CAFC: Fire departments in the age of COVID-19 and other pandemics
March 13, 2020 By Tina Saryeddine, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs
March 13, 2020, Ottawa — In the age of COVID-19 and building on our experiences from SARS and H1N1, it becomes particularly important to remind our policy leaders what we in the fire sector take for granted – that is in some respects, the name “fire” department may be a misnomer. Fire departments are all hazard responders. This includes emergency medical calls.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC) is participating with other national associations as part of a critical infrastructure network led by Public Safety Canada. Various federal entities from Public Health Agency of Canada to the Government Operations Centre provide updates to national associations like the CAFC, and CAFC in turn has developed a webpage to help fan out the relevant information.
However, we also play an important role in ensuring that key messages from the fire sector are heard. As such, a soon to be released report from the CAFC will help individuals outside the sector understand that beyond fire suppression and across a variety of provinces and types of fire departments, up to 50 per cent of a department’s case volume can be emergency medical response and an additional 30 per cent all hazard response from dangerous goods to floods and climate disasters, to rail and search and rescue.
Particularly, as it pertains to the emergency medical response, we remind our colleagues in public health and government, that the fire sector is impacted in three ways: (1) it is in fact part of a tiered response in what is otherwise a provincially funded health system, (2) department career and volunteer firefighters may be responding to individuals infected and (3), without proper equipment there is dual exposure of career and volunteer firefighters from both patient contact and general transmission. This can have a cascading effect on business continuity plans and the availability of first responders to respond to all types of other calls.
Why does this happen? There are three reasons for which fire departments can become engaged in medical response, the most obvious is that some fire departments are joint paramedic-fire departments and the same individuals may be trained in both professions. In other cases, pressures on the healthcare system encompass fire departments as part of a tiered medical response, since training and some skills sets even in non-paramedic fire departments will have some overlap. This is particularly true for volunteer firefighters who may come from a variety of backgrounds including medicine, nursing, policing, paramedicine, etc.
What does this mean for pandemic planning? There are at least three considerations based on our learnings from H1N1, SARS and now the early stages of COVID-19. First, we need to plan for the country’s 156,000 career and volunteer firefighters responding potentially to infected individuals. They need to be equipped for a tiered response. This means having the right level masks and items needed for patients as well as their own protective gear. Protective gear will include gloves, masks for responders, gowns, sanitizers, eye guards, and vaccines if and when available.
It should be noted that at this time, there are no common national standards for emergency medical response for fire departments from emergency dispatch although several municipalities and provinces have taken leadership in this regard. It should also be noted that with fire departments being volunteer and/or part of municipalities, there may or may not be the coordination required to link their needs into the provincial and federal bulk purchasing and planning considerations that are ongoing.
This is where at a future point a national fire advisor secretariat similar to the US fire administration and FEMA could allow for important coordination, the development of standards and guidelines, and collaborating with and across federal departments becomes particularly important.
Tina Saryeddine, PhD, MHA, CHE is the Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs. For more information about the CAFC please visit www.cafc.ca
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