Municipal fire departments around the Valley have been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic since late February and the call volume has decreased inside some organizations, officials contend.
Looking deeper into data provided by Surprise Fire-Medical, the Scottsdale Fire Department and the Arizona Fire & Medical Authority illustrates, in some areas, a significant drop in the number of calls for emergency services --- medical or otherwise.
For Surprise Fire-Medical, the organization saw an 18% decrease in calls for service during the months of April and May of this year, compared to February and March.
Julie Moore, Surprise Fire-Medical battalion chief and spokesperson, reports June incidents remained on track to be near pre-pandemic levels. The department reported the following incident totals for this year through June 15, for a total of 8,429 incidents.
“The pandemic has not affected response times,” Ms. Moore said. “The Surprise Fire-Medical Department continues to staff the same number of fire apparatus each day and response times are consistent with all previous performance data.”
Additionally, there were no new hires brought on to the department to combat the pandemic. With exposure rates on the rise, according to Ms. Moore, the department’s scheduling of personnel, staffing truck and ambulances has not been impacted either.
For the Scottsdale Fire Department, when crews go out on a known-positive COVID-19 patient the fire fighter fills out an exposure form that is sent internally to the wellness division so personnel can be tracked, according to Scottsdale Fire Department Deputy Chief Adam Hoster.
“Crews begin self-monitoring for any signs or symptoms and put into a lane to get tested and if it comes back positive the 14-day quarantine begins,” he said. “We can trace that back to that particular incident and also tracking socially to see who they may have been in contact with.”
--- Adam Hoster
Staffing shortages within the department were not an issue for Scottsdale Fire as the department runs three platoons of A,B and C shifts, with a staffing list for vacancies and extra personnel who are off-duty.
Mr. Hoster said the department has seen an overall drop of about 40 to 45 percent in call volume.
“We are not seeing the increase in calls, like many people think the numbers would look due to the large number of cases. As of now when this first kicked off back in March our call volume basically shut down by 40 percent when the initial shut down executive order was put in place and the call volume went down,” he explained.
In fact, Scottsdale Fire ran 16,659 calls from January through June of this year, which is actually 6.5 percent lower than in 2019.
When responding to calls, the departments follow a protocol to ensure the safety of patients and fire and medical personnel. Ms. Moore said the Surprise Fire-Medical first responders are notified on initial dispatch if a patient may have COVID-19. She said the dispatcher then will ask the patient to wait outside, if possible, for arrival to reduce exposure.
“We wear personal protective equipment such as masks, eye protection and gloves and after a call we throw away or decontaminate and sanitize all PPE, equipment, ambulances and trucks,” she explained.
Personal protective equipment are all key pieces the department works with on a daily basis, and keeping track of inventory was key to the Surprise Fire-Medical Department. For Scottsdale Fire, PPE consists of gloves, eye protective goggles or a face shield, masks and if personnel knows the patient is COVID-19 positive, the fire fighter will also wear a gown.
“We also put in new implementations. When crews are running normally when someone calls the whole fire engine company and paramedics go inside the house, but now we have limited that and when it is a known COVID-19 patient, we keep two out and only send two in to limit exposure to our firefighters,” Mr. Hoster said.
Mr. Hoster said the department was hearing of shortages when the pandemic first began elsewhere, but that was not the case for Scottsdale Fire.
“We don’t really wear the gowns very often, so that count was down, but the hospital had a larger supply of gowns and then lent us some to use,” he explained. “We were very proactive in the whole approach in organizing logistics for PPE and we jumped on that to keep our inventory no lower than minimum stocking levels.”
AFMA Assistant Fire Marshall Kim Campbell said the Authority is using a two-tiered system to manage the critical PPE vital to health care workers.
“There are PAR levels on the rigs, then, next level, is the Battalion Chiefs have a bin full of items such as N95 masks, surgical gowns, surgical masks, Lysol wipes and keep the fire trucks and ambulance levels as needed,” she explained.
“The second tier is the controlled access to the scarce PPE, only a few people have access and request the resources through a chain of command. We are looking at daily “burn rates” and have a real-time spreadsheet of PPE levels so at any given time we can determine how much and where it is located. This does require detail and additional duties during this time of crisis.”
Training has also been effected within the Scottsdale Fire Department. Groups are not allowed larger than 10, which makes it difficult to meet as the personnel once did. Mr. Hoster said the department has switched to online training via Microsoft Teams and Zoom as well as video training.
“We had to stop our multi-company drills where we get a couple of stations together and they practice fire tactics and training and we had to stop that and a lot more in house training,” Mr. Hoster explained.
Despite the pandemic, the annual two-year training cycle that covers fire training, emergency medical services, fire prevention, and citywide ethics refreshers have been built out for quite some time and each topic is continuing through the original training plan.
The Arizona Fire & Medical Authority is also working through the continuing education for recertification for things like paramedics and emergency medical technician certificates.
“The two-year recertification periods require ‘in-house’ training and we have gone to more online and Zoom style formats for this training as the pandemic continues, to limit our opportunities to bring personnel together in larger groups,” AFMA Deputy Chief Eric Kriwer said.
AFMA Division Chief Kane Nixon said the Authority has been monitoring the COVID-19 situation very closely since February, which in part includes daily monitoring of each zip code in the service area.
“We have seen a steady climb in COVID-19 positive cases over time, but more significantly over the last few weeks (as of July 2),” Mr. Nixon said.
“Also, we are tracking each instance that an AFMA unit responds to an EMS incident with a patient who presents with COVID-19 symptoms. These numbers are increasing week over week.”
During the June 23 AFMA Governing Board meeting, Deputy Chief Rob Helie explained training hours increased for the month of May due to the need for a refresher and specific crews training related to COVID-19.
For emergency services, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act covered entities must also be maintained when it comes to treatment during an emergency. According to a bulletin from the Office for Civil Rights in February of 2020, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services wanted to ensure HIPAA covered entities and their business associates to ensure they are aware of the ways patient information may be shared under the HIPAA Privacy Rule in an outbreak of infectious disease or other emergency situation.
The bulletin states:
“The HIPAA Privacy Rule protects the privacy of patients’ health information (protected health information) but is balanced to ensure that appropriate uses and disclosures of the information still may be made when necessary to treat a patient, to protect the nation’s public health, and for other critical purposes.”
Satisfying this particular area, Mr. Hoster explained the minimal amount of information is shared via dispatch in order to properly safeguard the personnel responding and the patient. He ensured emergency services will be administered to patients while providing conformity to the HIPAA Privacy rules.
While numbers in Arizona are continuing to climb, as of July 5, 94,553 positive cases have been reported with 1,805 deaths. If the past predicts the future, the call volume will remain steady as the departments continue emergency response within the department’s communities.
Editor’s note: Reporter Jennifer Jimenez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @SCW_Independent.