When Clark County Fire District 6 firefighters Max Olson and Dave Fisher responded to a call for a sick elderly man in early March, both believed it was nothing more than an average dispatch.
“There wasn’t anything that really stood out to us that made us very concerned about his health or well-being, and there wasn’t anything super remarkable about the call,” Olson said.
The firefighters — Olson also serves as a paramedic while Fisher is additionally an emergency medical technician — were dispatched for a report of a person with diabetic issues. The man was presenting with general coldlike symptoms.
The patient answered their COVID-19-related questions in the negative: He hadn’t been traveling. He was staying at home. He was limiting his contact with other people.
Olson and Fisher treated the patient for no more than 20 minutes before he was taken to the hospital. They halfheartedly wondered if maybe the man was ill from the novel coronavirus. By the second week of March, 56 people had died from the virus, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
It turns out, they’d just responded to Clark County’s first reported COVID-19 case.
Despite having been tasked with asking questions about the illness, the fire agency and others in the county did not have solid protocols in place for responding to such dispatches. They wore their normal gear for sick calls: protective glasses and gloves, Fisher said.
“That was about the extent of our precautions at the time,” he said.
Over the next two weeks, fire agencies countywide would put in place many more protections for their employees. Wearing layers of protective gear, asking patients COVID-19-related questions and keeping distance from those possibly infected quickly became the norm.
At Fire District 6, specifically, the agency started limiting the number of responders who would go into a patient’s room initially, and crews donned masks and thick gowns, among other equipment.
But the earlier exposure for Olson and Fisher meant they were required to quarantine for two weeks.
Being disconnected from their jobs so suddenly was challenging, they said, because there were so many things they didn’t know. There were questions that couldn’t be answered. The firefighters were in contact with the CDC daily, and the federal agency was, for the most part, making sure the men were feeling OK.
“That was probably the hardest part; the constant communication had us worried, but little could be given as far as answers. Second, just having to stay at home was hard, because at the time, there were no county or statewide stay-at-home orders. So, we were the only ones seemingly affected by it locally,” Olson said.
The mandatory time off allowed Olson and his fiancee to watch everything enjoyable on Netflix. It also gave him time for home projects and yard work. When none of those activities were enough to occupy his mind, his fiancee bought a puzzle, which the couple completed together.
Fisher, who spent his time quarantined doing “a lot of home projects,” said the firefighters’ perspective on the virus hasn’t changed over the past nine months. Firefighters receive dispatch notes in their vehicles’ computers and over the radio as they’re responding to scenes, he said. There are some indicators in place informing responders that it could be a COVID-19 call, but there’s no way of knowing until they arrive.
This requires firefighters and other responders to treat every call as if the person could be sick from the virus, Fisher said. On calls that may not seem like they involve COVID-19, it doesn’t mean the person standing next to the patient isn’t positive for the virus, he said.
Overall, the most prominent change prompted by the pandemic is the amount of time calls take. The extra equipment and safety procedures translate to more time away from the fire station.
“A typical call, in the past, was fairly quick, including coming back to the station and getting everything in order. Now, we have to make sure everything is cleaned and accounted for. It takes more time out of our day,” Fisher said.
The new procedures will likely stay in place after the pandemic ends. The illness has changed the world, and the extra steps have become a necessity, according to the firefighters.
As the months passed, Fire District 6 crews were dispatched to more confirmed cases — confirmed beforehand by patients or by dispatchers asking them questions.
The firefighters said it’s difficult to say how much the frequency of COVID-19-related calls has increased. Once patients are in the care of a hospital, their medical treatment is protected and made private by law.
Clark County residents have been thankful for the firefighters’ response and care, Fisher said, but that’s nothing new.
“Patients’ care has always been No. 1. So, as far as how we treat the patient and how the patient perceives us, it’s stayed the same. No matter what the call is, we’re there to help them through it,” he said.
The firefighters admitted they’re putting themselves at increased risk of getting sick, but they said calculated risk is part of their jobs.
A special study conducted by the U.S. Fire Administration says fire agencies nationwide reported a total of 564,106 fire service personnel responses to confirmed or suspected COVID-19 incidents, between Jan. 1 and late November. The International Association of Fire Fighters, a labor union representing paid, full-time firefighters and emergency medical services personnel in the United States and Canada, reports that 23 of its members have died from the virus this year.