The supply of N95 masks for firefighters is critically low, Seaside Fire Chief Joey Daniels said at the March 23 City Council meeting. “We have nil to none.”
Dust masks are “OK” for responders as a protective measure, he said, but don’t form a protective seal like N95 masks, which are fit-tested and offer a tight seal.
While the county has a “very small supply” of personal protective equipment, as the number of COVID-19 cases increases, “this supply will go fast.”
City Manager Mark Winstanley addressed the concerns of local responders.
“As we go through this process, the unfortunate challenge is that we will have firemen ultimately exposed to the virus,” Winstanley said. “These are things we have to work our way through along with the general public.”
In addition to paid staff and volunteers, two Seaside Public Works employees have been assigned to the fire department, along with two hires from the police department with fire experience.
While the city always supports local hospitals, doctors, public health officials on the front lines, this is not an area that the city normally operates in, Winstanley said. “It’s a challenge for us and all of our community.”
Fire departments throughout the state are seeking supplies in any way they can.
“We’re out shopping these things on the internet trying to find them,” Winstanley said.
All Clatsop County fire departments are actively engaged with vendors asking the state for more equipment, Daniels said. “As equipment has been available we have all been getting limited supplies and we are helping one another out.”
Depending on the call, firefighters assess how they should suit up.
Daniels, who also serves as fire defense chief for Clatsop County, a rotating position every three years among the chiefs in the county, said departments are limiting access of personnel that need to be with the patient.
“If we are dispatched to someone that has any of the signs of COVID-19 we are putting a Tyvek suit on, goggles, and an N95,” Daniels said. “We have always worn N95s and safety glasses on any patient that has signs of the flu, so this is just us adapting to COVID-19.”
Dispatchers screen fire calls by asking if the patient has COVID-19-related symptoms like fever, cough or difficulty breathing, he said.
If the risk is clear, two firefighters don a Tyvek suit, rubber gloves and goggles before entering.
If risk is uncertain, one firefighter will enter with an N95, goggles and gloves to get information before making a decision on what others wear.
These procedures are in place for all fire calls, including fires, accidents or other emergencies.
Daniels listed the county’s main needs as more N95 masks, gowns, surgical masks, hand sanitizer and wipes.
“This is all equipment we would share with all of our public safety partners throughout the county,” he said. “We all work well together and help one another out. This is no different.”
Daniels said departments are “searching every day,” to bolster supply. “We have every agency in the county looking and helping one another out if they find a resource.”
Daniels said he wanted to set the public at ease if firefighters enter a scene fully covered in protective gear.
“We’re dressed up because you may not know you have something,” he said. “We want to make sure we don’t get anything. If I were to lose five or six guys to quarantine, it would be devastating.”