Firefighters on the defensive

Abington’s first responders take cautious approach on the COVID-19 frontlines

A firefighter’s instinct is to roll up to a call and rush towards the problem. But the rules have changed in recent weeks, as first responders find themselves on the front lines in the nation’s battle with COVID-19. 

“We’re being much more defensive,” said Abington Fire Chief John Nuttall. “We’re used to rushing in and flooding the situation with manpower.”

Today, when they arrive to check on a report of smoke or to investigate a fire alarm, only one or two firefighters are going in. And before they do, they’re donning gloves, masks and a face shield. 

“They’re dressed up as if it’s a medical call,” Nuttal said. “We’re assuming everybody has [the virus] because you have to.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has infected hundreds of thousands nationally, including first responders. Abington has recorded 78 positive cases, with 63 currently active. Fortunately, for Abington’s firefighters, who also serve as the town’s paramedics, the squad has been able to remain healthy.    

 “We have transported a few that turned out to be positive later on,” he said, adding that the department has had no exposures. “But we had all the appropriate personal protective equipment  in place, so our people felt safe doing it.”

Firefighter Justin Silva, Abington’s EMS coordinator, said the department has been training for an outbreak like this for years.

“We’ve always been preparing for a pandemic, whether SARS or the swine flu,” he said. “We’ve always had the mindset it could happen. This time it did happen.”

As recently as last May the department had trained on how to properly put on and remove personal protective equipment, known as PPE. And when the virus started exploding in January, Abington firefighters quickly took a refresher course.

“We definitely owe it to the community to be prepared,” said Silva.

To prevent residents from feeling alarmed when they arrive wearing protective equipment, the department recently posted photos of firefighters wearing the equipment on its Facebook page.

Despite the increase in COVID-19-related cases, Abington firefighters have actually seen a decrease in overall calls over the past month. With people working from home and businesses closed, there’s been fewer motor vehicle accidents and false alarms. And in some cases, Nuttall said, people have been more reluctant to call 911 because they don’t want to go to the emergency room. 

“Everything has kind of slowed down in general,” he said.

Firefighters are finding it tough to stay socially distant in the town’s stations, where they rest, eat, and sleep in close quarters. 

“We share a lot of common spaces. It’s like trying to be socially distant with your own family in your own house,” said Silva.   

To protect everyone’s health, Silva said every firefighter undergoes a health screening at least once a shift, and self-monitor when at home. 

“We pay very close attention to everyone’s health,” he said.

Nuttall said firefighters are constantly cleaning the fire stations,  including disinfecting commonly touched areas such as doorknobs, light switches and phone receivers every hour.  

“The stations have never been cleaner,” he said.

One key to the department’s safety has been its supply of personal protective equipment —  including face shields, masks, gloves. The department has received a shipment of materials from the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency and currently has what it needs.

However, Silva added it was the town of Abington’s generosity that put the town on good footing as the pandemic first broke.

“The community was super generous in donating masks, face shields, and even M95 masks,” he said. Silva estimated that the department received around 20 M95 masks and 300 surgical masks from donors, as well as 20 faceshields from South Shore Vocational Technical High School.  

“We’re doing pretty good with our stock,” said Chief Nuttall, adding, “but that could be wiped out immediately if we’re not careful. This is why we’re gearing up one person, maybe two, so we don’t waste that gear if not needed.”

Abington Fire Department recently posted photos of firefighters wearing personal protective equipment on its Facebook page to show residents new protective steps the department is taking to stay safe on calls.
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