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On the front lines: First responders face unique challenges during COVID-19 outbreak

  • Jaffrey Fire Chief David Chamberlain Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • Firefighters put out a blaze at a house in Jaffrey in February 2017. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • First responders are on the front lines of the coronavirus crisis. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • A dumpster fire behind the Guernsey Building in Peterborough Wednesday evening was extinguished quickly by firefighters. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Jaffrey Parks and Recreation Department and the Jaffrey Fire Department held a bonfire at Community Field on Friday to dispose of old Christmas trees after the holidays.  Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/1/2020 1:00:05 PM

As confirmed cases of the coronavirus continue to climb around the state and the likelihood of widespread infection growing by the day, first responders are prepared to perform their duties – and have been all along.

There are obvious concerns that come with a virus of this level of contagion. Local fire and rescue personnel could be confronted with COVID-19 at any given moment.

Having the proper gear and taking the appropriate precautions are nothing new, but there’s a heightened awareness that comes with every call.

Peterborough Fire Chef Ed Walker first started paying attention to the coronavirus when the outbreak happened in China. While the yearly flus start in China each year, this didn’t seem like your typical flu virus.

As it spread at an alarming rate and took over certain regions of Europe, Walker said he began to think more about the virus from a community sense.

“It was clearly not just a flu,” Walker said. “So what is it going to mean for us.”

But for Walker it comes down to people taking the advice of the CDC and State of New Hampshire and following the guidelines to stay home, stay away from people and wash hands.

“You are the only one that can stop yourself from getting sick,” Walker said. “So it’s up to you to keep yourself from getting sick because if you do go out and don’t listen to the warnings, you will get sick.”

Ellen Moran, an EMT basic and firefighter in Hancock, is worried that people might not take it as serious since there haven’t been a lot of cases reported in the area.

“Does that mean our citizens are safe and can go out? No,” she said.

Walker said deeper conversations began about a month ago, but that it escalated quicker than he could have envisioned.

“We were still in the starting up phase,” Walker said. “But we have the benefit of  seeing what other jurisdictions were able to do.”

For David Chamberlain, chief of the Jaffrey Fire Department, conversations really got more serious the week of March 9 and continued through the postponement of Town Meeting due to the potential exposure of a town employee’s family member.

K Vanderbilt, deputy chief of Emergency Medical Services and deputy emergency management director in Dublin, also began following the story of COVID-19 when it all started in China. She said it was hard not to notice how it was evolving and how many people were getting sick.

Moran saw the potential impact for coronavirus by simply looking at the amount of business travel that takes place in and out of China.

“Only because we’re entrenched in global manufacturing now,” Moran said, as she followed the pattern of infection. But didn’t envision it rising to the level it has, especially in New York, where they are now setting up outdoor hospitals in Central Park. Moran said she was concerned for New Orleans because of Mardi Gras.

With some people not showing symptoms at all and others not exhibiting signs for more than a week after exposure, Walker sees the potential risks his department must take.

“This is such a huge unknown with the number of potential people that are infected,” Walker said. “the people that are getting tested were symptomatic enough to be tested and those results take five to seven days, sometimes more.”

But Walker said the firefighters and EMTs are always following safety guidelines when it comes to treating calls, so that puts them at a much lower risk of getting sick.

“We’ve always had protocols in place for dealing with people with infectious diseases,” Walker said. “But this has forced us to be hyper vigilant.”

It comes down to planning and preparation.

“If you’re taking precautions, gearing up the way you’re supposed to, you’re not at a risk,” Walker said.

Moran said there are many factors that enter the decision making process.

“It enters our mind on every call because all of us have to stay safe,” Moran said.

Chamberlain said they handle about 100 medical calls a year, but “we’re the backup so there are times we have to go out.” He feels somewhat lucky to be in a small community where people are taking the proper precautions.

“But you still have got to step back for a second,” Chamberlain said.

Vanderbilt said the Dublin department hasn’t seen any cases thus far, but is on high alert for ones that come in that could present as coronavirus symptoms or simply upper respiratory issues.

“We have a plan in place,” Vanderbilt said. That includes limiting the amount of people who enter a home and a go to bag of necessary supplies.

As of Tuesday, Walker said there have been a couple for patients showing symptoms, but because of privacy laws didn’t know if they were tested for COVID-19. One patient at Monadnock Community Hospital has tested positive, and as a transport for patients from MCH to other locations, there is an added risk. Walker also knows the calls for people with symptoms could quickly increase, as more cases in the area, like in Wilton, Lyndeborough and Harrisville pop up.

“I think there’s a concern, if it’s going to get to the point where it really is serious, where there’s a number of patients,” Walker said.

Typically the Peterborough department has four ambulances, but in the interest of being prepared, they cobbled up enough equipment to outfit a fifth. But none of that matters if a member of the department gets sick.

“We could have 1,000 ambulances, but if everyone’s home sick, it doesn’t matter how many we have,” Walker said.

And since many members of the Peterborough service work for other agencies, the ripple down effect could be major.

“If two of our people are sick, then Jaffrey maybe has two less people to call and Antrim could be down one,” Walker said. “There’s a lot of overlap with staff, so there’s can be significant effect on your fire department and ability to respond.”

Staffing is also a concern for Chamberlain. He has two members of the department who work as nurses, and if someone ever came down with coronavirus, it could make a huge impact on their ability to respond.

“We’re already in a tough spot during the day,” he said. “And all the departments in the area are in the same situation. So that’s always in the back of my head, but it’s heightened now.”

And there’s always that question: “Is it going to wipe out the whole department?” Chamberlain said.

Vanderbilt said Dublin has six medical people on call and “most of the time there’s one or two on a call depending on schedules.” She said that fire chief Tom Vanderbilt goes on just about every call and if he were to contract the virus it could have longterm effects on the ability to respond.

In New Ipswich, Fire Chief Meredith Lund said she’s had at least one of her staff members quarantined after coming into contact with a subject who’d tested positive for coronavirus.

“As we start to lose members, we have no one to replace them with,” Lund said. “We have to be really careful.”

Lund said New Ipswich came into the coronavirus pandemic with an emergency plan and a fair amount of protective equipment already in place. Firefighters and EMS personnel have masks, gloves and goggles and use a liaison to assess the scene inside homes before the entire crew enters the building.

“Our biggest issue is we don’t have a lot of gowns and Tyvek suits,” Lund said. “If we have to go in, we’ll fully don those.”

Taking into account the number of nursing home and assisted living facilities in the area only adds to the complications.

“We have a lot of vulnerable people living in close proximity,” Walker said. “So how would we deal with patients.”

Needing all the supplies that seem to be unavailable these days, Walker said they typically have a lot on hand and tried to get ahead of the curve and order extra just in case.

“But if this goes on for months and our supply chain doesn’t come back, we could be running out like everybody else,” Walker said.

And with many older volunteers in local fire departments, Walker sees a scenario where some don’t feel comfortable responding.

“I’m 55 and in good health, but if I was 10 years older, would I want to go on one of these calls?” he said.

Vanderbilt said she thought the stay at home directive was an appropriate one and something that should help the spread – if people follow it.

“I do think there are still a lot of people out and about,” she said. “This is really serious. But a lot of people don’t take it seriously unless it affects them directly.”

To help with the shortages, Vanderbilt has been making masks for herself and coworkers  using a polypropylene material that best mimics what is typically used, as well as homemade hand sanitizer.

And one thing Walker wanted to remind people is that if there’s a medical emergency, continue to call 911.

“We have seen some patients who were really sick, but they were afraid of going to the hospital,” Walker said.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak, Monadnock State Park has seen a surge in hikers with an estimated 90 percent of the hikers coming from out of state. According to a press release from the NH Fish and Game Department, “conservation officers would like to encourage people who are enjoying the outdoors to do so with a great deal of caution. People putting themselves at risk results in a multitude of first responders and volunteers having to abandon social distancing guidelines and place themselves at risk.”

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

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