Governor Jay Inslee made his first public announcement about COVID-19 in late February. But even earlier than that announcement, the King County Fire District #2 had begun watching the news coming out of China.
“We leaned forward more quickly because Ray (Assistant Chief & Fire Marshal Ray Pettigrew) has a daughter who lives in China was hearing about how bad it was,” said Chief Mike Marrs, Burien Fire Chief. “That caught our attention. This one felt more real than previous potential pandemics, more eminent.”
Preparing for a pandemic
Our local fire and emergency medical service (EMS) departments are prepared for many different types of disasters. Earthquakes, flooding, landslides—all have their own specific response strategy for which emergency personnel train to respond. There were existing pandemic response strategies in place.
“We’ve been through such things as SARS, swine flu, H1N1, as well as anthrax,” said Marrs. “A lot of the response strategies are the same, regardless of pandemic or hazard event. This is what we continually train for. But in our conversations about preparing for a pandemic, we said the likelihood was low, like an earthquake or tsumani.”
The Puget Sound region was the first epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. Because some of the first cases were in Snohomish, Kirkland, and Seattle, our emergency personnel were at the forefront of trying to figure out ways to respond.
“I remember being on a conference call with Dr. Thomas Rea (medical director for King County Medic One) and telling him we just saw our first COVID-positive patient and asking: what do we do for our first responders to keep them healthy?” said Marrs. “It’s really helpful to have a doctor’s insight as we developed new protocols on PPE use, decontamination, etc. His advice was if we take the proper precautions, we are fine. There was a period of time, however, when there was so much unknown. That caused some angst.”
Securing personal protective equipment
The King County Fire District #2 had a three-month supply of PPE as part of a cache of pandemic supplies. They also had PPE that they used on a regular basis when responding to calls for someone with a communicable disease.
“We realized early on that masks were in short supply,” said Marrs. “When we looked at the number of calls we go on and looked at the dramatic increase in our usage, that’s when we started doing everything we could do get more in the pipeline.”
Early in the pandemic, there was nationwide shortage of PPE. That’s when Marrs and his team started looking for alternatives. They started making gowns out of Tyvek, a building construction material. But those gowns had to be thrown away after one use. They went to local fabric stores to purchase waterproof nylon materials so that they could make gowns that could be laundered. Those gowns could be used 15-20 times before they were discarded.
Karla Yantz, the mother of Fire Commissioner Julie Hiatt, has a small sewing shop in her basement. Fire inspectors and fire department administrative staff cut the fabric while she and family and friends did the sewing. They made dozens of reusable gowns and hundreds of face coverings for the fire department to use.
At about the time news outlets were reporting that health care workers were having to reuse medical masks, Puget Sound engineers and entrepreneurs were developing tools to sanitize medical masks so they could be reused. Graduate students from the University of Washington School of Engineering designed and built ultraviolet light sanitizing machines for fire departments in the King County EMS region.
“Because we were on the forefront of the pandemic, we felt like we were on our own and that we had to find local solutions,” said Marrs. “We’re grateful for the really smart people who got together to solve this problem.”
It’s safe to call 9-1-1
One troubling trend is that fewer people were calling 9-1-1 when they are having a heart attack or stroke. Deaths that occur outside of hospitals from these two causes have gone up.
“Don’t hesitate to call 9-1-1,” said Marrs. “We are still here to help you. We don’t want people dying of heart attacks and strokes because they are afraid to call us.”
Commitment to service
Marrs said that his department never expressed fear about responding to calls, and they were willing participants in safety planning. Rigorous health checks, frequent testing, and other precautions were put in place to ensure the safety of personnel and the community members they serve.
“Change doesn’t come easy to fire service,” said Marrs. “It’s grounded in tradition, and change can take a long time. I was amazed at how quickly we could make radical changes in our operations. I appreciate the firefighters and their willingness to get on board and make those changes quickly so we could continue to serve the people.”