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News >  Spokane

First responders limiting access to public, using extra caution in anticipation of COVID-19

Spokane Valley Station 8 EMT/Firefighter George Knapp demonstrates  the type of Personal protective equipment  that he and other first responders don when there is a medical call that involves an infectious person. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Valley Station 8 EMT/Firefighter George Knapp demonstrates the type of Personal protective equipment that he and other first responders don when there is a medical call that involves an infectious person. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Local first responders are taking extra precautions and canceling any unnecessary contact with the public as the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases grows.

The Spokane Valley and Coeur d’Alene fire departments both have limited their employees’ contact with the public, canceling tours, educational trainings and other community events.

Craig Etherton, Coeur d’Alene Fire Department spokesman, said the department frequently serves the most vulnerable people in the community, especially nursing homes and hospitals, and wants to do what it can to avoid putting them at risk.

“We’re in and out of facilities so much we could become carriers pretty easily,” Etherton said. “We don’t want to become part of the problem.”

Idaho officials announced the state’s first confirmed case was identified in Ada County Friday, and Etherton said the department is trying to do whatever it can to stay proactive.

Other fire departments in Idaho, such as the Northern Lakes Fire Protection District, have undergone training and preparation to respond to COVID-19.

Etherton said the response to COVID-19 could hold up some firetrucks for longer because the department is trying to limit the number of firefighters exposed to a single patient, so the same firefighters who arrived at a person’s home will likely be responsible for getting them to the hospital.

“We’re trying to limit the number of responders that come into contact with them, but not to the detriment of the patient or the situation,” he said. “We’re not going to decrease the level of care for the patient.”

Dispatch centers and firefighters also have added an extra set of questions for those who have flu-like symptoms so they can assess whether first responders need to don special protective equipment.

When firefighters respond to a call from a person with flu-like symptoms, they may wear protective gear that includes a mask and a gown and send one firefighter into a home first to assess the situation. That firefighter may give the patient a mask to limit the spread of respiratory droplets before the rest of the team enters the residence to help, said Sean Nokes, a Spokane Valley Fire Department paramedic.

Julie Happy, Spokane Valley Fire Department spokeswoman, said the department ordered extra personal protective equipment in January as more people tested positive for the virus, in anticipation of its arrival in Eastern Washington.

Happy said the department had not, as of Friday, responded to a suspected COVID-19 call in full protective gear yet.

Shawn Arold, deputy chief of the Spokane Valley Fire Department, said the department is doing what it can to protect firefighters from being exposed to the public, because quarantining firefighters could significantly impact the workforce and the department’s ability to respond to emergencies.

The city of Spokane Fire Department’s dispatchers, like other county employees, have been operating under special protocols enacted during a flu pandemic for about a week, according to Mike Lopez, the Spokane Fire Department’s integrated medical services manager.

The county’s medical program director, Dr. James Nania, authorized the move.

Spokane Regional Emergency Communications, which provides dispatch services for police and fire agencies throughout Spokane County, is also following the protocols.

Under the protocols, a dispatcher can switch from a general illness question card to one specific to a flu pandemic, “which is going to direct us to ask questions more specific to the situation,” Jay Atwood, deputy Spokane fire chief, said last week.

Officials stressed that emergency dispatchers do not diagnose a caller, but the new protocols can give responders a sense of the situation they may be walking into – and what personal protective equipment may be necessary.

“That notification from dispatch will cause them to be thinking about that early,” Lopez said.

The city is working closely with its medical transportation provider, American Medical Response, Lopez said.

“As a system, we’re on a regular basis interacting with our fire department throughout the county as well as AMR. Everybody is engaged, everybody is speaking the same language,” Lopez said.

Tawnya Silloway, a spokeswoman for AMR, said the company also is following those protocols. If a crew member is exposed to the virus, Silloway said, they would follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and county guidelines. If the responder was quarantined, they would be placed on paid leave and would be monitored by the company’s telehealth monitoring group until they are able to return to duty.

Law enforcement officers also are taking more precautions, having hand sanitizer, gloves, masks and disinfectant wipes on hand for deputies and officers.

Sgt. Terry Preuninger, spokesman for the Spokane Police Department, said the department has told officers to be cautious when responding to calls, but that they can only do so much to protect themselves because officers need to interact with the public.

Cpl. Mark Gregory, Spokane County Sheriff’s Office spokesman, said deputies have the same mandate, though they also will try to take precautions.

“We’ll continue to monitor and make decisions going forward, but we need to serve the public,” Gregory said.

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