COVID-19 and first responders: How the pandemic has impacted Kingston’s emergency services

Firefighters with Kingston Fire and Rescue don face masks while they tend to the scene of a collision as Frontenac Paramedics stand by. Photo by Lucas Mulder.

Stay-at-home orders, arrows on the floors of business, lineups outside grocery stores – one need only look around to see the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted and changed a lot of things.

But some of the impacts aren’t seen by the majority of citizens – the work and lives of our first responders, for example. From increased risk on the job, to altering the routines that have been ingrained in their careers, firefighters, paramedics, and police are experiencing their own sets of impacts and changes as a result of the pandemic. Here, we take a closer look at the effects the pandemic has had on Kingston’s emergency services.

Kingston Fire and Rescue

A Kingston Fire and Rescue firefighter surveys the damages at a vehicle accident while wearing personal protective equipment. Photo by Logan Cadue.

Like their colleagues in paramedicine and law enforcement, Kingston’s firefighters are doing a lot more proactive sanitizing, and facing an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their constant interaction with different people.

“Kingston Fire & Rescue’s (KFR) first responsibility is to protect its firefighters and the community,” said Chief Shawn Armstrong. “With this in mind, at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, KFR swiftly implemented measures to ensure the safe and reliable continuation of its emergency services.”

These measures were developed based on guidance from Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington (KFL&A) Public Health and implemented with support from the City’s Occupational Health Team, Armstrong said. Some of the protocols that were implemented include: screening for COVID-19, masking, physical distancing, limiting close contacts, frequent hand washing, and the strict cleaning and disinfecting of shared spaces between shifts. Those measures, and perhaps a stroke of luck, have been more than successful thus far, as not a single firefighter has contracted the virus on duty.

“As a result of [our] comprehensive response, there are no known cases of firefighters contracting or transmitting COVID-19 while on duty,” Armstrong expressed. “Out of an abundance of caution, five firefighters have self-isolated. One firefighter is known to have contracted the virus outside of work since March 2020.”

Firefighters with KFR who have any symptoms of COVID-19 are required to stay out of the workplace and to go to the COVID-19 Assessment Centre for testing, Armstrong explained. Should a firefighter contract COVID-19, they are required to self-isolate, per public health guidelines. Any KFR firefighter who tests positive will not attend work or a call and will follow direction from the corporate occupational health team and Public Health agency, Armstrong said.

“KFR looks forward to the roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccine,” he said, noting that no date for the vaccination of KFR firefighters has been set yet.

“In the interim, and afterwards, safety precautions will continue to be closely followed so the response and support staff at KFR might continue to serve the community.”

Frontenac Paramedic Services

A paramedic with Frontenac Paramedic Services approaches the scene of a vehicle accident alongside a Kingston Police officer, both wearing protective face masks. Photo by Lucas Mulder.

As paramedics continue to serve in order to keep local residents safe, they, too, face an increased risk of contracting COVID-19 on the job. Paramedics are also donning and doffing personal protective equipment (PPE) on every call, making the difficult and physical work they do that much more labour-intensive.

Like Kingston Fire and Rescue, Frontenac Paramedic Services (FPS) can also luckily say that none of their personnel have contracted COVID-19 on the job.

“While there have been no positive COVID-19 test results due to workplace exposures among Frontenac Paramedics so far, the pandemic continues to have a significant impact on our work behind the scenes and in the field,” said Paramedic Chief Gale Chevalier.

“In the field, paramedics screen each patient for possible COVID-19 symptoms. They follow specific steps on each call for putting on and taking off personal protective equipment,” she continued. “Make no mistake, the risks to paramedics as front-line healthcare workers, and to their families, are real. The impact of the pandemic on our work is significant. I’m confident, though, that we’re as prepared as we can be for whatever comes.”

Chevalier explained that any paramedics experiencing possible COVID-19 symptoms follow Public Health direction for testing and self-isolation. Frontenac Paramedics have plans in place in case significant numbers of paramedics can’t work because they’re self-isolating. They have a good supply of PPE on hand, she said, but they continue to source more to ensure paramedics have the supplies they need.

But one thing the paramedics need can only come from the citizens they serve, Chevalier expressed.

“We will always provide the best care possible for those who need it, but we rely on patients to please be honest and upfront with paramedics about any possible COVID-19 symptoms they may have so we can make the best decisions,” she said.

Kingston Police Force

A Kingston Police officer ushers traffic through a RIDE program while wearing a face mask. Photo by Cris Vilela.

Unfortunately, Kingston Police, who have altered which vehicles they take to calls due to the constant need to sanitize vehicles, have not had the same luck as KFR and FPS have. Just recently, three members of the Kingston Police have tested positive for COVID-19, though it is not clear how/where the virus was contracted at this time. Those members are currently at home self-isolating, Chief Antje McNeely disclosed on Thursday, Jan. 14, 2021.

“KFL&A Public Health continues to investigate the nature of acquisition among staff and as such, surveillance testing is being recommended for all, in order to gather more information; however it is not mandatory,” McNeely said. “The risk to the public is low.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, five Kingston Police members have tested positive for COVID-19.

McNeely explained that the best prevention for a potential exposure at work is the development of and adherence to a robust protocol. Kingston Police have that put in place in partnership with Public Health from the very beginning of the pandemic.  If a Kingston Police member tests positive for COVID-19, the member follows the strict guidelines provided by Public Health, including compliance with queries pertaining to contact tracing, self-isolation requirements, and ensuring a safe return to work, McNeely said.

“Our HR Director and her team play a prominent role in documenting this process. We are adhering to the best advice provided to us by Public Health to protect our members,” she explained.

The practices Kingston Police are employing include mandatory temperature screening and self-assessment questions upon arrival at work, social distancing, good hand hygiene, mandatory wearing of procedural masks when not able to physically distance, and mandatory wearing of safety glasses when not able to maintain social distance from a person not wearing a mask.

“We are doing our best to reduce transmission and acquisition of COVID-19 throughout the workplace, and I would like to thank Dr. Moore and staff at Public Health for their workplace inspections and guidance to ensure we have best practices established,” said McNeely.

With files from Cris Vilela.

One thought on “COVID-19 and first responders: How the pandemic has impacted Kingston’s emergency services

  • Thank You: FD. PD and Paramedics for all you do. Stay safe.

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