Firefighters across the province will no longer attend most medical calls amid the COVID-19 outbreak, leaving some rural Nova Scotians facing the potential of a longer wait in a health emergency.
On Monday, Emergency Health Services sent a memo to its Medical First Response agencies, which include all fire departments.
Firefighters will no longer respond to medical calls unless there is a vehicle crash, or paramedics request help moving a patient from the scene to the ambulance.
This can apply to a motor vehicle collision, or other scenarios where removing a patient might be challenging.
Due to COVID-19, Emergency Health Services said it's become increasingly difficult to determine the proper infection prevention and control requirements for medical first response.
"That's why we opted to move to a modified response model across the province — to protect the MFR community and all Nova Scotians," EHS spokesperson Remo Zaccagna said in an email Tuesday.
The agencies are mostly volunteer, with some professional, according to EHS, along with "non-traditional community volunteer groups."
Medical calls represent a "vast number" of their regular duties, said Peter Stephens, the medical first response co-ordinator for Big Tancook Island, Nova Scotia's South Shore.
"We're here to serve the community, but the rules are the rules," he said.
Since there's no ambulance on the island, the local team of firefighters usually responds to medical emergencies in about 10 minutes.
The firefighters would provide medical help if needed and then take people to the mainland to await paramedics, or air transport, to arrive.
Under this new model, Stephens said it will now take up to an hour for people on the island to get emergency service. Medical first members will still drive people to meet paramedics off-island, but that's it.
Although he was initially concerned, Stephens said this is the best way to keep firefighters safe since they aren't properly trained with protective masks and gloves.
If they dealt with someone who had COVID-19, they could be exposed and present a risk to their families, he said.
A look at the numbers also put the seriousness of the pandemic into perspective for him, Stephens said. With a two per cent mortality rate, if the virus spread unchecked, it could amount to thousands of Nova Scotians dying.
"I think EHS, with their protocols, whether we agree with them or not, is doing their best to try and get this under control," Stephens said.
"If we can kill the incubation period with … reducing contact, you know what, we're saving lives indirectly."
When asked why EHS ordered fire departments to restrict medical calls, instead of just situations involving cases related to COVID-19, Zaccagna said the risk of exposure is still "too big."
For those in rural areas used to seeing firefighters show up first, Zaccagna said ambulances are "strategically spread out across the province and the system constantly adjusts to system call demands. If someone calls 911, paramedics will get to them."
'This is serious'
Daniel Gaudet, Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia president, said he hopes citizens won't be negatively impacted, but firefighters just want to help their communities.
"But in a case like this, maybe it's time that we step back and realize that this is serious, and we need to take every precaution," he said.
From a municipal perspective, Halifax spokesperson Brynn Budden said Halifax Regional Fire and Emergency has received the same memo, and recognizes the move will protect firefighter safety.
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