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The first priority for any fire department during a pandemic flu period is to protect the health of its firefighters. One method is to provide firefighters with a facemask, not the facepiece from self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). Typically, they look like surgical masks. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the N-95 disposable filter mask while the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) recommends the P-100 disposable filter mask.
What fire departments should be doing is planning now. The plan should include such items as how to protect your firefighters. Start with reviewing National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1581 â€” Standard on Fire Department Infection Control program (chapters 5 and 6). Your plan should address how your department will deal with an increased call volume, excessive absenteeism or supply interruptions.
What happens if you suspect someone has avian flu in a crowded closed area with other people such as an airplane, train, subway car or classroom? Does your plan include quarantining everyone who may have been exposed? Your plan should also include who in your community has the authority to declare a public health emergency. Fire departments should also plan with law enforcement to maintain law and order. If you remember last year, when there was a flu vaccine shortage, there was some chaos at vaccination sites as people lined up to get what little vaccine was available.
Your plan should also include working with the local health department to make sure firefighters are vaccinated and that surveillance is in place to monitor the health of the community. Make sure psychological support services are available for firefighters who may be working long hours or handling a higher than usual amount of deaths. Fire departments, in their plan, should also create an incident command system following the National Incident Management System (NIMS) format in the event the pandemic flu becomes a reality.
If your fire department transports, are decontamination procedures in place for cleaning an ambulance after transporting a suspected avian flu patient? Finally, hopefully not, but what do you do if a firefighter dies? Is it a line-of-duty death? Can it be proven the firefighter contracted the flu while on the job? These, plus many more other issues will confront your fire department if avian flu becomes a pandemic.
Only through proper planning, anticipating possible scenarios, and an informed and protected workforce will the challenges your department faces during a pandemic be minimized.
GARY LUDWIG, MS, EMT-P, a FirehouseÂ® contributing editor, is a deputy fire chief with 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.