Thousands of firefighters, instructors and vendors attended the first annual Firehouse World Exposition and Conference in San Diego, California this week.
The event began Sunday with hands-on training courses on topics ranging from fireground survival tactics to emergency vehicle operations. Instructors included Firehouse.Com contributors John J. Salka, Battalion Chief at FDNY, and University of Extrication writer Ron Moore, Fire Training Manager at the Plano, TX FD. The event also hosted over 75 classroom sessions Tuesday through Thursday.
The show floor and classroom sessions officially kicked off Tuesday morning after the opening ceremonies, which began with video footage of massive fire scenes, and emotional footage from the Worcester tragedy, the collapse of the World Trade Center, and other events. The video was followed by bag pipers and the singing of the national anthem.
A few presenters were unable to attend the event because they were held back by major snow storms on the East Coast, including the planned keynote speaker Jerome Hauer, Director of the Office of Public Health Emergency Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. In his place there was a presentation by John Sinclair, deputy chief of Central Pierce Fire and Rescue in Washington state, and secretary of the EMS section of the International Association of Fire Chiefs.
Sinclair discussed the threat of a smallpox outbreak and the decision firefighters will soon face about whether to get vaccinated.
"There are some very bad people in the world and we know that they have smallpox," he said.
Sinclair said it is imperative that fire departments decide soon how they will handle the presidential directive on smallpox vaccinations. Phase 1 of the directive, to vaccinate the military, is already underway, and Phase 2, to vaccinate fire, EMS and police officials is slated to begin in May. He said the vaccine will not be mandatory, and officials expect most fire departments to have a response of about 50/50.
"You need to have these discussions immediately about how you're going to do this," he said.
The threat of a smallpox outbreak is very real and the government has spent millions in preparation for such an attack, Sinclair said. There is enough of the vaccine for everyone in the country and it can reach any part of the U.S. within hours.
"One case of smallpox any place in the world will be a world health emergency," he said.
Although the disease was officially eradicated in nature by 1980, several countries have access to a weaponized version, Sinclair said. It is unclear what happened to the massive amounts of smallpox once manufactured by the former Soviet Union's bio-weapons program, but it is believed to be in countries including Iraq and North Korea.
Sinclair discussed several factors that firefighters should consider as they decide whether or not to get vaccinated. He said new data shows a low complication rate, and the vaccine will protect 95 percent of the people exposed to smallpox. Tens of thousands in the military have already been vaccinated and so far there were only two people with serious complications, both due to previous medical conditions. Both were treated with antibiotics and recovered, he said.
However, adverse reactions can range from minor headaches and fever, to death.
Sinclair brought the reality of smallpox to life with old photos of people who had the disease. Although the mortality rate for smallpox used to be 20 to 40 percent, officials estimate that it would be higher if it came back today because we now have a large immuno-suppressed population, which includes people with HIV and organ transplants.
For those who don't immediately opt for a vaccine, Sinclair said if you become infected, you can still get the vaccine within three to four days and get full protection from the disease, or within three to seven days and get partial protection, because smallpox has an incubation period.
He said some people should not be vaccinated for medical reasons, including people with certain illnesses, those who have been on steroids for more than two weeks, or those who expect to be pregnant soon or living with someone pregnant.
Some fire departments are talking about renting an apartment for anyone who needs to stay away from their family after getting vaccinated, and some are talking about whether to do HIV testing as well, because anyone with HIV should not get the vaccine.
Firefighters also need to be instructed about how to care for the wound site after getting the vaccine. One frightening photo showed a child who got a massive smallpox infection all over his face because the disease was transferred from a parent's wound site.
Sinclair stressed that fire departments must educate firefighters about the smallpox vaccine so that they understand it and get it if they are eligible.
"We go out every day of our lives, and we fight fire. We know the risks, these are the unknowns," he said. "One of the greatest tragedies would be if we have a lot of people die because of some virus we don't really understand."
For further information on the smallpox vaccine, Sinclair recommends visiting the following web sites: