For First Responders Amid the Coronavirus, Being Safe Is Second Nature

First responders are following the guidelines from the CDC like everyone else about how to avoid becoming infected with the coronavirus, but diligence and using and disposing of equipment properly is critical.

by Jim McKay / March 12, 2020
A Servpro cleaning worker has his respirator mask sprayed down Thursday, March 12, 2020, as he gets ready for a break from his work cleaning inside the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the coronavirus outbreak in Washington state. For most people, the virus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some it can cause more severe illness. AP

First responders, especially EMS and fire and even police, encounter people daily as part of their jobs and are among those at high risk of coming in contact with people infected with the novel coronavirus.

In Washington state, more than two dozen firefighters and two police officers have been quarantined after possibly being exposed to the virus. It is critical that first responders stay healthy, so what are the protocols or guidelines in place to keep them working?

“The guidelines are coming from the CDC and the World Health Organization, and that’s where we should be getting the information,” said Teri Smith, President of the International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM).

But the protocols don’t necessarily change when there is a critical incident or threat, they are just heightened.

“Our goal is to minimize the spread of COVID-19, and there’s quite a bit that can be done, but the most important thing that people can do is wash hands and stay home if you’re sick,” Smith said. “We’re working closely with our response agencies here locally (Kansas) to make sure they understand that they know what protection they can do to minimize risk associated with contacting something.”

The protocols for first responders are largely the same as for the general population — staying home if you’re sick — and they are built in to the first responder practices, according to Andrew McGuire, who is a certified paramedic in the state of New York and a licensed paramedic in Connecticut. He’s also a fire and emergency management consultant in the Risk and Emergency Management Division for Jensen Hughes.

“In EMS and all health care, we practice what they call universal precautions, where if somebody is coughing or sneezing or they don’t look well, we assume that they have one of these infectious diseases, and so we take the precautions necessary,” he said.

That includes wearing an N95 respirator mask that has been fitted and tested beforehand and using it when dealing with someone who may have symptoms of an infectious disease. It’s important to use the mask properly and dispose of it when finished.

A danger with this equipment is overuse. A mask can become ineffective if used for too long. Overuse of masks and other equipment could lead to a shortage as well. “This can absolutely happen because what ‘we’re seeing across the country is that everyone is in this panic mode and reaching out and buying supplies from any source,” McGuire said.

He said the only people who should be using masks are, one: patients who are sick, who should be wearing a simple surgical mask and, two: those going into an environment that includes sick people.

He said preparedness amounts to continuing to do the things that are done daily to stay safe, and concentrating on doing them extremely well.

“In any disaster or emergency response, you don’t want to create a policy that’s going to be very different from your day-to-day actions or policies, because if it’s too different, people won’t remember, it won’t become second nature.” 

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