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While scientists rush to produce vaccines, the outbreak of any disease can have a tremendous impact on fire departments. Not only will call volumes increase as a result of more illnesses in the community, but fire department personnel are also subject to contract the virus.
Here's what you can expect: The pandemic will last much longer than most other emergency events and may include "waves" of flu activity separated by months. In each of the 20th century pandemics, a second wave of influenza activity occurred three to 12 months after the first wave.
The number of fire department personnel and other health care workers such as nurses and doctors available to work can be expected to be reduced. Further fire department personnel and medical personnel will be at a higher risk of illness through exposure in the community and in health-care settings. Many will call in sick, while others may have to miss work to care for ill family members.
Resources in many locations could be limited because of how widespread an influenza pandemic would be. Expect hospital beds to fill to capacity and doctors' offices to overflow if everything comes to pass.
Another major issue is the availability of a vaccine. Several vaccines for human and poultry are in various phases of development. However, most are in short supply.
Fire departments should start laying out contingency plans now. It is important to have completed planning and preparedness activities to be able to respond promptly and adequately. Some of those contingency plans can include infection control procedures, proper body isolation procedures, and education on recognizing patients in the early stages of the disease.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) supports pandemic influenza activities in the areas of surveillance ("detection"), vaccine development and production, antiviral stockpiling, research and public health preparedness. In addition, a draft National Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Plan was issued by HHS for public comment in August 2004. To view the draft plan or to obtain more information about pandemic influenza, visit the HHS website.
Gary Ludwig, MS, EMT-P, a Firehouse contributing editor, is deputy chief of EMS in the Memphis, TN, Fire Department. He has 28 years of fire-rescue service experience, and previously served 25 years with the City of St. Louis, retiring as the chief paramedic from the St. Louis Fire Department. Ludwig is vice chairman of the EMS Section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), has a master's degree in business and management, and is a licensed paramedic. He is a frequent speaker at EMS and fire conferences nationally and internationally. He can be reached through his website at www.garyludwig.com.