P.E.I. firefighters taking medical calls but adding precautions due to COVID-19

The P.E.I. Firefighters Association is looking at ways to keep firefighters safe during the COVID-19 outbreak.

A conference call was held Tuesday with government officials and the association and one of the things discussed was a decision Nova Scotia has made to not send firefighters out on medical calls due to the risk of them becoming infected.

However, P.E.I. firefighters will still be going on medical calls, says Gerard McMahon, president of the P.E.I. Firefighters Association and a volunteer firefighter with the Charlottetown fire department.

"Representatives from all over P.E.I. don't want to leave their community without access to quick medical first responder coverage," he said.

"If an ambulance is busy in another community or delayed the local fire department can get there quickly and start any medical things before the paramedics arrive."

McMahon said quick medical responses are needed especially in situations where someone goes into cardiac arrest.

He said the worry factored into the decision in Nova Scotia is a firefighter could become infected with COVID-19 and give it to the rest of the members of the unit. But he said firefighters on the Island are taking precautions.

"When you call 911 they go through a screening tool to know if you have a cough, if you have a cold, if you have traveled outside the country in the last 14 days. They get a heads-up if there is a possible COVID issue," he said.

If the person didn't go through the screening process with dispatch then firefighters will ask the same questions once they arrive, from a safe distance away, McMahon said.

Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters

Each fire department on the Island has come up with its own protocol on how to deal with a situation involving COVID-19 such as only sending two members on medical calls, McMahon said.

"They limit the number of firefighters that enter the building and put on the proper equipment," he said.

"We're in the proper personal protective equipment."

That equipment includes a N95 respirator mask, protective coveralls, rubber gloves, hand sanitizers and face shields to cover eyes. That equipment still allows for a firefighter to use an oxygen tank, McMahon said.

"When the firefighter comes out they have to go through sanitize wash, spray soap all over their gear and equipment and hose down and take off their equipment without contacting anything," he said.

Changes at fire hall

Any time firefighters go out on a call they sanitize the interior and door handles of the truck. They also wipe down the door knobs at the fire station and members are practicing social distancing, McMahon said.

"We all have to stand six feet away so we are all spread around the fire hall."

 Like many essential service workers firefighters need hand sanitizer and McMahon said some is on the way.

Sekisui Diagnostic Chemicals is working with the province to begin producing hand sanitizer in Charlottetown, which will be made available to first responders once they receive the proper containers," he said.

Over the last week call volumes have been down for every fire department and he thinks with many people self-isolating at home they are being extra cautious.

Adding the worry of getting COVID-19 to the risks firefighters already face is "a little scary," McMahon said.

"When you go up the fire hall it's just not quite the same as it normally was because you have to take all those precautions."

McMahon said if you are self-isolated it might be a good time to check the batteries in your smoke detector.

COVID-19: What you need to know

What are the symptoms of COVID-19?

  • Fever.

  • Cough.

  • Tiredness.

But more serious symptoms can develop, including difficulty breathing and pneumonia, which can lead to death.

Health Canada has built a self-assessment tool.

What should I do if I feel sick?

Isolate yourself and call 811. Do not visit an emergency room or urgent care centre to get tested. A health professional at 811 will give you advice and instructions.

How can I protect myself?

  • Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly.

  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth.

  • Clean regularly touched surfaces regularly.

More detailed information on the outbreak is available on the federal government's website.

More COVID-19 stories from CBC P.E.I.