Comox Valley firefighters are always revered for their heroism and selflessness. At times of crisis, those skills are put to an even greater test.
“The fire service has always been known for its ability to adapt to change, however none of us expected that because of a global health crisis we would be forced to change so rapidly,” said Comox Fire Rescue (CFR) Chief Gord Schreiner. “We are currently making changes daily, if not hourly. Everything has changed.
“Fire departments everywhere are adapting to these changes in their own way to meet the needs of the citizens while ensuring they keep their firefighters safe.”
In Comox, the crew is actually working remotely, with one full-time staff member responding to call-outs from home each day, meeting two additional crew members on-scene.
Any firefighters sharing a vehicle are wearing cloth masks. Should they knowingly come in contact with the virus at a call-out, they and their equipment return to the station in a staff vehicle, at which point a thorough cleansing is conducted.
“Our fire station, vehicles and equipment has never been so clean,” said Schreiner.
All calls involve COVID-19
Courtenay Fire Chief Don Bardonnex said they treat every response as if COVID-19 were part of it.
“All of our calls are COVID-19 until proven otherwise,” he said. “The crew in the engines wear face mask and gloves, going to, during and on the way back from a call. The firefighters that are in contact with the patients also wear gowns, safety glasses and their face shields must be down. There are also decontamination procedures that must be followed at the end of every call.”
The physical distancing rules apply to firefighters just as they do all residents.
Bardonnex said when it comes to a tight-knit group like a family of firefighters, that in itself can create a huge challenge.
“Firefighters are family and I believe the adjustment that has the largest effect is the social distancing measures we have implemented,” he said. “Our firefighters are not to attend the station unless there is an active incident; they have to ready the truck for the next call and then immediately leave the station. There is an unbelievable camaraderie between firefighters, we all miss the chance to unwind with each other after a call. We miss getting together with our families for social events. Like other families during the pandemic, life goes on and when tragedy strikes we cannot be there to support each other as we normally would.”
Schreiner said the most challenging adjustment for many on his force is dealing with the cancellation of CFR’s weekly training schedule.
“This has been one of our most difficult challenges as we have over 50 firefighters here who love to train,” he said. “We are currently offering small group (3-5) practice training sessions six days a week.”
When it comes to dealing with victims, Schreiner has noticed a substantial change.
“Dealing with victims has been significantly different,” he said. “In most cases we keep our distance if we can. If we can’t, we ensure victims are using appropriate PPE (N-95, cloths). Sometimes it takes a minute or two to remind everyone (victims and first responders) that things are different and we must take additional precautions.”
Bardonnex said those at the scene of a call-out have been respectful.
“What I have noticed is that family members of our patients are giving us more space, social distancing as best as they can,” he said. “They are also more appreciative of our service.”
Until such a time as the pandemic is declared over, such preparations and precautions will remain part of the day-to-day lives for firefighters in the Comox Valley, and beyond.
“The virus can never take a back seat,” said Bardonnex. “The emergency service we provided before the pandemic is still being performed. There is just an additional layer of protection for the firefighters, and the patient that has to be complied with. Not taking the time to don our PPE could put our crew, their families and the service its self at risk.”
Chiefs proud of their teams
Schreiner said his crew has shown great adaptability to the current circumstances.
“I am very proud that despite the many new challenges we have faced that our fire department (Comox) continued to provide excellent service to our citizens. I know we will come out of this a stronger and more resilient organization.”
Bardonnex said the pandemic has proven to be a bonding experience for his team.
“I am truly proud of how our crews are turning out for every call. In the beginning, we had anticipated that some members may have concerns that would affect our response capability. The exact opposite is true, our members’ response to calls has gone through the roof. Their community needs them and they have stepped up.”
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