During the COVID-19 pandemic, Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service has participated in drive-by thank-yous to front-line workers, including staff at local grocery stores. Photo by Dale Klippenstein

Full staff and high morale among city’s firefighters, fire chief says

Extra COVID-19 protocols, changes keeping fire crews safe on Abbotsford’s front lines

The Abbotsford News published a special tribute to first responders in its Thursday, April 9th edition, with a focus on police, paramedics, firefighters, and doctors and nurses. The story below focuses on the Abbotsford Police Department. Click here to see the whole section.

Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service is fully staffed and the morale is high among its firefighters, who want to do everything they can for the community through the COVID-19 pandemic, said Fire Chief Don Beer.

“I think that firefighters get into the business to help people, and so when there’s a crisis like this, they really want to pitch in and help,” Beer said. “I’m super proud of the men and women of Abbotsford Fire Rescue Service for their dedication in showing up to work, knowing that their job has risks inherent with possible exposure.”

That’s not to say there are no changes to everyday protocols for first responders in the Fire Rescue Service. The city’s eight firehalls have implemented a series of changes to everyday routines to help keep their first responders safe on the front lines.

The department is practising enhanced physical distancing and cleaning among the different fire crews and halls, treating every person they assist as a potential carrier, conducting online training for staff, keeping careful accounts of their personal protective equipment, communicating with neighbouring departments about regional issues, and only responding to the most significant calls – as provincial health authorities have mandated.

“This is all new territory, so we’re making adjustments along the way. But something as simple as a shift change … The oncoming shift stays in the truck bay, and the outgoing shift does one last cleanup of the work area and walks out the back door and then signals to the other [shift],” Beer said. “They physically separate themselves in the halls to keep from passing any virus from shift to shift.

“The only time [the firefighters] actually come together is when they are responding to an incident.”

The extra precautions seem to be working – the department does not have a single staff member currently off duty from COVID-19. While there have been a few who have shown COVID-like symptoms, they quickly self-isolated, were tested, and got negative results back within 96 hours. There were also five employees, including Beer himself, who had to self-isolate for two weeks after returning from international travel in mid-March.

“They’ve really come to the table and taken it – as they take everything – seriously to make sure their health is protected as best they can. Right now I can tell you that we have no absences,” he said. “They’re doing an extremely excellent job under the conditions.”

Fire departments across the province are only being dispatched to “Code Purple” calls now, which are the most serious emergency incidents, as per a March 31 order by provincial health authorities.

“I can tell you that the order that [provincial health officer] Dr. Henry put forward, with [us responding] to the purple only, has been a bit of a challenge in this, because of the fact that we think that we can do more,” Beer said. “But we also don’t see the full big picture that she’s looking at.”

When firefighters respond to a medical scene where a patient is suspected of COVID-19, and it’s not a life-threatening situation, the crews will wait on paramedics to arrive and help assess the patient, Beer said. And in emergency cases, a single firefighter wearing personal protective equipment (PPE), instead of an entire crew, will make the initial assessment.

“Whenever you’re dealing with a person these days, you treat them as if they’re infected,” he said. “It’s a matter of wearing the proper PPE, and actually putting a surgical mask on the patient as well, so they’re not transmitting the disease as readily or easily.

“It’s the best way to protect the front-line responders and minimize the use of critically low supplies of PPE.”

The fire department started rationing their PPE supplies around three weeks ago, Beer said.

“We do inventory weekly, and almost a one-for-one exchange as they get used, just to keep track of them really close,” he said. “So far we have been able to manage with what we have in stock, but we continue to watch and carefully manage that.”

Weekly co-ordination takes place among the fire departments of Abbotsford, Chilliwack, Mission and Langley Township to address any potential staffing issues, PPE supplies and other COVID-19 concerns.

“We have a mutual-aid agreement with our immediate neighbouring departments,” Beer said. “If any of our departments require some assistance… we would be prepared to send a crew to an incident in their jurisdiction.

“We’re talking to each other on a weekly basis, if not more frequently.”

Beer said that seeing the community’s support for each other, and all the first responders, has been meaningful for his staff.

“Looking out for our neighbours is everyone’s responsibility, in my mind, like my wife and I [got] from our friends and family, who went out and did grocery shopping for us while we were hunkered down for 14 days.

“I think it’s a community effort, and I’m really encouraged by that.”

RELATED: BC paramedics stepping up in COVID-19 battle

RELATED: Policing in Abbotsford during the pandemic: ‘Strength in community’

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