The provincial health officer has recommended that all firefighters in B.C. stop responding to medical calls involving symptoms of COVID-19 in the hopes of preventing the novel coronavirus from infecting the fire halls, a move expected to cut the medical call volume for Kamloops Fire Rescue in half.
The public health recommendation advises against firefighters from attending any call for a potential influenza-like illness or COVID-19.
Firefighters typically respond to medical calls requiring paramedics and they are usually the first crews to arrive at the scene. A typical day for Kamloops Fire Rescue includes dozens of medical calls for shortness of breath and other COVID-19 symptoms — calls they will not be responding to for as long as the pandemic persists.
Kamloops Mayor Ken Christian said he was not surprised by the recommendation from Dr. Bonnie Henry.
“It’s consistent with the B.C. emergency response guidelines, and the first tenet of that is you protect the health and safety of your first responders,” Christian told KTW. “They don’t want fire crews to become contaminated with COVID-19, so fire crews will not be assisting ambulance with calls that could involve COVID-19. It’s what I would have expected. The health and safety of first responders is higher than the public health. You’re really in a pickle if you lose the people who are able to respond to emergencies.”
Christian said he is not aware of any Kamloops first responders having been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus disease.
In the United States, the ability of some municipalities to respond to emergencies is being severely hampered because of illness among first responders. In New York City, more than 1,000 police officers and hundreds of firefighters have been infected by the virus. Firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19 elsewhere in Canada, forcing entire shifts of their co-workers to self-isolate for two weeks.
Kamloops Mounties issued a statement earlier this week, saying they were changing the way some calls are handled, but maintaining service will be provided for those who need it — regardless if COVID0-19 may be involved.
“It’s important to note that a risk of potential exposure to COVID-19 will not stop our police officers from attending priority calls in your community,” RCMP Cpl. Jodi Shelkie stated in the release.
Christian acknowledged the recommendation related to fire departments will mean longer waits for some people in medical distress, but he noted it is necessary for the greater good of the community.
“Often, our fire crews are able to respond quicker [than ambulance],” he said. “But our staff are supporting the paramedics. That is a service that we’re not going to be able to provide anymore.”