Well, we have certainly learned a lot the last few months in regard to dealing with viruses, bacteria and the use of personal protective equipment within our current health crisis. This includes those of us who work closely in the area of the fire services hazardous materials response teams. In this month’s blog, we will discuss the information communicated to the front line workers and first responders, as well as the general public, when it came to choosing the appropriate personal protective equipment, and wearing masks for dealing with this deadly virus.

Based on what we have learned so far with our most current and revised recommendations from public health to prevent COVID-19 transmission for First Responders, it has been found fire and emergency services responders should use precautions from droplets and potential contact with droplets, which may remain on solid surfaces. These precautions include eye protection, surgical/N95/procedure masks (hereafter referred to as face masks), gloves, gowns, and also perform meticulous and frequent hand hygiene and sanitization. This is the simplest and easiest method, as outlined by not only public health experts but also many major fire services across the country.

With everything, we have been hearing about this nasty, contagious virus through our various media channels and outlets. How did we get here? How is this our current recommendation? It took us a bit of time to get to this point, as much of the initial information provided to first responders and the general public was because of the fact that we were still learning about this new strain of the virus. Although we were still learning during this period, we have seen consistent misinformation and sensationalization purported from not only the media but various experts and journalists. We have seen fire services take this information and choose to select wearing various personal protective equipment including SCBA air packs(self-contained breathing apparatus) PAPR (powered air-purifying respirators) and APR (air-purifying respirators) style respiratory protection.

Within my professional inner circle in the world of hazardous materials and CBRNE training, I have had the opportunity to participate in various webinars and training events across North America to learn more about this pandemic. We always consider risk-based response initiatives when dealing with this on the job as a frontline firefighter, and there was one common factor. Many experts had a different opinion or point of view on which personal protective equipment to wear while responding as a frontline worker, no matter who you listened to.

I worked very closely with some of the best hazmat operations technicians in the country, many who are well versed in the areas of a chemical response, viruses, bacteria’s and bioterrorism events. While diving into the discussion and asking these questions, even caused some of my closest mentors’ heads to spin. As a relatively younger haztech compared to my counterparts, where many are 20 years my senior both in age and experience, left me frustrated.

How was this virus so different? Does it travel further, does it have a far greater range of contact than other viruses, does it stay on surfaces or travel in ways that are much different than that of other viruses we currently know about? These are all great considerations we need to ask, as we develop a plan to respond.

It seemed with the massive amount of information provided to professional first responders, only caused more confusion and frustration among those of us in the hazardous materials and fire service community. It seemed as though every fire department I communicated with was initially responding to medical calls among other emergencies where risks of Covid-19 were present, wearing many different levels of personal protective equipment. With the information provided to the emergency services regarding the time duration for the wearing of a surgical mask, disposal precautions, talks of PPE shortages, virus contact tracing and surface survivability rates has caused even some of the most diligent fire services and health professionals to second guess their current choice of PPE, when dealing with patients.

When taking a look at the general public, we are currently seeing it now with the mandatory use of masks by the ordinary citizen while indoors of a public facility. Based on what we currently know so far, is it absolutely vital to wear masks when appropriate social distancing is taking place, and everyone is sanitizing properly? Is the public being properly fit tested to ensure that this mask can truly protect them? What about the opportunities for cross-contamination by not donning and doffing the mask properly (taking it on and off). We know that the use of a surgical mask is recommended not necessarily to only protect the wearer, but to protect those around the wearer. Although the protection rate isn’t 100%, it can all have some effectiveness in reducing the positivity rate. It has yet to be seen as it seems the cases across the country continue to rise, while the critical cases and deaths are at a new recorded low. The answers to all of these questions remain to be seen, and we will continue to learn from these events, as we move further down the road.

However, one thing remains to be commonplace after the many months of information, social media, insights from various doctors and experts on this super virus… that a vast majority of us in the emergency services and healthcare facilities are still taking many of the exact same precautions we did in the first place. These guidelines prepared prior to the pandemic were a part of our universal precautions medical risk-based response based on our original standard operating procedures for dealing with a virus or bacteria. The universal precautions approach to infection control to treat all human blood and certain human body fluids, bacteria and viruses as if they were known to be potentially infectious including additional bloodborne and airborne pathogens. This PPE selection would include eye protection, surgical/N95 style/procedure masks, medical gloves and gowns overtop of our regular station wear or firefighter bunker gear to reduce contact to skin and our respiratory system.

We haven’t seen too many fire service personnel continuing to respond in an SCBA air pack, not many paramedics arriving in a fully encapsulated hazmat suit or police officers wearing tactical CBRN response masks? This still begs the question as we continue throughout the pandemic…sometimes simpler really is better.

Adam McFadden is a professional firefighter and hazmat technician for one of the largest fire departments in Canada. He is the owner of Firehouse Training and is responsible for program development of various fire service training programs. Adam is the co-chairman of CBRNEU University, an online micro-learning training platform, for those currently working within the area of hazardous materials response.

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