Uncertainty on every call

First responders develop new protocols for emergency runs


One night last week, Donahue firefighters responded to an EMS call north of town. When they left the station, little did they know it would be their first test in possibly coming face-to-face with the coronavirus pandemic.

Because the Donahue department is short-handed, Long Grove firefighters were also dispatched for mutual aid, and Captain Amy Shannon, an EMT, responded.

Even she wasn’t totally prepared for what happened when she arrived.

“Honestly, it was kind of a reality check,” said Shannon. “I found out while I was en route about the possible situation. I don’t even remember what went through my mind. It was like, ‘OK, this is what we have to do.’”

The call came in as a medical emergency. Assistant Donahue chief Ken Schoenthaler, also the town’s mayor, was on the call.

“En route, we found out from dispatch that there was a concern about a possible exposure, which triggered a higher level of response,” said Schoenthaler. “Amy came because we’re pretty short on medical people.

“As soon as she arrived at the residence, we threw her in the Tyvek suit and everything. She went in and did the preliminary evaluation, and then Medic rolled in and gowned up.”

“The person had exhibited symptoms and had possibly been exposed to someone who had been overseas,” said Shannon. “So, I’ve had a run at it, and it went well. I got there, and they got me the stuff out. I got it on and went in. Everything went fine.”

Tests later came back negative.

In that case, it was trial by fire, but the recent pandemic has altered how area fire departments are responding to every call.

“Right now, with everybody, we’re treating people as if they are infected,” said Donahue Fire Chief Dave Coon. “Anymore, you just don’t know. They could be asymptomatic and not being showing any signs.

“We’re just hoping that people heed the CDC (Center for Disease Control) and other public health guidelines that are requesting folks to not use emergency services for non-emergency issues.

“When we respond to calls, we are increasing our exposure,” he continued. “Unless you’re in really bad shape, they are telling you to stay home and self-isolate. We don’t want to go in and expose ourselves to unnecessary risks.”

Shannon says that risks are inevitable, and part of the job. However, she thinks that the virus is closer than everybody might realize.

“My thought is it’s already here,” she said. “We may not be testing and getting positive test results, but it’s here. That’s the way that we as volunteer departments have to approach it.

“We have a very limited number of personnel and resources, and we have to do what we can to protect our people and our families. One way of doing that is we are limiting patient contact.

“Every call, right now, we have to approach on a case-by-case basis,” Shannon continued. “We more or less assume there has been an exposure, even if we don’t have that information available.”

The Donahue call also triggered a change in protocol for the Long Grove department.

“If we have a call, and five people respond, we will only have one person go into the residence,” said Shannon. “A, to conserve our PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and B, to limit our exposures.

“We will assess from a distance if possible, and if we can get the patient to come outside, that’s even better.”

That was the case early Sunday morning when an individual was having difficulty breathing.

Fortunately, the person was already outside when we got there, and that worked perfectly,” she said. “ I actually approached the patient and had on my mask to protect myself. Another firefighter immediately put a surgical mask on the patient to prevent him from coughing out anything.

“We got him assessed, and when MEDIC got there, we brought the cot up and got him out. A difficulty breathing call is not an abnormal call this time of year. But, given the current situation, it heightens your awareness a little bit.”

Unless Scott County dispatchers have determined that a call could have possible coronavirus connections, Long Grove firefighters simply wear an N95 mask and gloves when arriving on scene.

Firefighters also have a pared-down emergency bag to take into residences, because they don’t want to have to decontaminate everything after every call.

A bag with all their medical equipment is always positioned directly outside the door, and can be handed in when necessary, and for serious medical situations, more than one firefighter will enter the building.

“If our dispatcher has screened the patient, and there is the possibility of coronavirus exposure, then we do have additional PPE, like gowns and Tyvek suits, and also goggles when caring for patients,” said Shannon.

If it does come to that, every firefighter who enters the building will be decked out head-to-toe in protective gear, and every firefighter who is stationed outside, and who might need to help carry the cot, will be wearing a normal surgical gown, gloves and mask.

Like everybody else, first responders are in uncharted territory.

Jeremy Esch is a captain with the Long Grove Fire Department, and he says the coronavirus is on everybody’s mind.

“It just makes you rethink everything,” he said. “You rethink what you touch and who you come in contact with. We always try to be safe and wear the proper PPE, but you always second-guess yourself when it gets crazy like this.”

Immediately after Sunday morning’s call, and again later that day, the department’s medical personnel were trained on what to wear on every single call, and how to limit the number of people that come in contact with patients.

Still, despite all the precautions, Esch said the coronavirus is always one’s mind.

“Even as a normal person, when you’re out in public, you second-guess yourself sometimes,” he said. “So when you’re on a call, and trying to help people, you have no idea what you’re coming in contact with.

“Then, we all go home to families, too, and you never know what you’re taking back with you. I’m a little nervous. I have three young kids and a wife, and it does make you wonder.”

Coon, Donahue’s fire chief, is also nervous.

“We’re just trying to protect our people,” he said. “If we have to send in more than one person for medical assistance, we will, but we’re trying to limit our exposure and the patients’ exposure.

“The last thing we want to do is put our people in harm’s way, and we don’t have an infinite number of PPE kits. We are working on getting more, but they are in high demand.

“You have public health facilities that are screaming for PPE, and there are places and higher volume departments that have significantly higher needs than us. It’s a balancing act. I’m hoping that everything that everybody is doing will help mitigate this thing.”

“Right now, everybody has a limited supply,” said Shannon. “Even on Amazon, everything is sold out. That’s why we’re doing our best to conserve what we have, and right now, we can reuse the N95 masks.

“If we get to a point where our PPE supply is critically low, we do have our SCBAs (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) that we can use. Right now, we have four of the Tyvek suits to go inside, and have 10 gowns for the people who stay outside.”

Coon said this is a trying time for everybody.

“You look at sacrifices that everybody is making, and they are huge sacrifices,” he said. “The economy is being hit, and the education system is being hit. This is affecting everybody in some way, shape or form. Hopefully it passes sooner rather than later.”