Despite close quarters and exposure risks, firefighters find comfort in coronavirus protocols

As the COVID-19 case count continues to rise across the state, first responders of all kinds will increasingly find themselves at risk of contracting the coronavirus, but perhaps none more than firefighters.

Fire and EMT personnel typically work 48-hour shifts, during which they live and work close to their coworkers. As social distancing becomes the norm, the workers in these departments will still be sleeping alongside one another after coming into contact with people with COVID-19 symptoms. In some cases, this can lead to an outbreak of COVID-19, as happened in Long Beach, California, where 84 firefighters tested positive for the virus.

So far in Missouri, the worst instances of COVID-19 within departments seem to have remained small, with one of the most severe cases occurring in Kansas City, where eight firefighters tested positive and 95 more were quarantined. However, these tactics seemed to have worked to stop the spread.

In Columbia, Assistant Fire Chief Brad Fraizer said that the department has made several changes to protocol that he feels will help keep personnel safe. That includes daily temperature checks and asking people to meet responders outside if they are able. But those precautions don’t change the basic the needs the department addressing, Fraizer said.

“If they do need care of any kind, we’re gonna continue to provide it,” he said. “We’re just gonna have different protective equipment on.”

The department has established three zones for responding to a call, and each zone requires an increased level of protection based on how close the responder is to the patient.

These steps are similar to those being taken elsewhere across the state, including in Jefferson City. Jason Turner, a division chief there, said firefighters are wearing protective equipment and being screened every morning, but he also pointed out that they were expected to be wearing protective equipment even before COVID-19. The department is also performing “door jam surveys,” during which they screen people from a distance before determining their needs.

“I don’t think there’s any concern,” Turner said in regards to increased risk due to COVID-19. He said their response is more about “understanding the risk and making sure to follow protocols.”

Boone County, where the Columbia Fire Department is located, had 194 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Tuesday afternoon, and Cole County, which includes most of the Jefferson City Fire Department’s jurisdiction, had 57, according to the state’s official count. There were more than 14,900 confirmed cases across Missouri.

The Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services is deferring to the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for first responders. The CDC recommends face masks, eye protection, gowns and gloves, but it does not specifically address responders’ living arrangements.

When asked about these arrangements, neither Fraizer or Turner felt they were a problem.

“We have a lot of steps and layers and things in place to really minimize our exposure,” Fraizer said. “(Living arrangements are) always gonna be a concern, but we haven’t seen an issue.”

“I think the measures that we’ve taken seem to be working,” he added.

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