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Fire departments deal with limited PPE

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Fire department officials said this week they are getting creative with shortages in personal protective equipment, such as moving from disposable equipment to HAZMAT suits, as first responders look to tackle emergency calls during a public health pandemic.

Fire crews now have to take more information into consideration when arriving on scene, Missoula Fire Department Chief Jeff Brandt said this week. Dispatch will alert first responders if the caller is experiencing symptoms such as a fever. If alerted to such conditions, fire crews have access to personal protective equipment they will need to stop COVID-19 from infiltrating the city's fire halls.

Brandt said Tuesday the Missoula Fire Department has seen between two and four calls each day where people report such symptoms since the outbreak reached Montana.

“We’re looking to protect our folks with proper PPE and triaging those patients with the precautions,” Brandt said. “Maybe it’s just the ambulance folks who get within six feet. We’re here to help if need be, and if not, then we probably don’t need to be in that house or that space.”

The fire department's stockpile of personal protective equipment is "lean," said assistant chief Gordy Hughes, as much of it went to the state to be redistributed to hospitals and ambulance services like Missoula Emergency Services Inc. Hughes said HAZMAT suits — which can be decontaminated, cleaned and put back into action — were expected to arrive at the department this week.

The volunteer-heavy Frenchtown Rural Fire Department has been refilling its light stash of N95 masks, roughly $1 each, with industrial-use RZ masks, closer to $40 each, said firefighter Mel Holtz.

"It's been an issue for us," Holtz said. "Definitely, the coronavirus has cost us a lot in medical equipment. Some of those costs are just to prepare for what might be ahead here."

Like Missoula Fire, the Frenchtown department has been ramping up in-house education on protection measures and updating their procedures as state and local officials release new information each day. As education becomes mandatory, crews still have to respond to calls as they come in. A few days before speaking with the Missoulian on Tuesday, Holtz said a burn pile on a resident's property got out of hand, spreading 17 acres before fire crews were able to knock it down. 

"We're doing our part to flatten the curve," Holtz said. "We have 46 volunteers that have stepped up and are taking shifts, and it's been amazing, the volunteer response. They're standing by ready to help their community."

The sense of urgency and caution that comes with the COVID-19 pandemic feels a lot like the intensity of wildlife season, Hughes said. Nine Missoula Fire staff are tied into local incident command teams, working on logistics, planning, operations, finance and more, Hughes said. 

“It’s all hands on deck to do their part,” Hughes said. “We definitely are in a state of triage out in the field to limit exposure.”

Hughes said resource management has to look beyond the outbreak for the annual disasters, as well.

“It’s not just (coronavirus),” Hughes said. “Floods are on the horizon. How do we transition to that and stay viable? And then we could roll right into fire season.”

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