It has now been nine months since we first heard the word coronavirus, before it was given its official name COVID-19 followed closely by the word that made us all look up and take note: pandemic.
This terrible disease has killed hundreds of thousands and caused tens of millions to be infected. Our colleagues in the health sector, doctors, nurses, paramedics etc. need to stand up and take a bow; they remain at the front line even as they see their co-workers succumbing to this virus. These people are in a class of their own.
Then there are essential and vital workers going about their daily lives trying to keep things as near to normal as possible. For clarification, essential workers are teachers, food preparation, childcare etc. and vital workers are police, fire, rescue, and coastguard etc. For this editorial I will concentrate on vital workers.
By now all the health and safety procedures should be second nature, but this wasn’t the case when the pandemic first hit our countries. There was a steep learning curve for everyone. Let’s go through the accepted procedures for a firefighter coming on and working through a shift.
Updating the new crews on the current state of the pandemic and organizational procedures is essential – an informed and educated crew is a safe crew. Then the practical side of coming on duty needs to be addressed: temperature check, masks and gloves on at all times, going over your station and appliances disinfecting all touch points from the previous shift, logging all actions and checking your personal gear. In responding to an incident, obviously it will be different for an EMR call, fire or road rescue but the protocols have the same outcome, keeping you safe. Dispatchers need to ask additional questions of the caller to ascertain the COVID status where possible. Disposable personal protective equipment should be used where possible. Equipment used must be given a full decontamination, e.g. breathing apparatus needs a full decon, not just the mask, and where possible personal masks should be allocated for the shift.
Unfortunately, these were procedures that evolved through lessons learnt, background knowledge and an informal personal international network.
The processes I have been writing about are for the more contained incidents. I now look across the Pacific to the west coast of the USA and Europe and again see forest fires of an enormous magnitude and wonder how they are coping with emergency situations involving firefighters in their thousands. How do you feed, rest and clean in such a way that is safe (or as safe as you can be) to protect your people from COVID-19?
I don’t know the answers but what I do know is that there are people at this very moment in the northern hemisphere dealing with this problem, they are learning by experience as well, because the fire season they left last year did not have the COVID-19 component. We have an opportunity to learn from their procedures and practices. This is not the time to try and find out what is happening via a Zoom link; we need to have people on the ground observing the application, or not, of the COVID safety procedures now being used by agencies confronted with this dilemma.
There also needs to be a second piece of research done on community resilience in a COVID disaster environment. Last year’s southern hemisphere fire season was slowing down in Australia as the virus hit and we didn’t really see an impact on evacuation centres, residents staying and defending their homes alongside volunteer firefighters etc., but we will this year unless by some miracle a vaccine is found.
It’s time for some pragmatic and proactive action to be taken early. We need to get some professionals into those parts of the world that are experiencing what is rapidly coming at us in our region.
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