COVID-19 has infiltrated our lives and has established a new normal. As we take every precaution and don our face masks to run essential errands, our frontline workers are bravely facing this pandemic head-on. Shauna Baccus, an EKU Online student from Saskatoon, Canada, is earning her degree in fire, arson and explosion investigation while working as a firefighter. She has been serving on the frontlines of COVID-19. “The world does not stop turning when disasters happen. There are those that have to work in these disasters and we strive to protect ourselves the best that we can…we hope to get things right quickly,” she wrote in a message to EKU.
Scientists currently believe COVID-19 is transmitted through person to person contact primarily by respiratory droplets. There is currently no vaccine on the market to combat this disease, requiring each of us to take our own precautionary measures to “flatten the curve.” Firefighters, fire investigators, and other fire science professionals are all asked to take these same precautions when on the job. Firefighters are now wearing a combination of PPE (personal protective equipment) which includes medical facemasks, N95 respirators, disposable gloves, face shields, goggles, and gowns when interacting with people on the scene.Kyle Higgins, an EKU graduate working for the Kirkland, Washington fire department, is on the frontline in a location that has been referred to as one of the original epicenters of the virus in the United States. “During the initial days of the pandemic response, almost all calls required us to don full PPE (mask, eyeglasses, gloves and gowns),” he said. However, in an effort to keep firefighters safe and limit the use of PPE, his department adopted the “SCOUT” model, where one firefighter wears full PPE and assesses the patient and the situation in order to make an appropriate decision as to the level of PPE needed. Firefighters are also asked to remain six feet apart, when possible, to limit potential infection. The firehouse has provided an additional set of challenges. Home to firefighters on duty, it’s another space that now requires frequent cleaning and social distancing. Disinfectants have become a staple around the firehouse. All equipment must be regularly disinfected along with the firehouse itself. At Higgins’ firehouse they established “hot zones” that stood apart from the rest of the firehouse for contaminated equipment to be decontaminated with their electric ionization sprayers. This was in addition to establishing decontamination stations at the hospital to prevent spreading the virus. Other guidelines have suggested ways of limiting exposure, such as: staggering meal times in order to limit interaction of coworkers, increasing the frequency of laundry, adding new hygiene rules, changing CPR protocols and many more. Most notably, firehouses — typically community centers — have had to close their doors to the public.
The CDC implores employers to make emergency preparedness plans for how they will deal with COVID-19 and encourages taking regular temperature and symptom checks. Firefighters risk being infected and infecting others in the community if these precautions are not taken. Higgins touted his time at EKU for equipping him for long term planning. “Many of the classes in the fire program at EKU discuss planning and pre-planning for events like this,” he explained. “This proves that if you have a plan in place the response goes smoother. My department had a plan and was able to adjust the plan as the response increased.” This is however a fluid situation as we learn more about the virus. “Being that I am a firefighter, I have been inundated with a plethora of information regarding COVID-19 and how to protect oneself against it. With the virus being so unknown, the versions and revamps of procedures is almost daily,” said Baccus. The CDC has provided a comprehensive resource for everything that firefighters and EMS providers need to know about COVID-19, click here to learn more.
The EKU Online Fire Science program also had to adapt quickly in this new environment. Faculty worked tirelessly to ensure the graduation of these heroes who are committed to serving their communities in such a trying time. Classes for on-campus students were moved online. Annual summer residencies, which give students an opportunity for hands-on experience on the Eastern Kentucky University campus are now virtual. Baccus is one of many who will be able to graduate due to this adaptation. She was looking forward to spending time with other students and her professors, so she views the change with mixed emotions. “I am disappointed that I cannot travel to Kentucky and grateful that I will be able to complete my summer residency all at the same time,” she said.
Despite the challenges that COVID-19 has posed, EKU remains dedicated to educating fire science students and keeping them on track for graduation so that they can go out and better their communities — becoming the change agents of tomorrow.
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