them to come out of the house rather than us entering the house. Same thing with the nursing homes if they can move a patient closer to the front door. Even though we have our personal protective equipment, we’re not going deep into a nursing home if we don’t need to, exposing ourselves or the possibility of exposing them.”
N95 masks are regarded as the best readily available for preventing the spread of the virus, a claim Daake believes is true.
“The biggest challenge is there’s so much information and disinformation out there that I really don’t know who to believe anymore, and I’m sure most people are like that,” he said. “I know the N95 masks work. That’s what they are designed to do.”
In the station, meals are taken in shifts, a desk has been moved to the vehicle bay to allow for social distancing and chairs have been removed from the conference room.
Daake said the dorm area where rescue workers sleep does allow for six feet of distance between workers.
The department has also started using UV light to sanitize computer keyboards and other items.
“We were able to secure some handheld UV lights that are much better for the computer surfaces and kills the coronavirus in something like six seconds,” he said. “It’s tough to wrap your head around the science behind it that a light kills the virus, but if you think about the sun, UV light kills a lot of viruses, too.”
One interesting change Daake said happened early in the pandemic was a sharp decline in calls.
In 2019 Beatrice Fire and Rescue responded to a record-setting 2,822 calls.
“We were well ahead of the pace we had set in 2019,” Daake said. “Then in March and April, those were our slowest months in a very long time. That was during the era where everybody was afraid to go to the hospital because they thought they were going to get COVID-19. A lot of people weren’t doing their normal health care stuff and I think that was the time where everybody was shut in at home.”
Since then, Daake added, call numbers have bounced back and are now nearly 80 ahead of where they were at this time last year.
He suggested people continue taking precautions to help keep the community safe.
“It goes back to what should have been done from the very beginning, personal responsibility where we make sure we stick with our little pod of people we’re normally with,” he said. “Don’t be foolish and go to some of these events. Just have some personal responsibility.”
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