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First responders take on greater risks during pandemic

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CLAYTON — While others stay home to avoid exposure to the coronavirus, the county’s firefighters, paramedics and 911 dispatchers are on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“Every day, we’re learning new things about COVID-19, so we’re having to take the necessary steps to keep our guys safe and our community safe,” said Matthew Sutphin, a battalion chief with the Clayton Fire Department.

Clayton firefighters are also first responders, meaning they are trained to provide emergency medical care.

“We’ve been going above and beyond just N95 masks and gloves and stuff,” Sutphin said. “Currently, if it’s a COVID-19 confirmed case, we’re using full (self-contained breathing apparatus), or air packs, and we’re only sending in one person at a time.”

That person can assess the medical emergency and call for additional help if needed, he said.

His first responders know the protocols, Sutphin said, explaining that they practice social distancing, wash their hands often and regularly clean their fire trucks. “Our trucks are being cleaned after every call,” he said. “We’re taking more and more showers after any kind of call where there could be some kind of exposure or something we’re not sure about.”

Sutphin said first responders can’t help but think about the risk they’re taking. But “they’re out the same as they would be and just want to help people,” he said.

They also want to help each other, he said. “It’s one big family around here,” Sutphin said. “We all work together as a team. They all know we got each other’s back.”

Firefighters spend 24 hours at a time away from their families and the comforts — and safety — of home, but if that’s wearing on his firefighters, he hasn’t seen it, Sutphin said. “Morale has been great,” he said. “They want to come to work and do their job no matter what. That doesn’t (mean) they’re not human and are not worried about getting it and taking it home to their families, but they understand how we still have a job to do.”

Sutphin’s colleague, Capt. Stacey Turner, said firefighters are heeding the governor’s order to stay home, though in their case, home is the fire station. “We take the order to stay at home very seriously,” he said. “We’re not doing any kind of out-in-the-district activities, such as hydrants and pre-planning and things of that nature.”

When they’re not on a call, firefighters are learning all they can about how to protect themselves and their loved ones from exposure to the virus, Turner said. “It’s about education, whether it’s our guys or our families,” he said. “We just take the necessary precautions in coordination with state and local EMS protocols.”

Beverly Herring, a supervisor with Johnston County 911, said COVID-19 is unlike anything she’s experienced. “We don’t know when the end is going to be,” she said.

“We want to make sure our first responders are safe,” Herring added. “Failure is not an option.”

Herring and her coworkers spend their shifts fielding often frantic calls about traffic accidents, fires and medical emergencies. To that roster, the coronavirus has added another category: calls to report violations of social distancing, she said.

“You handle what you can handle, and we as a team work together to handle that horrific incident,” Herring said.

It can be stressful, which is where training helps, she said. “We are trained a little bit in taking calls and learning how to remain calm,” Herring said. “They teach us repetitive persistence. You have to be able to have that little knack to handle that stress level.”

The coronavirus can certainly add to that stress, Herring said. “We try not to dwell on COVID-19 even though that’s in the back of our heads,” she said. “We are making sure we are keeping everybody as safe as possible.”

Jason Barbour, director of Johnston County 911, said pandemics are not something dispatchers train for. “It has been unlike anything that I’ve ever been privileged to learn on or to train on,” he said. “We’ve been through several hurricanes during my tenure here in Johnston County, tornados, Y2K and 9-11. We’re having to do some things that we’ve never done before.”

One example is locking down the 911 center and imposing stricter access protocols. As part of that, Barbour moved all administrative staff out of the center.

“We’re trying to limit accidental exposure to one of the telecommunicators,” he said. “The assistant director and I are trying to limit our face-to-face time as much as possible.”

Technology makes it possible for Barbour to work from home, reducing the chance that he’ll get the virus or pass it to a coworker. “At my house, I can do everything there that I can do sitting at my desk at the 911 center,” he said.

Johnston has two 911 centers, one in Smithfield and a backup in Clayton. If dispatchers have to quarantine, he can bring the Clayton center online quickly so Johnston has no disruption in 911 dispatching.

Dispatchers are the ones who make emergency services work, though few Johnstonian know what they go through daily. Barbour said. “Our telecommunicators are citizens, individuals and humans,” he said. “Their stress level is at the same peak as everybody else, plus, when they come to work, all they hear is people that are calling that are experiencing issues, problems.”

Ted Hardy is a paramedic and battalion chief with Johnston County Emergency Services, the agency that provides emergency medical care across the county. To him, maintaining professionalism during the pandemic is key.

“We have high standards at Johnston County EMS, and our mission to provide excellent care and quality service never changes regardless of the situation,” Hardy said. “Our staff is doing an amazing job stepping up to the plate to maintain our high level of care despite the pandemic we’re facing.

“COVID-19 has certainly created some challenges to our work environment, but we are meeting them head-on.”

Hardy said the administration of Johnston County Emergency Services is working hard to make sure emergency medical technicians have the equipment, knowledge and protection needed to respond to calls. One challenge, he said, is keeping up to date with the seemingly constant flow of information about COVID-19.

“We have to collect and vet this information in a timely manner, then find efficient ways to get it out to our staff,” Hardy said.

“The second major challenge is maintaining constant vigilance over our supply of PPE (personal protective equipment), our usage patterns and supply chains,” he added. “Keeping our field staff safe and healthy is paramount so that we can maintain our commitment to our community.”

The best defense against COVID-19 is being a team player, Hardy said. “For all of this to come together, we need teamwork from everyone involved in our system,” he said. “We have an excellent team that is meeting that challenge.”

“These unprecedented times have presented us with the opportunity to take a look at some of our operational and communication procedures,” Hardy added. “Some of the changes that have been made will continue to benefit our system well past the current crisis.”

Emergency medical care is innately stressful, and COVID-19 has only increased that stress, Hardy said. That’s why having a strong support system is key, he said.

“Having coworkers, supervisors and admin to talk to about a particular call or event is massively important,” Hardy said. “Their shared experiences go a long way to help each other through difficult times.”

Amid the coronavirus, Emergency Services is supplementing that support, Hardy said. “We’ve made some virtual counseling sessions and online support groups available to our staff to also help with the current crisis,” he said.

“Mental health is essential in this line of work,” he added. “Hearing words of support from our county and division leaders is also of importance. Our staff (is) on the front line of the fight against COVID-19, and (they must know) that they have support from our community.”

Out in the field, EMTs and paramedics are taking extra precautions to limit exposure to the virus, Hardy said. “When responding to all 911 calls, the minimum level of PPE that we are requiring is gloves, safety glasses or goggles, and a surgical mask,” he said. “If screening by our 911 communications team reveals any symptoms related to COVID-19, our staff upgrades their PPE to wearing an N95 mask.”

Any patient with COVID-19 symptoms also gets a mask, and when the ambulance returns to the station after the call, it undergoes decontamination, Hardy said. And like those Clayton firefighters, EMTs and paramedics are taking more showers.

Kevin Hubbard, director of Johnston County Emergency Services, said he is proud of the hard work Hardy and many others are doing. “Our ambulance crews ... they’re in it every day,” he said. “We’re all first responders, but they are literally the first ones to make contact with patients who are sick.”

And they can’t help but get close to patients who might have the virus, Hubbard said. “Once they get into the back of an ambulance, that’s a really small, confined environment, and based on different types of treatment they may do, that can increase their chances of exposure,” he said.

Hubbard said Emergency Services has been more aggressive in protecting its employees during the pandemic. “They wear N95 masks when protocol dictates,” he said. “And even when they’re not wearing the N95 masks, they’ve been directed to wear a surgical mask on calls. Anybody could have it and not even know it.”

Paramedics are going through masks quickly, and that’s a concern, Hubbard said. “Right now we are nearing a critical phase in our supply of personal protective equipment,” he said. “Our burn rate is going up because we’re getting more calls associated with COVID. Probably the biggest challenge we have right now is finding resources to be able to maintain our PPE levels.”

But with teamwork and determination, better days are ahead, Hubbard said. “This is just such an unprecedented event that we’re dealing with,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a collaborative effort between everybody to get through this.”