Firefighter safety a top concern amid a COVID-19 pandemic

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It’s a busy evening at Minneapolis Fire Station 6. Calls are coming in, sometimes just minutes apart. 

“It’s definitely a risk when all these guys go out to a call,” says Dominic Rocha. “You just never know what you’ll run into.”

Besides smoke and fire, crews like this face a new, invisible enemy: COVID-19. 

“You worry about possibly contracting the virus,” declares Assistant Chief Bryan Tyner. “I think more so, you think about possibly bringing the virus home to your family.”

This station, with nine to 10 firefighters per shift, is rarely idle, running on 3000 to 4000 calls a year. Gear like Tyvek suits, goggles and gloves are now standard equipment. 

New protocols are in place to protect firefighters responding to the almost inevitable: a call involving a potential COVID-19 case. 

“Instead of sending a whole crew, with all the equipment and everything, we may send in just one person to question the patient,” Tyner says. “Now we’re wearing eye protection, we’re wearing masks, we’re wearing gloves.”

At a fire call, each firefighter will put on a self-contained breathing apparatus, or SCBA, for short. Designed to provide breathable air under hazardous conditions, the device, it turns out, protects against COVID-19 contamination as well. 

“In that case, they’re breathing air from the bottle (tank),” Tyner explains. “They’re completely encapsulated from the outside environment, so they should be pretty safe. Matter of fact, that’s probably the safest we can be in terms of getting in contact with COVID patients.” 

Rocha been on the job for about a month and has never been on a shift where he doesn’t have to think about COVID-19 precautions. 

“There is some stress to it, but it’s part of the job,” he says. “I understood when I signed up for this, when I put in my application, that there was risk.”

Scrubbing every surface in the fire hall constantly and staying aware of social distancing is part of his job now.

“We try to stay a little bit apart, six feet or more when we eat,” he says. “We spend time in different parts of the station.”

Each firefighter now has his or her own sleeping quarters. 

Everyone on shift is required to wear a protective mask, except when they are bunking in their own room. 

After every run, firefighters remove their turnout gear— the heavy coat and pants designed to protect them from fire and heat— and place them in an outside compartment on each fire engine. 

When they arrive back at the station, the gear is scrubbed down in a heavy-duty washing machine called an extractor. Every self-contained breathing apparatus is also washed out. 

“We’ve really stepped it up in terms of trying to protect ourselves and protect the public,” Tyner says. 

As an added safety measure, each fire truck is equipped with a no-contact infrared thermometer. Each firefighter’s temperature is checked when he or she starts a shift. 

Rocha says in the back of their minds is the first firefighter in the Minneapolis Fire Department to have tested positive for the virus.

“I don’t know… whether he got it on the job or not. From what I understand, he recovered and is doing well,” Tyner says. 

He says he can’t comment on whether the affected firefighter is back at work.

“We’re one family here, so now we’re not around each other as much,” says Rocha. “We distance ourselves so that it takes a little bit of that away for me. It’s definitely a whole new world, yeah.”