Volunteer firefighters still responding to medical calls despite surging COVID-19 case numbers


Emergency Health Services (EHS), which sponsors medical first response (MFR) programs carried out by numerous volunteer fire departments in the province, is not changing dispatch protocols involving MFR personnel despite recent surges in COVID-19 cases across the province.

As of last week, EHS, which is responsible for the province's ambulance and paramedicine services, said it is watching developments but plans no immediate adjustments when it comes to how and when first responders are summoned to medical assists.

LighthouseNOW requested a phone interview with an EHS official but received an emailed statement in response to questions.

"EHS operations is grateful and appreciative for the continued support MFR agencies provide in their communities across the province," reads the statement attributed to Derek LeBlanc, a senior manager of provincial programs with the agency. "We have not made any alterations to MFR response levels as a result of the recent surge in covid infections, nor are any pending. EHS operations is monitoring the situation closely and will communicate any changes to the MFR community."

When the COVID-19 pandemic was in full force around the spring of 2020, the province was reporting roughly two-dozen lab-confirmed cases of the virus daily. Back then, EHS notified MFR agencies to stop responding to medical assists, even cardiac arrests, in the interests of safety and efforts to reduce the spread. This position lasted for months before it was reversed.

Local fire departments with MFR capacity that regularly roll with paramedics are responding to actual COVID-19 patients now, at a time of a new, more contagious variant at play, and the current daily cases in the province number into the hundreds while hospital counts are almost four times what they were in early April 2020.

However, fire officers with a couple of Lunenburg County fire departments, with trained MFRs that respond to medical assists, say they're satisfied with current response protocols, largely because EHS provided the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE). Martins River fire chief Scott Rafuse and Western Shore deputy chief Jared Swinemar told LighthouseNOW they limit the number of firefighters who go on medical calls and try to have the same individuals do the responding.

"We only allow three guys in a truck at a time; two in the house," Rafuse told LighthouseNOW. "We follow the proper procedures."

In early January, the Martins River volunteer fire department had to depend on the response help of neighbouring communities for 72 hours - a directive from provincial health officials, Rafuse said - after a member tested positive, possibly having been exposed to the virus at a non-fire-related job site. Fire services in the area were notified and Martins River crews engaged in a regimen of testing.

Swinemar said crews are equipped with N95 masks and face shields, among other things, just like the paramedics, and undertake procedures for decontamination.

"We have full covid suits that we got through EHS that we wear; there are steps to taking them on and off," he explained to LighthouseNOW. They also have access to regular rapid tests.

Earlier this month, Western Shore MFRs responded to a medical call in their district involving a woman in her 40s, who was experiencing chest pain and shortness of breath. Dispatch routinely cautions emergency crews whether or not a patient is presumed positive or negative for COVID-19. On this call, the four-person crew of firefighters were advised they were headed to a confirmed case of COVID-19.

"If someone calls for help, we're going," Swinemar added. "It's a service to our public that we're there to do."

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