Everyone needs to take extra care in the age of coronavirus, but first responders such as firefighters and paramedics are even more at risk.
"I guess we’re in a position we never thought we would be in," said Stow Fire Chief Mark Stone.
The up-close and personal contact is why personal protective equipment (PPE) is so important, and why Summit County Director of Public Safety Lori Pesci said the county is asking the public for more of it amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
"We are in conservation mode right now, trying to be mindful that medical experts are saying the worst hasn't hit yet," Pesci said.
Summit County is putting out a call to dentists, construction companies, small businesses and really anyone who has PPE, including masks, swabs, gloves, gowns and whatever people can spare.
The county is asking people to contact Summit County Public Health to donate. Pesci said the county’s Emergency Management Agency will inventory it, and distribute it across the county to healthcare professionals and first responders.
Emergency Management Agency Director Thomas Smoot said distribution will depend, since there is not a surplus of it, and everything is new.
"There are worldwide shortages of PPE," Smoot said. "So we have to get creative locally."
Cuyahoga Falls Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martin said the department has been putting almost all of its efforts into making sure it’s out in front of the virus. He said 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."
Belfor Property Restoration, which has an office in Peninsula, has already donated 2,080 N-95 masks along with some disinfectants to the department. General Manager Zak Strausser, said he had enough to keep his workers safe, and give some to the first responders that need it.
Martin said the masks are especially effective in providing a tight seal.
"These are what we’re using right now for our guys and the national supply is running short," said Martin, adding "They are the preferred mask when we want total isolation."
Those donations are important, since Martin said new shipments of masks aren’t available. Adding to the difficulty, he said they don’t know how fast they’ll 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.
He said the masks are typically discarded if they become contaminated or after 24 hours of use, but the department is trying to work out a way to decontaminate them and will likely keep them beyond their recommended lifespan for the time being.
"We’ve been instructed not to throw away expired gear because something is better than nothing," he said.
Stone said the Stow Fire Department is OK on supplies for right now.
"I don’t know what the future holds," he said.
For this reason, said Stone, the department is also researching cleaning and disinfecting equipment, such as the masks, and stretching their use as much as possible.
"We’re just being more cautious about throwing away equipment," he said.
Fire departments and EMS are taking plenty of precautions during the pandemic.
Tallmadge Mayor David Kline and Hudson spokeswoman Jody Roberts said personnel are having their temperatures taken as soon as they arrive on shift and sent home if they have a fever.
"They are being checked when they come on shift, during shifts and after shifts," said Kline.
Kline said the fire stations are closed to visitors, except in emergencies, vehicles are cleaned and disinfected after calls, and firefighters and EMS are using PPEs.
"They’re gloving and masking up," he said. "They are doing best practices provided by Summit County Public Health and the CDC."
He added that on EMS calls, "If the patient has any flu-like symptoms, they’re also putting masks on patients."
Stone said that the department has ramped up on the cleaning and disinfecting that is normally done and while gloves are frequently worn anyway, firefighters are wearing the N-95 masks more. For personnel on 24-hour shifts, temperatures are taken and recorded at the start of the shift and again midway through, while for those on eight-hour shifts, temperatures are taken at the beginning. Employees are also now prohibited from wearing their uniforms home and are asked to shower before they leave at the end of their shifts.
"A lot of our employees do that anyway, but we’ve expanded on that," said Stone.
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.
Fire departments are looking for ways to limit potential exposure, both in the field and at the station.
Stone said for Stow, this means ambulance drivers are now remaining outside buildings where EMS calls are made, unless they are needed inside, and fire inspections are now only done when absolutely necessary and only by the fire prevention bureau staff, not by firefighters.
Department personnel are also being segregated from each other as much as possible. Station staff is kept apart from administrative employees, with the two groups using separate entrances. Also, instead of personnel from stations 2 and 3 going to Station 1 to pick up supplies, the shift captain at Station 1 makes deliveries on his usual rounds to the other stations.
"Every person we can remove from potential exposure will help in the long run," said Stone.
Stone said the fire department is using social media to educate the public about coronavirus and steps that can be taken to limit its spread, lessons he has been teaching his own children at home.
"I can appreciate the hardships that the governor has asked us to endure because someday we’ll look back and see we got through it," he said.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, email@example.com or @JeffSaunders_RP.