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First Responders Try To Stay Safe During COVID-19 Outbreak


All this week we're bringing you stories of first responders to the pandemic. We've heard voices of medical professionals, and this morning we focus on firefighters, including Steve Hill, who is with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. He is the public information officer in that district, east of San Francisco, and his team are, of course, among the first on the scene when a 911 call comes in with a patient responding to COVID-19 symptoms or anything else. Good morning, sir.

STEVE HILL: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Is your job that much different than it normally would be in this crisis?

HILL: Well, interestingly, we are in a fairly diverse county, across the bay from San Francisco. We have a lot of industrial facilities and a lot of transportation arteries, so we tend to have a lot of risks for emergency incidents. So fortunately, we have some experience in planning for those - for the unexpected. This is certainly radically different from anything else we've planned for up till now.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about basic things of just keeping the fire engines staffed. To state the obvious, you must be essential personnel. All your people must be asked to show up to work. But their kids are home. They may be sick. Are you - do you have enough people?

HILL: Well, that's an excellent point. Our firefighters are a reflection of the society we serve, and so they have all the same concerns that everyone else has out there. We put quite a bit of attention into keeping them informed and finding ways to help them to care for their personal concerns that they have, just like everyone else has.

Do we have enough people? Yes, we do. We're actually very satisfied with where we are right now relative to staffing. We're one of the larger fire districts in the state. We have about 400 - a little bit more than 400 personnel, and about 300 of those are firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, first responders. And with just a few limited exceptions, they're all available and ready for work this morning and are on call, and we expect that that is going to continue at least for the next few weeks. We don't have a crystal ball, of course. We don't know what a surge looks like...


HILL: ...Or when it might happen. But for the next few weeks, we're satisfied.

INSKEEP: Well, that's my question because hospitals, of course, have to look forward to a moment when they may have too many patients and not enough personnel, fewer personnel even than normal as people fall away. Are you having to plan for that possibility in your area?

HILL: Well, the first thing that we did - the answer is yes. The first thing we did was we worked immediately, a few weeks ago now, on crew protection because we recognized that if we didn't have crews, we wouldn't be able to provide the services that are expected of us. So that was the first thing we did.

We immediately turned our attention thereafter, once we were satisfied with those protocols, towards contingency planning and just trying to anticipate every possibility we could. We feel like we're in pretty good shape in that regard and have some levers to pull if we need to to adjust levels of service, stations, that sort of thing, should it get to that. But at this point, we don't see any need for that. We're in good shape staffingwise.

INSKEEP: Oh, adjust levels of service, meaning if you have fewer people, maybe ask them to work more hours, extra shifts, that sort of thing. Can I just ask how a 911 call might be different now as firefighters respond to this, knowing there is this additional danger beyond anything else they might expect on a 911 call?

HILL: Yeah, that's a great question, and it's one that we've tried to share with our communities here so they understand the differences that they might observe when we do respond to a - especially emergency medical calls.

The first - one of the very first things we did here, several weeks ago now, is we adjusted our - what we call EMD, our emergency medical dispatch procedures, to do an initial screening on the phone for - from callers to 911 to ask them the basic questions, which your listeners can probably predict, but back then it was a whether they had traveled internationally, whether they exhibiting any flu-like symptoms or anyone in their home was, things like that. Had they been exposed to a known COVID-19 person? We've adjusted that a little bit over time, over the last couple of weeks. We've gotten away from the travel questions.

But the point of it all is, as you suggest, we want to give our first responders en route to any incident a warning if there's any sign of the possibility of an infection on that incident.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask - many of us here at NPR feel like we're doing an essential job that's more important than ever. You must feel even more so in your line of work right now.

HILL: Well, I think that all of our - I think that that's something that's common in the fire service in general, any time. I believe that at times like this, there - it's probably even more so. Every one of our people out there, 400 of them, they're all - as you suggest - essential workers here in the county. They are all working, whether they're in our fire stations or dispersed, working at home as many of them are right now. They're all very dedicated to providing the services that our communities depend on from us.

INSKEEP: Steve Hill of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District in California. Thanks so much.

HILL: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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