Oak Bay firefighter Eric Rushton in coveralls, mask, goggles and gloves. It’s the outfit people can expect to see Oak Bay Fire Department members in during the COVID-19 crisis as the firefighters try not to spread the coronavirus. (Travis Paterson/News Staff)

Pandemic brings changes to fire department operations

New challenges faced by first responders

The challenges of mitigating the spread of COVID-19 have forced some changes to how the Oak Bay Fire Department operates though the protocols are not new.

“We have protocols that were in place from the Norwalk virus, SARS and H1N1,” said Oak Bay Fire Chief Darren Hughes. “These [date back] from then. One thing is we have to be sure we don’t bring diseases into seniors homes where we’re seeing tragedies occur.”

On all calls that involve assisting people Oak Bay firefighters show up in a full-body suit, mask, goggles and gloves.

In a similar way to how nurses and doctors are writing their names on the outside of their personal protection outfits so patients can recognize them, Hughes wants to ensure people are ready to recognize them as firefighters as it’s a different look from the traditional helmet and coat.

On medical assistance calls or when calls involve entering a confined space, three Oak Bay firefighters will dress in the personal protection equipment but only one goes in first to assess the situation. If the lead firefighter can manage it alone, that first firefighter will attend to the situation so the other two can disrobe from the whole body hazmat suit and save it for the next call.

READ ALSO: Greater Victoria fire departments restrict fire duties in light of COVID-19

Not that there’s a shortage. Hughes’ department has a high level of PPE right now as they were able to order it early in the crisis. But they conserve regardless and, if needed, share PPE with other fire departments in the region.

“We’ve made [sure] our other area departments know what we have,” Hughes said.

When they show up for duty, firefighters enter the fire hall from the back door and wash before the shift. At the end of shift, they wash up and leave out the front door.

So far the novel coronavirus has not hit any Oak Bay firefighters and only a few have been kept from duty. One firefighter did 14 days of isolation after he returned from travel. A crew that attended a medical call at the onset of the severity of the coronavirus had to isolate briefly until the people they attended tested negative.

Next door at the police station, Oak Bay Police Deputy Chief Ray Bernoties has also quarantined, also after returning from travel. However, a trio of officers dodged a COVID-19 threat just last week. It was after the theft of the 54-foot luxury yacht for sale at Oak Bay Marina where the suspect claimed to have COVID-19.

Deputy Chief Ray Bernoties on foot patrol with fellow Oak Bay Police officer, Sgt. Sheri Lucas, on Willows Beach. Oak Bay Police have taken to additional foot patrols to increase their connection to the community as they have dialled back home visits in response to calls. (Ray Bernoties Photo)

“Those members continued working as the suspect was cleared by the hospital,” Bernoties said. “We currently have no employees showing any symptoms.”

It’s not the first time in Bernoties’ career – which includes many years in Surrey – that he’s been informed by people that they are ill.

“I’ve dealt with individuals who have claimed to have HIV, Hep C, staph infections, etc.,” Bernoties said. “At times their claims were true and they were being helpful but other times they seemed to be trying to weaponize the issue to hinder the arrest.”

To mitigate the spread of the virus Oak Bay police has temporarily revised their usual mandate to attend every call. Officers have been issued masks and use them at their discretion while generally trying to physically distance themselves from the public.

READ ALSO: Oak Bay Police recover stolen yacht, suspect claims to have COVID-19

It’s a big change for Oak Bay police, whose calling card is attending all calls for service.

“Obviously, we still attend when there is a need,” Bernoties said. “We are trying to socially distance within our office and when we’re patrolling.”

Visitors to the Oak Bay police station can use the phone at the front door to call in and speak to staff.

“Importantly, we’re still out there engaging the public and proactively patrolling,” Bernoties said.

Overall, Bernoties confirmed with the E-Comm dispatch centre that the number of calls for service to Oak Bay police appear to be down though property crime appears to be up slightly.

reporter@oakbaynews.com

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