The COVID-19 pandemic means many adjustments for the Saanich Fire Department, but firefighters are finding ways to keep morale high.
“Much like the rest of the globe, it’s a change in times and there’s quite a bit of anxiety,” said Deputy Fire Chief Dan Wood.
He acknowledged that firefighters know they’ve signed up to put their lives on the line but that the “unknown” of the COVID-19 virus made the team anxious at first. However, with the leadership from the municipal, provincial and federal governments paired with extra training has reignited confidence, Wood said.
— Dan Wood (@firechiefwood) March 18, 2020
New protocols that align with the orders from Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry and the latest science have been put in place to keep the crew safe.
Increased hygiene practices and etiquette have been implemented to keep the team healthy. “We start clean and finish clean,” Wood explained. Deep cleaning of the stations and high traffic touch points is done several times a day.
He added that, as a rule, firefighters are also now required to practice physical distancing with one another and remain at one station for their whole shift to reduce contact rather than transferring from station to station.
Today @SaanichFire we have taken steps to keep our crews and community safe
— Dan Wood (@firechiefwood) April 4, 2020
With the help of the Saanich Emergency Operations Centre, a fourth fire station has also been established at the Pearkes arena which was closed to the public on March 17. The decision to create another station came out of efforts to permit firefighters to keep a two-metre distance from one another and reduce the number of crew members in isolation should a member of the crew be exposed to the virus.
The pandemic has changed the way Saanich fire operates but it hasn’t changed the “nuts and bolts” of the work, Wood explained. While the crew has halted non-urgent fire inspections in the District to reduce contact with residents, fire suppression operations are ongoing as the pandemic hasn’t changed the number of calls the team responds to.
“There are still fire calls, there are still structure fires, there are still lots of car accidents [and] we’re still providing rescues in our parks and trails,” Wood said.
However, medical call volumes have declined because the number of health emergencies that Saanich Fire responds to alongside their BC Ambulance Service teammates has been strategically reduced, Wood said.
Typically, firefighters will attend “the more high-risk calls.” Following Henry’s orders, the number of calls that both paramedics and firefighters attend has been reduced to minimize the number of first responders potentially exposed to COVID-19 or other infectious diseases, Wood explained.
Now, firefighters are only sent to calls involving extreme high-risk, non-responsive patients with deadly trauma, he said. The rest are managed by paramedics.
He added that firefighters are well-equipped with personal protective equipment and that contact with patients is minimal. If a patient does test positive for the virus once in the hospital, Island Health will reach out to all first responders who’ve been in contact to ensure proper steps are taken, Wood said.
“That close the loop-type communication is really well taken care of,” he said – though he’s grateful this hasn’t happened yet. So far, no Saanich firefighters have positive for COVID-19.
Despite the pandemic, firefighter training is ongoing although the methods have changed to reduce contact with others, Wood said. Exercises and strength training are done while practicing physical distancing and scenarios are played out on a whiteboard rather than by firefighters.
“Morale has been good,” Wood said, adding that the team has come together to help one another through the new challenges. Many have stepped up to lend a hand by taking on babysitting duties or offering to get groceries for their coworkers, he added.
“They’re not afraid to pull up their socks and carry on,” Wood said proudly.
The Saanich Fire Department is also working to implement more “feel-good outreach programs” to stay connected with the community and boost morale.
Hey #Saanich! Are you under 12?
Having a Birthday and at home isolating with mum and dad?
Your @SaanichFire Firefighters would love to driveby to recognize your big day!#distancing
Sorry no contact or cake #StaySafeStayHome
Info? email@example.com pic.twitter.com/6hcw5pzj3n
— Saanich Fire (@SaanichFire) April 17, 2020
Drive-by birthdays were recently established for residents younger than 12 missing out on the standard festivities, Wood said. The crew will come by in the firetrucks with lights flashing and sirens blaring to help youngsters mark the day. Families can reach out to the department at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.