Scott McAllister

No matter the heat, Peoria first responders like, from left, firefighter Scott McAllister, firefighter Rafael Rendon, engineer Billy Walp and Capt. Roy Noriega will “mask up.”  Walp holds a plaque honoring his 35 years with the Peoria Fire-Medical Department.

Multiple times every day, firefighters and paramedics in Peoria are exposed to patients who may have COVID-19—and others who have tested positive.

Yet the number of first responders who themselves test positive is strikingly low.

As president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, Bryan Jeffries represents 7,000 first responders. He estimates fewer than 300 of them have become sick and/or tested positive for COVID-19.

“That’s not bad,” he said.

He said the reason first responders are not getting sick can be summarized in three words: personal protective equipment.

“The PPE works,” he said. “This masks debate just blows my mind.”

In Peoria, the phrase “mask up” is heard with every first responder call—no matter the heat.

“The city of Peoria Fire-Medical Department takes pride in being ‘essential workers’ on the front lines and has always taken proper precautions in regards to PPE and responding to citizens,” said Mario Bravo, a department spokesman.

“We have taken additional precautions when responding to potential COVID-19 dispatched calls for service, such as limiting the initial contact to properly evaluate the situation, supplying PPE for patients and ensuring additional sanitization methods.”

Bravo noted that, when the pandemic first hit Peoria early in spring, group-care facilities were a “wild card.”

“Because all senior living/health care facilities are independently owned, we have no control over their procedures and protocols,” he said.

“We have been fortunate that very few members have had to be tested due to potential exposures and we are being dispatched on fewer COVID-19 calls.”

Strict adherence to safety policy is working in Peoria.

“Our members are monitored and adhere to all safety protocols and are safe and healthy,” Bravo said.

The Glendale Fire Department also is strict about using PPE, said Ashley Losch, a department spokeswoman.

“In terms of COVID cases, I think we are similar to most departments,” Losch said. “We saw a surge in cases at the same time that the state did, and we are slowing now.  

“I believe that we have put the proper type of PPE in place to protect our membership and good policies from the beginning, and that has helped keep our cases relatively low.”

She acknowledged the precarious situations firefighters/paramedics face.

“Certainly there is a risk every time we (treat) a patient that is COVID positive and our people are vulnerable to contracting it. Calculated risk is part of our job. Whether the call be for a fire, a rescue or a medical call, we are constantly evaluating risk and reacting accordingly.  This is just a new type of risk that we have had to navigate through,” Losch said.

 

Firefighters battle heat

Despite frequently treating COVID-19 patients and transporting them to hospitals, Jeffries of the firefighters union said his membership “have had very few hospitalizations.

“Once we got past a shortage of PPE, we were able to secure a lot of PPE,” he said. “Our members have been exceptional about wearing the same stuff staff in hospitals do on calls—the shields, the masks, gowns, foot coverings.”

And, he added, the public has been cautious and respectful about emergency responders.

“We’ve had good experiences showing up at people’s homes who are wearing masks—or, when we come to the door, they’ll ask if we want them to put a mask on.”

His message to the public: Wear masks, it works—and firefighters are proving it.

“It is definitely not as comfortable to wear all the PPE when it’s hot out. But that comes with the job,” Jeffries said. “It’s definitely causing discomfort, but we have to do that. We can’t compromise our safety or our patients’ safety.”

The same goes in Peoria, where temperatures have been screaming above 110 for most of the last month.

“As firefighters, we regularly train in our turnout gear—an extra 60 pounds—for fire scenarios and we make no exceptions during the summer months, although we may start counting down the days until winter,” Bravo said.

“The key for all firefighters during the summer months is hydrate before you need it. The importance of hydration is so high, we start teaching this as soon as a firefighter starts the Fire Academy.”

The message of “hydrate, hydrate and hydrate some more” is one the fire department wishes the public would follow. 

“There is always an increase in calls for service when the temperatures start to rise,” Bravo said. “We try to educate the public about the risks of heat-related illnesses and prevention methods, in addition to water safety as people are staying home more and try to cool down in pools and lakes.”