Physical distancing and enhanced hygiene practices are the new normal as the Guelph Fire Department learns to adjust to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Every time a firefighter goes to a call for service there is a risk of exposure to COVID-19 from the public or a chance to cross-contaminate from another scene, said fire chief Dave Elloway.
“We never know what is going to come through the door the next time the phone rings or that we are required to go out,” said Elloway. "Just because those individuals need help when you go out to a motor vehicle collision you still need to be smart about what you are going to do.
"We are encouraging people who don’t have to go anywhere — please don’t."
Firefighters interacting with people at a scene may be asking more questions than usual.
“They might ask ‘before I put my hands on you is there something I should know here?’” said Elloway. “It may seem like we’re delaying the response, but we’re actually mitigating the risk for everyone.”
Firefighters in Guelph are constantly training and that often brings companies from a number of different fire stations together. For now, all training is being done within each fire station and firefighters and staff are not travelling to other stations, whenever possible.
“As much as we want to train together as a team, we are respecting the fact that we need that physical distance,” said Elloway. “There’s still training going on — we can’t survive if we don’t have that — we just changed how we are doing it to respect the physical distancing that’s required.”
“We really need people to pay attention to the fact that we can do things in a different manner, we don’t always have to be physically there with someone — we can call them, we can talk to them via videoconferencing tools — there’s all kinds of things available to us to close that social distance but keep that physical distance," said Elloway.
Within each station, firefighters and staff are being asked to be mindful of physical space and are being asked to keep their distance whenever possible. That becomes more difficult when firefighters move to the enclosed space of a firetruck.
Elloway said the key is cleanliness and ensuring no one shares equipment.
“One of the things we have done is to institute a much different cleaning regimen than what we had previously,” he said.
Like everybody, a big part of that is effort revolves around hand hygiene.
“That’s the thing that’s going to keep us safe in the long run here," he said.
Firefighters work a single 24-hour shift and then have multiple days off until the next time they come in. Elloway said this offers the firefighters more time off and lessens their exposure travelling back and forth for work.
“One of the things you will find in other areas of the country is some of the fire departments are now deploying on 24 hour shifts to reduce the number of times members are coming in to work, where they may have been on a 12-hour shift before,” he said. “You spend more time with your family — which is good for them — but it reduces that exposure and that risk.”
Elloway said the department is mostly responding to the same types of calls it always has, but may take a step back in certain situations where it would previously have been supporting paramedics.
“For example, going into a long-term care facility or a retirement home — because we have to look at that as those individuals as being the most vulnerable by age and by potential breathing compromises, etcetera — the last thing we would want to do is cross-contaminate something and bring something into an environment that we didn’t have to, said Elloway.
“We are, quite frankly, limiting our interaction,” said Elloway. ”Where we may have gone to assist with a paramedic in the past for something like that, that is something we have stepped back a little bit from because it is a risk to the person we are providing the service to.”
The department is also doing less of its fire prevention efforts in the community, like risk assessments and familiarization tours in buildings. Because schools are not currently in session, fire prevention officers are also not doing fire safety training for children in the community.
“A lot of the things we have done proactively in the community, we have simply limited the activity for the time being. We will pick it up again later when this has passed,” said Elloway.