Delaware fire companies remain on call for coronavirus crisis

An emergency medical services vehicle is at the ready in front of the Odessa Fire Company on Tuesday morning. (Delaware State News/Craig Anderson)

DOVER — Have a cough?

Experiencing respiratory distress?

Running a fever?

Anyone calling 911 must answer those three tailored questions before dispatchers route concerns to the proper responder.

On Tuesday, Kent County Director of Public Safety Colin Faulkner said local emergency medical services are following national guidelines as the global coronavirus pandemic spreads.

The county requested 800 units of personal protection equipment from a state stockpile though Mr. Faulkner said, “We’re OK for the time being.”

Even so, first responders need more masks, gloves, gowns and eye protection to have in reserve, Mr. Faulkner said. There’s still uncertainty on how much will be needed in the coming days, he said.

“We’re protecting each other from each other,” Mr. Faulkner said. “We see a portion of all demographics from the elderly to millennials, who I wish would take this more seriously. If we protect ourselves, we protect them.”

Deadly and destructive, the 2012 Hurricane Sandy disaster doesn’t match the ongoing effects of the current epidemic, Mr. Faulkner said.

“This is probably much worse than Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “That was tangible and we knew what was coming. It’s difficult for folks now because they can’t see it.”

Sussex County EMS Special Operations Coordinator Glenn Marshall said responses have remained constant and operations have not changed. The EMS is in regular contact with the Delaware Divison of Public Health to evaluate evolving conditions.

“Sussex County EMS will continue to be there for the public and address concerns whenever, wherever and however needed,” Mr. Marshall said. “We will adjust operations as needed.”

In Dagsboro, talk has steered more and more towards levels of response as the crisis continues.

“It’s been the center of almost all our conversations for awhile now with EMTs and members,” said Jason McCabe, a company vice president and truck captain. “We’re passing along a lot of to-dos and not-to-dos at home and work and following the protocols laid out by Sussex EMS.”

Said Laurel Fire Department Assistant Chief of EMS Doug Butler, “It’s a big topic for all of us. There are a lot of new policies for people who ride to calls. We wear masks and goggles whenever possible and if patients cough or have a fever, we give them masks as well.”

The threat of contracting the virus hasn’t limited volunteers who are manning fire companies across downstate Delaware and continuing to provide assistance on calls.

Cheswold and Citizens’ Hose Company of Smyrna fire companies closed facilities to all non-members, but said there’s been no manpower issues so far.

Citizens’ Hose Co. spokesman Chris Hudson said fundraising efforts may dwindle as the crisis continues. There’s hope that a major fundraiser in September will still be a go.

“We solicit everyone in our fire district with a mailer and this is our most successful form of fundraising,” he said. “However with the uncertainty of the market and people may not be working as much or not at all I fear there maybe a good possibility of folks not being able to give what they have gave in the past or worse – not give at all.”

Extra safety precautions

Mr. Hudson said Tuesday the crew returned to the station from a fire call and cleaned masks and gear while taking “extra time making sure everything was clean and in the proper place and ready for use again.”

On assist calls when the Smyrna-based company arrives but is not immediately needed, firefighters will stand outside the trucks instead of sitting inside together waiting for extra safety, Mr. Hudson said.

“We still have to do what we have to do to protect the public, the community,” he said.

Proactive efforts within the company allow members to at least control what they can.

“We’re taking every precaution to make sure we keep everything extra tidy,” Mr. Hudson said. “There’s no forks and spoons being left on the tables, nothing left in the open or laying around, things like that.”

A certain uneasiness pervades within the northern Kent County station, however.

“Everybody is scared, nervous,” Mr. Hudson said. “If you cough everyone asks ‘Are you sick or just clearing your throat?’ “

Dover Fire Department Deputy Chief Michael J. O’Connor Jr. noted that the company has access to St Francis EMS’ biomist decontamination unit if need. Increased cleanliness from within is a must, he said.

The Dover FD has an increased overall awareness of the situation and added extra personal safety equipment to units.

“The chief has been working with his line staff to formulate a policy limiting crew exposure on calls and our dispatch is vetting the calls as much as possible when they are taking the call in an attempt to limit our exposures as well,” Mr. O’Connor said.

Stay home if needed

Members are taking any signs of distress seriously Cheswold Volunteer Fire Company spokesman Tucker Dempsey said.

“Members have been advised to stay home if they develop any symptoms,” Mr. Dempsey said. “As much as we need everyone to respond to calls, it would be disastrous for us to have a few go down for an extended period of time due to illness spread in the station.

At least temporarily, only a qualified driver and certified Emergency Medical Technical can ride on Cheswold’s ambulance calls; that’s standard practice, but other members sometimes ride along to assist or students take part to gain experience.

On Monday night, Cheswold restricted station access to only members, other authorized first responders, and approved vendors.

“We have instituted disinfectant policies for the apparatus after calls, bunk rooms, restrooms, and other areas of the station where we actively congregate,” Mr. Dempsey said.

Harrington Fire Company spokesman Earl K. Brode reported that, “As far as fire responses we are doing those as normal and just using the recommended precautions if we are in contact with anyone.”

The Delaware Fire School won’t hold any classes up to March 29 and will continue to monitor conditions and evaluate the schedule as necessary. More information is available online at statefireschool.delaware.gov.

Assistant State Fire Marshal Michael G. Chionchio said investigators remain in the field handling cases and “we gotta keep pushing ahead with 100 percent service for all of the public.”

The office has remained in close contact with the Delaware Emergency Management Agency along with following Gov. John Carney’s directives and working with out of state agencies for shared information.

Delaware pulls together

Fire Marshal’s office civilian technical services staff continue to review new construction and renovation, code standards and fire alarms, among other operations, Mr. Chionchio said.

“We’re going to get through this,” Mr. Chionchio said. “Delaware’s a very small state and everything is very closely tied together from the state to local levels.

“No matter how small the town or big the city, we’re all working with and looking out for each other.”

On Tuesday, Dover Police announced several strategies to address coronavirus-related safety issues. The department will continue to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week with modified operations.

More information is available online at doverpolice.org.

In Milford, the Carlisle Fire Company is taking multiple precautions for medical assists, automatic fire alarms and structure fire responses, along with motor vehicle accidents. Full protocols are posted online at carlisle42.com.

The procedures centered around limiting the number of members in close contact with a response, decontamination efforts and use of safety equipment to mitigate direct exposure.


Helpful Coronavirus links

Delaware Division of Health Coronavirus Page
CDC: About the Coronavirus Disease 2019
CDC: What to do if You Are Sick
Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center
AP News Coronavirus Coverage
Reopening Delaware: Resources for Businesses
Delaware Phase 2 guidance

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