OH County Asking for Spare PPE for Firefighters

March 23, 2020
A shortage of personal protective equipment, such as masks, gloves and gowns, has Summit County officials putting out a call to dentists, construction companies and other businesses.

Editor's note: Find Firehouse.com's complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic here.

First responders can't socially distance themselves from a patient, and every call means contact with someone who could be contagious.

The up-close and personal contact is why personal protective equipment (PPE) is so important. Green Fire Chief Jeff Funai said the hard thing isn't treating people — it will be having enough PPE to do it safely.

"We are absolutely capable of dealing with patients of infectious disease," Funai said. "The big problem here is the volume we're likely to face."

Summit County is putting out a call to dentists, construction companies, small businesses and anyone else who has PPE, including masks, swabs, gloves, gowns and whatever people can spare.


COVID-19 hit other countries first. Summit County Director of Public Safety Lori Pesci said Americans have the benefit of seeing what's ahead, but are "behind the eight ball" on resources since many of them went to other places first.

The county is asking people to contact Summit County Public Health to donate. Pesci said the county's Emergency Management Agency will inventory donations and distribute them across the county to health care professionals and first responders.

Funai said the department is already trying to preserve the PPE it has. He said it is hard to know whether manufacturing will pick up, whether coronavirus cases will all hit at once or how fast fire/EMS departments will burn through PPE.

Funai said locally available supplies of PPE dried up the same way that toilet paper and bread flew off store shelves. He said his department is not stocked with PPE for something this major.

"It just is not built for this sudden surge," he said.

Cuyahoga Falls Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martin said the department is focused on staying out in front of the virus, so keeping supplied with PPE will be a must.

"We're as prepared as we can be right now. However, there's shortages of every aspect of PPE," Martin said. "We are actively reaching out to business owners and other entities that might have PPE that we can acquire."

Those donations are important, since Martin said new shipments of masks aren't available. Adding to the difficulty is not knowing how fast crews will burn through PPE, or how long the coronavirus crisis will last.

"This is extremely difficult to try and have to deal with when you consider how long it might go on," Martin said.

Paramedics' first line of defense is gloves, which are worn on every call, but there's a host of other options if needed. Akron Fire District Chief Joseph Natko, who manages the EMS bureau, said the department has a pretty robust protocol it adheres to for exposure.

Natko said personnel have hand, respiratory, eye, and full body protection if needed. Dispatchers' communication with patients informs paramedics on what they'll need.


Many departments have added questions to screen specifically for coronavirus symptoms.

Fire Departments are also preparing for the possibility of their first responders getting sick.

In Columbus, a firefighter/EMT tested positive for COVID-19, the city announced Sunday. The fire station was temporarily out of service for sanitation, and 31 firefighters who had contact with the one who tested positive were evaluated. There were no other known cases in the departments as of Wednesday.

Martin said they are preparing for the potential that the department has a lot of guys get sick.

"If we lose a large number of our workforce, we have to have a plan in place to make sure stations are staffed," Martin said.

Funai said Green Fire has started to make contingency plans, seeing what employees could possibly move shifts, and if it can bring new hires up to speed quickly.

Many fire departments have asked personnel not directly in contact with patients to practice social distancing, both in the field and in the station. Disinfecting the station and decontaminating the squad after calls has always been a priority, the departments said.

Akron Fire Lt. Sierjie Lash said dealing with infectious diseases is nothing new for fire departments. Tuberculosis, HIV and other diseases are things they look out for already. The problem is that coronavirus isn't just new to here, its new globally.

"The biggest thing that makes this a game changer is that this is new," Lash said. "Everyone is trying to figure this out at the same time."


©2020 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)

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