PA Responders Concerned About Training, Supplies

March 22, 2020
Fewer opportunities to train and concerns about supplies are among many issues Erie County's responders are dealing with amid the COVID-19 outbreak.

Fewer opportunities to train and concerns about the availability of supplies are among many issues that Erie County's volunteer fire and emergency medical service departments are dealing with in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

But while in one respect a lot has changed, a lot remains the same for departments that are still sending crews to fire, medical and other emergencies, said Jim Rosenbaum, assistant chief of the West Ridge Fire Department in Millcreek Township.

"We are, of course, being more vigilant in the use of universal precautions, having and using adequate personal protection equipment. And, of course, any people we come in contact with who face a general illness situation, we're trying to question them very much like the 911 center, about recent travel and so forth," Rosenbaum said. "We're taking precautions as much as we can."

In some cases, the volunteer departments are limiting the types of medical calls they respond to.

The Perry Hi-Way Hose Co. in Summit Township has stopped sending its volunteer members on minor medical calls and instead sends only members of the department's paid staff to those calls, Chief Kip Hayford said. Volunteer members will still respond with paid staff to more serious medical calls such as a traumatic injury or cardiac arrest, and will continue to respond to fires and vehicle crashes, Hayford said.

The volunteers will also respond if paid staff seek additional manpower at a minor medical call, he said.

Hayford said the idea behind the move is to stop the potential spread of the virus if crews were to come into contact with it.

"We're just looking to protect the volunteers," he said. "It also cuts back on the use of supplies, and we figure there could be a shortage of supplies at some point."

The Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department has set up guidelines in an effort to minimize the risk to its volunteer members and part-time staff by limiting the number of people who respond to calls that might have the potential for COVID-19 exposure, Fire Chief Patrick Davis said.

Davis said the department is also "greatly encouraging" its members to self-isolate who believe they were exposed to the virus or who have an illness-related issue.

One of the department's greatest concerns, as a small and close-knit fire department, is that if someone comes in contact with the virus it could quickly spread to the entire department, he said.

"It kind of goes against everything we're about, but we're just trying to separate each other so we don't take everyone out in one fell swoop," Davis said. "One thing we don't have is a next shift coming in, so to speak. That's any volunteer department in the area, really in the state. Not many out there have tons and tons of active members."

Concerns about the virus spreading through an entire department also played a big role in the decision by Millcreek Township's five volunteer departments to scale back the types of medical calls its crews will respond to with the Millcreek Paramedic Service. They are still going to major medical calls, but will only respond to minor calls involving illness if the paramedic service requests assistance.

Rosenbaum said some people have misconstrued the move to assume the departments are no longer going on any ambulance call, when in fact the decision was made to "throttle back" on calls dealing with patients reporting general flu-like symptoms or ill patients.

"We just have to be very careful we don't end up with having one person come down with a presumptive positive or a confirmed case. We would have to quarantine everyone," said Rosenbaum, who is also president of the Millcreek Township Fire Chiefs Association. "This could close down a single fire station, and with the manpower situation as it is, it wouldn't take a whole lot to completely deplete our entire force."

Area fire officials say they are doing a lot more cleaning and disinfecting and are rigorously following other recommended steps to prevent the virus from spreading, including regularly washing their hands and keeping safe distances from others.

"A lot of it is extra precautions, having enough cleaning supplies, when a call comes into 911 asking questions," said Dave Meehl, chief of the Crescent and Fuller hose companies in North East. "But our calls are handled like always. That's not going to change."

One of the challenges that Meehl said his departments face is in setting up training. He said guidelines from health organizations and other agencies recommending avoiding large groups to prevent the spread of the virus has led to the cancellation of training classes across Erie County.

"Even our drills, we can't have big drills because there would be too many people," he said.

Davis said officials in the Edinboro Volunteer Fire Department have discussed possibly doing training in shifts. But with the approach of warmer weather, he said much of the training will soon occur outdoors and will allow firefighters to train together while following social distancing rules.

"Basically, we're not doing much differently. Trying to use good common sense and weather the storm," he said.


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