Fireplace officers declare success in preventing COVID-19 whereas preventing fires

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Firefighters say they were able to curb the spread of COVID-19 in crews through sensible measures as well as some precautionary measures specific to their job, although it made their job more difficult at times.

File photo courtesy of US Forest Service

WASHINGTON – Fighting forest fires while fighting the COVID-19 pandemic “definitely added a new challenge” to Arizona firefighters this year, but it’s a challenge many claim to have been facing.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but calls to fire departments across the state revealed that most officers only reported a handful of positive test results about their crews – and they believe many of them came from off-job exposure.

“We got one or two people from a Hotshot (Wildfire) crew test positive, but the rest of the crew tested negative,” said Todd Abel, Wildlands and battalion chief, Central Arizona Fire and Medical Authority. “This is just my personal experience, there weren’t many positive cases during a mission and only a few of them after the mission.”

Jayson Coil, assistant chief of operations for the Sedona Fire District, said Arizona firefighters had “done an excellent job” balancing COVID-19 protocols and fire-fighting duties.

“We urge people to change their health behavior in a difficult environment and we need to take these environmental factors into account,” said Coil. “The only way we can do this together is to continue to focus on the opportunities that we know are effective in reducing transmission (of COVID-19).”

These methods included precautions recommended for everyone, such as wearing masks and social distancing, as well as some precautions specific to firefighters like disinfecting equipment on site and sleeping 6 feet away in fire stations and camps.

“When it comes to forest fires, we try to isolate, we do daily health checks,” said Brian Katrales, captain and information officer for the Highlands Fire District in Flagstaff.

He said screenings include regular temperature checks on firefighters, as well as checking exposure to people known to have the coronavirus.

“We also try to isolate ourselves as much as possible during forest fires,” he said. “We try to be as self-sufficient as possible.”

The changes came during one of the busiest forest fire seasons in recent years, which made safety all the more difficult.

Abel said the pandemic “definitely added a new challenge to a very complex situation when it comes to fighting fires in the wild”. While social distancing and the wearing of masks have successfully contained the spread of the virus, they can also disrupt the communications necessary to plan and conduct forest fire operations.

“We are trying very proactively to draw this common operational picture so that everyone knows why we are doing what we are doing and what the end phase should look like,” said Abel. “Adding COVID, with social distancing and wearing the mask, took away the ability to ensure that the common operational image … was common among all of us.”

Not all preventive measures took place on site. Goodyear fire chief Paul Luizzi said his department disinfects the surfaces of fire stations and takes firefighters’ temperatures twice a day. The crews also disinfect the equipment on site in the event of fire calls to avoid that contaminated equipment is brought back to a station.

Ashley Losch, Glendale Fire’s public information officer, said getting enough personal protective equipment for the city’s firefighters was a priority as the pandemic begins.

“Make sure we have enough PPE for everyone to walk around … masks and robes, eye protection,” said Losch of the department’s initial efforts. “Make sure we deconstruct (decontaminate) appropriately after a call.”

She said these efforts, in addition to recent mask regulations, “prevented us from seeing large numbers in our department as well.”

Changes have been made not only in the wilderness, but also in house fires and medical emergencies, according to Losch. The crew of four, who normally respond to medical or fire calls, will continue to be deployed, she said, but the entire crew does not need to enter the home of a known COVID-19 patient.

“I think our exposure levels can change if a full crew may not come into the home of a known COVID-19 patient,” Losch said. “If we can minimize that exposure, we will.”

Adam Hoster, assistant chief of fire for Scottsdale, said his department’s contact tracing showed that the most positive test results for firefighters often occur when that person is “out with family or friends.” Of the “fewer than 10” positive COVID-19 tests since the pandemic began, “a majority of them were not signed on-the-job,” he said.

As Losch said Hoster, an important element for his department is ensuring an “excess of N-95 masks, gloves, clothes and eye protection” for the crews.

“Since then (the start of COVID-19) we have also industrially cleaned all of our fire stations,” said Hoster. “I don’t want to say we’re back to normal, but we’re damn close.”

One option that wasn’t on the table for any of the firefighters was to cut back on duty.

“We still have a job to do, we still have to serve the public, we still have to do it safely, and it’s important that the right number of people respond to incidents that require four people,” Losch said .

Luizzi emphasized the importance of transparency in both the Goodyear fire department and the community.

“Really involve as many department members as possible to let them know, understand how and why we are making these changes to a decision. That communication is definitely key during the pandemic, ”said Luizzi.

Because, as he notes, “we still do car seat inspections.”

Additional articles from Cronkite News can be found at cronkitenews.azpbs.org.

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