In the last month, six South King Fire and Rescue members have been quarantined after possibly being exposed to the novel coronavirus.
Two of the firefighters were released from the 14-day quarantine period on March 8 after showing no signs of symptoms. They were possibly exposed to the virus when responding to a call for service in late February, said SKFR Community Affairs Officer Lt. Andrew Lowen.
Four more members were placed in quarantine after responding to calls for service with exposure risks earlier this week.
All six firefighters, including those currently quarantined, have been asymptomatic and members of the public were not exposed to the virus at any time by South King Fire members.
“The firefighters were quarantined out of an abundance of caution for the public and our employees,” Lowen said. “There are no SKFR firefighters in isolation.”
Quarantine periods are required for individuals who are not currently showing symptoms, but are at increased risk for having been exposed to an infectious disease or those who could become sick and spread the infections to others, Lowen explained.
Isolation is used for individuals who are currently ill and able to spread the disease, and who need to stay away from others in order to avoid infecting them.
Firefighters are released from quarantine once they have completed the 14 days without showing signs of symptoms, or if the patients who they came in contact with are tested for the virus and those results come back as negative.
The nature of the calls, and specifically the information provided to 911 dispatchers, determines if firefighters should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when responding to an emergency.
In all three of the separate exposure incidents, South King’s firefighters were unaware of the COVID-19 exposure until on scene during the call or afterwards, Lowen said. The calls took place within South King’s service area of Federal Way and Des Moines, but Lowen could not provide exact information of which city the incidents occurred.
In one instance, a patient called 911 for chest pain rather than describing the emergency as shortness of breath or respiratory troubles. The miscommunication of symptoms led firefighters to prepare to respond for a cardiac issue, rather than prepare for virus risks and warning signs.
“Of the calls that came in, none of the firefighters would have suspected it would have been about respiratory concerns,” Lowen said.
As of Thursday morning, none of the four SKFR members currently in quarantine have shown symptoms of the virus, Lowen confirmed.
“As things have changed, we’re trying to be as proactive as we can to what’s going on,” he said.
The four SKFR firefighters each made the decision to self-quarantine at home, although the department has prepared two sites on fire department property for employees to quarantine if they need to separate themselves from family members or members of the vulnerable population.
In addition to following guidelines from the CDC and Public Health, South King Fire has stopped all public education events for the time being.
These events include free CPR classes, car seat installations and other education events. Suspension of these events can be expected for the next couple of weeks, Lowen said.
Internally, the department has implemented social distancing by limiting the amount of individuals in training and meetings, and switching to virtual methods for communications. Each day, a department-wide conference call is held to keep all members up to date.
When firefighters respond to an emergency call wearing full PPE (which includes masks, gloves, gowns and eye protection), it should not be assumed the patient has the virus, but rather the response efforts are in place to protect SKFR employees.
South King Fire does not have capability at the first responder level to conduct testing for confirmed cases.
“If a person calls with those respiratory issues, we’re still going to respond and we’re fully prepared for that,” Lowen said.
IAFF Local 2024 President Battalion Chief Ryan Herrera said the biggest concern is safety of personnel amid the growing outbreak.
“It’s such a difficult and challenging thing to corral and get our arms around,” Herrera said. “The downside is that things change rapidly.”
SKFR union executives, along with the department health and safety officer, are continuing to monitor the firefighters’ conditions on a daily basis.
Ultimately, South King Fire remains fully staffed and responding to calls for service, and following safety protocols to help protect both personnel and the public.
“That’s what’s driving our decisions,” Lowen said. “We want people to feel safe and know we’re taking steps to keep them safe.”