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Working as a first responder in the age of coronavirus

There are over 3,400 professional career firefighters in Victoria.

Professional firefighters are first responders; they respond to fires (structure and wildfire), HAZMAT and chemical incidents, and other emergency incidents such as heavy rescue, industrial/trench rescue, high angle and more. In addition to this, professional firefighters attend Emergency Medical Response (EMR)“Priority O” calls, co-responding with Ambulance Victoria Members.

Unlike many other professions, career firefighters obviously can’t work from home and at various times throughout our shifts, social distancing is impossible.

Insight provided by Leading Firefighter Shane Cummins

It’s just gone 7:15am as I make my way into the station to start work for the day. We technically work from 8am until 6pm for our day shifts but it’s a cultural quirk that we all arrive up to an hour early for each shift and allow a grateful colleague to leave work early, or otherwise prepare to ease in to the day. Ordinarily, we chat to the outgoing crew at the change over but in these days of social distancing it’s more of a greeting and brief report from opposite sides of a room.

Our crew prefers to wipe down all of the surfaces in the station before we start, mainly for sanitation but I think also for added peace of mind. The fire brigade is filled with tradition and routine and in these strange times a new one has emerged - at around 7:45 someone picks up a cloth or bottle of sanitiser and with that the entire crew is up on their feet. Ten minutes later every table, bench top, door handle, keyboard (and even some pens!) are freshly sanitised and smelling vaguely of chemicals, pine and citrus.

We muster downstairs at 8am sharp for roll call, to be allocated our tasks for the shift, and nowadays - get a daily update on the latest news and ever changing work practices relating to COVID-19. Then it’s off to check the truck and equipment to ensure everything is in order and… more cleaning - this time its the steering wheel, door handles, hand rails, dashboard, radios, torches (and, again, even some of the pens!).

It’s still a little known fact that professional firefighters respond to medical emergencies. Like nurses and paramedics, we’ve had to completely overhaul how we protect ourselves when turning out to these calls.

We always wore glasses, gloves and P2 masks when attending but now there’s also full length ‘coveralls’, multiple pairs of gloves, and copious amounts of sanitiser - we look more like lab technicians than first responders. Though it’s not ideal for administering CPR, it’s a necessary evil during a pandemic.

That afternoon we’ve responded to a person in suspected cardiac arrest. Rather than park directly outside the address as we normally do, we stop a few doors down so as we can fastidiously put all of our protective clothing on without being in full view of a potentially agitated friend or relative
of the patient.

The paramedics have arrived on scene before us and as we walk to the front door they deem it a false alarm and inform us that on this occasion we’re not required. It’s off with the coveralls, masks, gloves, and glasses. Then it’s into the sanitised truck and back to the sanitised fire station.

Published Saturday 22 August, 2020