The United States government has recognized the fact that first responders are on the front lines in the fight against COVID-19. As a result, the CDC and OSHA have issued strict COVID-19 guidelines for all first responders, including police, firefighters, and EMS workers. All first responders must follow these potentially life-saving protocols.
The following safety strategies are designed to help first responders avert disaster. With no vaccine in sight, the COVID-19 outbreak has the potential to overwhelm the nation’s medical system. Workplace outbreaks could also lead to shortages of essential workers, leaving the nation’s most vulnerable citizens to fend for themselves.
Making a Plan
The CDC and other authoritative agencies have developed guidelines for all first responders to follow when they are on the job. It is important to note that these recommendations may be updated or revised at any time, as the COVID-19 pandemic is fluid. The information and resources made available by the CDC should be shared with all members of emergency agencies. Everyone needs to be on the same page.
- The International Fire Chiefs Association has developed detailed guidance for firefighters. Webinars and written material is available on their website.
- The National Association of State EMS Officials has also developed resources to help EMS workers to continue operations during the ongoing COVID-19 emergency.
- If you are looking for resources for law enforcement personnel, visit the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
All agencies must have multiple contingency plans in place to ensure that they can operate with little to no interruption. These contingency plans may vary among different types of first responders.
First responders can prepare by making sure that they have stockpiles of essential personal protective equipment available at all times. They should also be aware of the CDC’s emergency-time amendments to PPE recommendations.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and Additional Recommendations
While the COVID-19 situation has strained the national supply chain, all first responders must use PPE if they should come in close contact with people with confirmed or possible COVID-19. Law enforcement officers, fire and rescue workers, emergency medical technicians, etc. must follow the recommendations set by the CDC.
At this time, the CDC has recommended that all first responders wear face masks when they are in close contact with others. They have also encouraged health care professionals to utilize respirators when performing procedures that generate respiratory aerosols. Additionally, the CDC has advised first responders to don goggles, gowns, and gloves when performing aerosol-generating activities. Also, the CDC has updated its list of EPA-registered disinfectants.
The CDC currently recommends that essential workers use the following PPE:
- Cloth face covering for all situations in which social distancing is not possible
- N-95 or higher-level respirator (face mask when unavailable) for situations that require medical intervention
- N-95 or respirator for aerosol-producing medical procedures
- Goggles or a disposable face shield for aerosol-producing medical procedures
- One set of disposable examination gloves for aerosol-producing medical procedures
- Isolation gown for aerosol-producing medical procedures
The previously mentioned PPE items should be worn by all EMS professionals, including clinicians and drivers.
Important: The COVID-19 situation is ongoing. Changes in the supply chain or national COVID-19 statistics could result in updated personal protective equipment recommendations.
Patients and other bystanders must wear cloth face coverings throughout the entirety of their interactions with first responders. The CDC currently recommends that all individuals over the age of 2 wear face masks unless otherwise unable.
Cloth face coverings should also be born in breakrooms, offices, and other spaces where social distancing is not possible. Other steps should also be taken to reduce close contact and sharing between coworkers. You can find these steps at the CDC’s website.
In other words, emergency personnel must also take steps to avoid spreading the disease within their workplace. If an outbreak is to take place in a workplace, workplace leaders are required to notify the health department. From there, the health department and local Center for Disease Control will work together to investigate and manage the outbreak through contact tracing and enforced quarantines.
Changes to Workplace Standards
Let’s go over some of the ways that first responders’ jobs have changed since the outbreak of coronavirus.
First off, the CDC encourages all emergency personnel to monitor themselves for symptoms of COVID-19. A current list of symptoms can be found on the CDC website. The symptoms include:
- Loss of taste or smell
- Shortness of breath
- Muscle pain
- Sore throat
First responders should be tested for the virus if they suspect that they have come in contact with an infected individual or if they are demonstrating symptoms. While COVID-19 tests are limited, they are being prioritized for emergency personnel.
The Center for Disease Control has developed emergency time regulations regarding the use and distribution of PPE. Personnel must wear cloth face masks during regular interactions. They must utilize N95 respirators when dealing with individuals with confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.
Mask should be required whenever social distancing is not possible, including office settings, public areas, and emergency vehicles.
Precautions for EMS
Whenever possible, emergency medical dispatchers must question callers about the possibility that they have COVID-19. If there is a possibility that the caller has COVID, the emergency medical dispatcher must relay this information to the responding emergency medical personnel.
In such cases, emergency medical personnel must put on CDC-recommended PPE before entering the scene. All first responders should be able to recognize the signs, symptoms, and risks associate with COVID-19. These can be found on the CDC’s website.
All first responders must recognize that they and their patients have a high chance of contracting COVID-19. The risks are even higher in enclosed spaces, such as the backs of emergency vehicles.
Workers must take extra precautions when performing medical tasks in enclosed spaces. Steps should be taken to ensure that the fewest number of people are present. What’s more, surfaces should be disinfected regularly, and workers should wash and sanitize their hands more than ever before.
The good news is that EMS workers are highly aware of the risks involved with infectious diseases. Still, the COVID-19 situation has called for even more workplace restrictions than ever before.
Whenever possible, assessments must be made from a distance of 6 feet. If a patient shows signs of a respiratory infection, they should wear a mask. Ambulance windows and air vents should be kept open whenever possible.
On top of this, ambulance drivers must wear PPE. They must remove any soiled PPE before getting into an ambulance cabin to avoid bringing respiratory droplets into the front end of the vehicle. The driver must put on new PPE before removing the patient from the ambulance. At patient drop-offs, hospital personal must be notified that there is a possibility that the patient is infected.
After drop off, the ambulance and medical equipment must be thoroughly disinfected. All emergency personal must wash their hands. See the CDC’s recommendations for handwashing.
The hospital must follow up with their Designed Infection Control Officers (DICOs) if a patient has COVID-19. The DICOs will coordinate with local CDC experts. Contact tracing may be implemented. During which time, all involved emergency personal may be contacted and subsequently tested.
Like EMS workers, firefighters often treat and transport individuals. All firefighters should wear NIOSH-approved N95 respirators, examination gloves, eye protection, and coveralls when interacting with individuals who have suspected or confirmed COVID-19. They should also take care to use EPA-approved disinfectants to regularly disinfect all of their equipment and work surfaces, including those inside the firehouse and firetrucks. They should also wash their hands regularly and avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth. At the same time, they should wear cloth face coverings when they are within 6-feet of others.
The CDC has strongly suggested that all sick workers stay home from work. If a firefighter tests positive for COVID-19, they must engage in a seven-to 10-day isolation period. They may return to work once they have met all of the CDC’s return-to-work requirements.
Law Enforcement Officers (LEO)
As we all know, law enforcement personnel engage with people every day. These interactions vary greatly, but most certainly include situations in which social distancing is not possible. Naturally, law enforcement must operate under the assumption that they or anyone that they interact with may be a carrier of the coronavirus.
For this reason, the CDC has developed strict safety protocols for law enforcement personnel. Their guidance includes recommendations for everything from regular engagement to protecting police canines. Let’s go over some of their key points.
When officers respond to emergency calls, officers are not always able to maintain 6 feet of distance between other people. For this reason, they must now take extra precautions before entering a scene. Officers have been encouraged to wear PPE to scenes. They may don an N95 mask, a coverall, and/or protective gloves. Keep in mind that officers may not have time to don PPE before emergency calls.
Changes should also be made to routine traffic stops. Officers should don PPE. They should also wear gloves when handling vehicle registrations and other evidence. In some cases, officers may take pictures of evidence rather than handle it directly.
Officers should also clean and disinfect all of their gear, including the front and back seat areas of their vehicle, their duty belts, and any other surfaces they come in contact with on their shifts. They should carry hand sanitizer and disinfectant in their vehicle. They should participate in CDC-approved handwashing whenever possible during their shifts.
Need-To-Know Coronovirus Facts for First Responders
There is still a lot that scientists and doctors do not know about the novel coronavirus. What we do know is that:
- Coronovirus is spread by asymptomatic people.
- Stay-at-home orders and self-quarantines have helped the nation to reduce the curve of the coronavirus surge.
- Social distancing rules have helped people to avoid transmitting the disease.
- Essential workers, including first responders, are exempt from stay-at-home orders. We need them more than ever before.
Overview of COVID-19 Guidance for All, FF, LEO and EMS
All LEO and EMS should have proper personal protective equipment, including:
- NIOSH-approved N95 masks and high-level respirators
- Cloth facemasks
- Eye protection (goggles and disposable face shields)
- Disposable isolation gowns and coveralls
- Disposable examination gloves
- Disposable booties
All personnel must:
- Clean and disinfect their duty belt before reuse
- Follow standard procedures for donning, doffing, and disposing of PPE
- Follow standards for laundering uniforms, plain clothes, and cloth masks
- Maintain 6-feet of distance whenever possible
- Practice proper hand hygiene
- Avoid touching face, particularly mouth and nose
- Maintain transparency when it comes to potential COVID-19 cases
- Wear cloth masks during interactions with citizens
What Essential Workers Must Do If They Are Sick or Exposed to COVID-19
Essential workers should not report to work if they have a suspected or confirmed case of COVID-19. Instead, they should visit their local COVID-19 testing center to have a viral test performed. If the test comes back positive, they must immediately alert their supervisor. At which point, they may be required to fill out forms. Then, the employee will be asked to isolate at home until it is safe for them to return to work.
The employee’s supervisor is responsible for reporting the confirmed COVID-19 case to the local health department. They also need to communicate the transmission to all employees, patients, and other people the employee came in contact with during their previous shifts. As an additional precaution, they need to sanitize the agency office, emergency vehicles, and all equipment.
Wrapping Things Up
During global pandemics, it is necessary to recognize the ceaseless effort of all essential workers. First responders already face tremendous workplace situations. Now, coronavirus has upped the ante.
It is essential to note that workplace stresses have swelled for first responders since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. As essential workers, they are not able to work remotely. As businesses shut down or resumed remote operations, first responders maintained the front lines.
Essential workers must take extra precautions and, in some cases, completely rethink how they do their jobs. The CDC and other authoritative agencies have worked to supply emergency agencies with the resources and educational materials that they need to keep themselves and others safe. They have asked first responders to lead the nation in stopping the spread of COVID-19.