ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - The jobs of first responders have been impacted by the coronavirus. Before they even arrive on the scene, they're preparing for the specific health risks they could face.
"Nobody's been shown to be untouchable in this and I think we need to pay attention," said St. Petersburg Fire Rescue Chief James Large.
So far, 25 members of SPFR have been on self-isolation orders; 17 have been released. To keep those numbers down, the agency has begun deploying COVID-19 Strike Teams.
"When the call comes in and we suspect it's a COVID call, we'll dispatch these units to that," said Large. "That way, we can reduce the exposure to all of our personnel and limit it."
It's a pilot program in partnership with Sunstar. The initial first responder on the scene does what's called a standoff assessment.
"We maintain a distance of six feet and we begin to question the patient to get a better idea of the risks associated with this call. That determines how much more of that Personal Protective Equipment that we don," said Division Chief Ian Womack.
The PPE could range from an N-95 mask, goggles, and gloves, to a gown and full-face shield.
Once the call ends, decontamination begins, both of the team members and of the truck.
"They'll go through the decon-ing process, spraying this on smooth surfaces and then they'll close the truck up entirely, letting it sit for 10 minutes and the chemicals will do the work to kill the virus or any possible suspected virus that could be in the vehicle," explained a St. Pete Fire Rescue member.
Womack said, "A lot of those efforts are about eliminating the nooks and crannies, creating smooth flat surfaces that our decontamination solution can be easily applied to, to decontaminate and kill the virus off and make the cab clean so we can get in service as soon as possible."
Strike teams will leave from three separate stations, reducing exposure within the agency.
"These are individuals, employees, first responders that have volunteered to put themselves at the tip of the spear, so to speak, for the organization," Womack said.
On average, they're seeing 18-20 respiratory isolation precaution calls a day, with incidents rising.
"The idea is to get our footing now so that when that demand hits, we are prepared for it," said Womack.
Once this pilot program is fully operational, the COVID-19 Strike Team units will deploy from 8 am. to 8 p.m. with the possibility of the hours being expanded in the future. St. Pete Fire Rescue will have three units. Sunstar will add another three.
If needed, they're optimistic this program can be expanded throughout Pinellas County.
"We need to protect our loved ones and our community, our family, our friends, everyone, by listening and doing everything the experts are telling us," Chief Large said. "Let's move forward and get through this together."
If you feel sick:
The Florida Department of Health has opened a COVID-19 Call Center at 1-866-779-6121. Agents will answer questions around the clock. Questions may also be emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org. Email responses will be sent during call center hours.
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