The COVID-19 virus has hit fire departments and agencies in other Western Washington cities from the Eastside, to the Puget Sound Fire Authority to Federal Way.
To date, it has spared 125 personnel, among them 98 firefighters, who make up the Valley Regional Fire Authority, which provides fire and emergency services to the cities of Auburn, Pacific and Algona.
But “to date” is not a guarantee.
And if COVID-19 hits the VRFA, a smaller department than those already mentioned, the effect would be more severe, said VRFA Chief Brent Swearingen.
“Having people quarantined isn’t as big a deal for them, just a crew or so, but it would be a bigger deal for us,” Swearingen said.
So to prepare for that possibility, VRFA personnel and fire folk throughout the region have been meeting, cogitating and planning lately.
Also, at 3 p.m., seven days a week, all fire departments in King County, agencies like the Seattle King County Health Department and the King County Health Officer meet via phone, review what happened that day, talk about the new deaths from infection, review their stores of equipment and discuss solutions to problems.
Here, Swearingen said, are some of the VRFA’s contingency plans:
If, for whatever reason, be it by quarantine or intractable child care issues, should firefighters be out and the VRFA can’t get them back, it can reactivate former firefighters who’ve moved on to staff positions, first making sure they’re up to date, and then putting them back on the line as firefighters and captains.
If the VRFA absolutely, positively could not get personnel back – it can’t mandatorily keep people – it has been considering a plan to gradually brown out stations, Swearingen said,
“We have an analyst who looks at, what if we take this rig out of service, what does that do to the service area? We do that in conjunction with all the other fire departments around here, so we make sure we don’t have big gaps in between,” Swearingen said. “Say, we have two stations in different jurisdictions that support each other. We don’t want to take them both out of service and open up a big service hole in the entire south county area.”
Here’s another major concern: the VRFA’s stock of protective personal equipment, or PPEs.
“We do have a stock, but it’s not infinite. Some other places were not quite as well prepared as we were, and we shared out some equipment,” Swearingen said.
Swearingen said the COVID-19 outbreak has forced a number of procedural changes.
“We’re not treating everything like COVID, but 911 calls are being screened a bit differently to pre-alert us,” he said. “If there’s a potential problem, the alert goes out that this is a potentially infectious disease, and if we have something like that, the crew will send in one person fully bagged up with all the PPE – the mask, the glasses, the gown – and that person will go in to scout, then alert people outside as to what the appropriate level of PPE is.”
That accomplishes a couple of things, Swearingen said.
“It protects the maximum number of people from infection, and it protects our store of PPEs,” he said. “If everybody uses everything all the time, we run out. We are just trying to stretch those supply lines, because there’s nothing in the pipeline right now to replace them. We do have enough for now, but our store is not infinite.”
As of today, Swearingen said, the VRFA is running at 100 percent.
“We have extensive resources and extensive contingency plans to take care of whatever we’re faced with,” Swearingen said. “We’re going to do our duty. I have 100 percent confidence in my people, I really do. But there may come a time when we are stretched so thin that we may not be able to provide the service people are used to.”