Iberia Parish Fire District No. 1 Guy Bonin stays busy. Aside from the administrative duties of keeping the parish’s firefighting and rescue efforts funded and managed, he has had to reevaluate the way his crews deal with medical calls in the days of the coronavirus pandemic.
And, like other first responders across the country, having the gear and tools to do the job at hand is a challenge.
“We placed an order last month on the 19th,” he said, looking over the blotter calendar on his desk. “We got a portion of it today, but still not everything that we need.”
Just as medical professionals worldwide have seen an increase in their “burn rate” of personal protective equipment (PPE), Bonin said the new standards for firefighters handling medical calls has increased the demand on hard to get items like N-95 respirators and Tyvek protective suits.
“Some places, like one department near New Orleans, they are getting the gear they need,” he said. “Others, like Bossier and Caddo, they are still fighting to get whatever they can. They still don’t have enough.”
One of the challenges, Bonin said, is that every call is now a potential COVID-19 call. When firefighters respond, they try to minimize their contact with people inside of their homes and, if needed, they don masks, gloves and other gear as necessary before entering the home.
“If a patient is presumptive positive or positive for COVID-19, we have to treat them the same way,” he said. “From the perspective of our crews as first responders, there is no difference between the two. We have to be protected.”
Training Officer Brett Doumit said the standard for entering a residence is to have the most senior person on the call enter alone, in protective gear. If they can, they will have the patient walk outside under their own power, where the responding crew can assist them in the open.
“Once we bring our gear inside a location, we have to decontaminate everything,” Doumit said. “If they can make it outside so we don’t have to bring a gurney into a potentially contaminated area, then that is one less piece of equipment we have to decontaminate later.”
Although the dispatchers listen in on every call to do some advance screening, the information they receive is not always accurate.
“We had one guy call and said he had been taking his temperature regularly and he was not feverish,” Bonin. “I went in, and while talking with him I saw a mechanic’s laser thermometer, something used to measure the temperature of an engine block. I asked him if that was what he was using, and he said yes. So I used the back of my hand to feel the back of his hand. He was burning up.”
Bonin said he immediately donned protective gear and, when techs from Acadian Ambulance arrived, he told them the patient was indeed feverish.
Another step the crews have taken is to set up a separate kit for protective gear that they can take inside a residence without having to bring the full medical response kit into a potentially contaminated area.
“If we bring that full kit in, then we have to decontaminate the whole thing, every piece, every time we bring it in,” Doumit said. “With this, we have two respirator masks and a set of protective goggles, each sealed in a plastic Ziploc. We only have to decontaminate a few things, which means we are ready to respond faster if we have another call.”