Fighting fires is a difficult job, even more so during a pandemic.
North Island Gazette Editor Tyson Whitney interviewed Port Hardy Fire Rescue’s Information Officer Adam Harding about how the fire department has continued operations ever since COVID-19 made its presence known, becoming a harsh reality for the entire world.
Whitney: How many calls has Port Hardy Fire Rescue attended during the pandemic?
Harding: We have had 23 calls since March 15 including road rescue, structure fires, alarm activations, duty investigations, and an elevator rescue.
Whitney: What changes has the fire department implemented to keep the roster safe from COVID-19 while still doing their job?
Harding: We have made multiple operational and administrative changes that follow the direction of the Provincial Health Officer and Fire Chiefs Association of British Columbia.
These changes include:
Both Fire Hall No. 1 and No. 2 are closed to the public and anyone other than members of Port Hardy Fire Rescue.
We have stepped up sanitizing of the halls, trucks and equipment.
Any time a truck is driven the cab and compartments are sanitized after use, as well as any equipment that may be used.
We have transitioned fully to virtual Thursday evening fire practice by Zoom.
Although this has limited the typical hands-on time we get at practice, it has allowed us to catch up and cover some theory topics.
Several practices have been held jointly by Zoom with the other North Island departments including Port McNeill, Hyde Creek, Sointula, and Alert Bay.
We have implemented a staggering strategy for crews for monthly Sunday equipment checks to maintain physical distancing among crews (to avoid having 20 people in the hall at one time).
For emergency calls, we are practicing physical distancing as best as possible.
This includes maintaining physical distancing on the fireground to the extent most possible, staggering crews in responding trucks where possible, and practicing proper hygiene including frequent hand sanitization, and wearing of masks where necessary.
For any emergency calls that involve direct contact with a patient(s) including medical calls, road rescue calls, or any other call where we may have close and immediate contact with a patient or member of the public, we have policy now that mandates any firefighters in direct contact with the patient wear gloves, a mask, eye protection, and a gown if necessary.
Although this was always best practice before the pandemic, we have expanded the number of situations where PPE to this extent is mandated to be worn.
Whitney: The North Island Rockpro fire lasted for over 12 hours, how was the team feeling afterwards and did the pandemic change anything for how your team attacked the fire?
Harding: There is no doubt that the North Island Rockpro fire was an exhausting battle. I know that I personally was feeling the effects even a week later.
Our crew were champions however; fighting the fire was only half the battle. The amount of cleanup that had to be done once we returned to the hall was monumental. Our crews powered through though, and before 11:00 p.m. that same night all equipment and trucks were returned to service, ready for the next emergency. Our crews truly embody the spirit of professional volunteers, going above and beyond every time the pager goes off.
In terms of the pandemic situation during this fire, in my opinion it didn’t fundamentally change any firefighting strategies. It can be difficult to maintain physical distancing when you’re backing someone up on a hoseline, but we did the best we could given the situation and that we were stretched for manpower all day long. In the staging areas and wherever else possible including back at the hall for cleanup, we maintained physical distancing as best as possible. As above we had to ensure as part of our cleanup procedure that all equipment, truck cabs, etc. were all sanitized before being returned to service, and this certainly adds some extra time.
Whitney: What’s the toughest part about fighting fires during a pandemic?
Harding: Specific to fires the toughest part can be maintaining physical distancing. On the fire ground, we always work within the buddy system, and when you’re backing someone up on a hose, or doing forcible entry through a doorway, it can be difficult sometimes to maintain that distancing. But, we do the best we can given the situation, and most of the time in active fire situations such as that when you’re working in close proximity, firefighters are masked up in SCBA anyways, which is about the best protection you can get. Outside the hot zone at staging, rehab, and the command post we do our best to maintain physical distancing and routinely sanitize our hands.
Whitney: Anything the fire department would like to say to the community?
Harding: The most important thing the public can do to help first responders during a pandemic situation such as this is, if you call 911, to notify the emergency dispatcher if you are exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19, or have been in close contact with someone who may be infected. Emergency dispatchers relay this information to our crews, and it helps us prepare in advance, before we get to the scene. This ensures our crews remain safe, while helping you.
Other than that, we always appreciate the support that we have from the community.
Our members are all volunteer, and we always appreciate the kind words and support we receive around town. It goes a long way.
Whitney: Anything else you would like to mention?
Harding: Don’t forget to follow Port Hardy Fire Rescue on Facebook (www.facebook.com/porthardyfire) for regular updates and information about emergency response and fire prevention and safety.
Also, a big thank you again to our mutual aid partners in Port McNeill for their support on April 18 during the North Island Rockpro fire.