What's changed?: Emergency response lessons learned during the pandemic

·5 min read
Essex-Windsor EMS Chief says his biggest lesson learned from the pandemic is that it's important to be able to quickly adapt and change. (CBC - image credit)
Essex-Windsor EMS Chief says his biggest lesson learned from the pandemic is that it's important to be able to quickly adapt and change. (CBC - image credit)

For more than a year now, emergency responders have had to reshape how they operate because of the evolving COVID-19 pandemic, which has placed a tremendous amount of weight on their shoulders.

"I think the lesson learned is we, as a society, have to be able to adapt and change at a moment's notice with the pandemic," said Essex-Windsor EMS Chief Bruce Krauter.

"What we did in 2019, we're not going to do again. And if we do do it, it's going to be a long way down the road."

What's changed for Essex-Windsor EMS?

The number one thing that's changed for EMS is the 911 call, according to Krauter. In many cases it's taking longer for ambulance communicators to obtain all the information paramedics need prior to arriving on the scene, compared to before the pandemic.

Since the start of the pandemic, paramedics take a number of extra precuations, from PPE to COVID-19 safety assessments both over the phone and upon arrival.
Since the start of the pandemic, paramedics take a number of extra precuations, from PPE to COVID-19 safety assessments both over the phone and upon arrival.(Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Now, they have a list of questions they need to ask, from recent travel to inquiring about symptoms — a challenging task during an emergency situation.

"Asking people over the phone, while these people are asking to get help can be very labour intensive, very confusing, but it's needed for the safety of both the responder and patients," Krauter said.

This helps determine what kind of personal protective equipment (PPE) is needed at that particular scene and what that looks like has also evolved over time.

In early 2020, Krauter explained, crews would put on full PPE for every single call, including a full respirator mask, goggles, gowns, gloves.

"Nowadays, if they get dispatched to a call and the patient has been determined to be COVID negative, it's just a surgical mask and safety glasses, so that reduces time," he said.

Moving forward, Krauter said they'll be upgrading from half-face respirators to full-face respirators in the near future.

Further to that, crews also perform a scene assessment upon arrival, which sometimes means it takes longer than normal to safely enter a home or a scene, Krauter said.

Scene assessment includes another round of COVID-19 questions to determine if more PPE is required, what equipment is needed, and determining whether or not the person paramedics are helping might be at risk of having COVID-19.

That said, there's been a slight increase to the overall time it took for paramedics to arrive on the scene following a 911 call in 2020 compared to 2019 — but just by a fraction of a minute. The average call time in 2020 was just under eight minutes.

Meanwhile, EMS call volume saw a 10 per cent decrease in calls from 2019 to 2020.

What's changed for Windsor Fire?

Windsor Fire & Rescue Services Chief Steve Laforet said one of the key changes to emergency responses for fire officials is that they've adjusted their approach once they arrive on scene.

For example, if they're responding to an alarm in a building, instead of sending all responding crews inside to investigate, just the first crew will go in, while the other crews wait outside.

"That just limited the number of people that we came in contact with," Laforet said.

It's a similar approach when responding to a medical call.

"Rather than have a team of two assess the patient right away we would just use a more cautious approach and have one person come in that ... close personal contact at first," he said.

Laforet added that if another emergency agency has arrived to a scene before the firefighters, they might hang back to see whether or not they're needed.

The relationship between all three services has been "fantastic," according to Laforet.

"No one is trying to keep anybody's resources there longer than they need to be."

No changes have been made when it comes to the number of vehicles or the amount of resources sent to particular calls.

Aside from firefighters' normal protective gear, they're also now wearing face masks all the time — something that Laforet said is a big takeaway from the past year.

"We know that we can rely on PPE and that it works," he said.

Windsor Fire saw a 13.2 per cent decline in the number of calls between 2019 and 2020, but response times barely changed with 90 per cent of calls being responded to within 6 minutes and 37 seconds for 2020.

What's changed for Windsor Police?

Windsor Police Service saw the most dramatic change in response times between 2019 and 2020. In 2019, the average response time between March and December was 10.5 minutes. In 2020, the average response time between January and October was 8.6 minutes.

Public information officer Const. Darius Goze chalks it up to a decrease in overall call volume, which went down by six per cent from 2019 to 2020.

"There's less people on the streets, there's less cars, more people at home, so all of that stuff I think have contributed to allowing more officers available for certain types of calls," he said.

Other things that changed during the pandemic is a greater use of the service's online reporting system, as well as pre-arrival call protocols, which ask for more information of callers so that police are better prepared upon arrival.

"It's a faster method of dealing with callers," Goze said.

Constable Darius Goze, public information officer with the Windsor Police Service says that even though response times were quicker in 2020, not much has changed in terms of emergency response protocol for police.
Constable Darius Goze, public information officer with the Windsor Police Service says that even though response times were quicker in 2020, not much has changed in terms of emergency response protocol for police.(CBC)

"So that means they spend less time on these calls and allows them to have more time to respond to other more serious calls."

Goze added that other response protocols remain largely consistent with what they were before COVID-19.

Lessons learned

While both Laforet and Krauter said there are many takeaways from the past pandemic year, they both point out what a major toll it's taken on everyone.

Krauter said he and his team are getting tired.

"I'm going to speak on behalf of not just EMS and paramedics — but the entire health care system is getting tired. We're at the point of — we want this over with, we want to get off this roller coaster,"he said.

The biggest lesson he's learned?

"Be patient, be kind and be able to adapt to change."