With a six-month supply of masks and protective gear on hand, the Mehlville Fire Protection District is well-equipped to handle the COVID-19 pandemic, although the fire chief said he worries about an increase in cases once school starts in person.
With South County rising in recent weeks as a coronavirus hotspot in the St. Louis metropolitan area, “it’s on everybody’s mind,” said Chief Brian Hendricks. But he added, “We have the COVID situation well at hand.”
He does worry about the future, however.
“This stuff is like stopping the wind, it’s everywhere, it’s in our community, it’s established itself, and as things begin to reopen, I’m worried about when schools open up, what that’s going to be,” Hendricks said. “I can only say how happy I am about the decision that the county executive (Sam Page) has made (to recommend all-virtual schooling). It’s hard, this is a tough time. … I hope sometime in the not so distant future, we look back on this and say, ‘Remember when we had to walk around with the masks?’”
So far, five Mehlville firefighters have tested positive for COVID-19, including two active cases right now. So far, none of those cases have spread to any other firefighter, and there have been no serious cases among those diagnosed.
“We’ve been very lucky,” Hendricks said.
State law treats every COVID case in first responders as if they got it on the job so they can receive workers’ compensation. Hendricks is not sure whether those firefighters got the virus on the job or not, but he said it shouldn’t matter if the proper protection is used on every call.
“We’re adopting the attitude of it really doesn’t matter, we are very diligent with our use of PPE and if you’re wearing the proper PPE, then it’s not an exposure,” Hendricks said. “You can walk into a room with someone who is COVID-positive and if you are wearing the proper PPE, you will be protected.”
As an extra precaution, the district has implemented social distancing inside firehouses, with masks required and every firefighter-medic required to stay 6 feet apart. There is no congregating in common rooms and mealtimes are separate.
Decontamination or “decon” is a way of life for firefighters on the job right now, with daily decontamination and cleaning of all engine houses. The district has an internal quick-response decon unit that is dispatched with foggers if someone gets sick or extra measures need to be taken.
“If you see our crews driving down South Lindbergh, you’ll notice they both have masks on in the truck responding to calls,” Hendricks said. “It’s not just the decon, it’s what we do day to day — deconing the houses, deconing the trucks, doing the social distancing, the total package to minimize the risk.”
Every call is treated as if someone with COVID-19 is on the other side of the line, with full protective gear worn. Despite the rise in cases in the community, calls have remained steady at about 50 to 55 calls a day. The COVID Mobile unit that will send dedicated critical paramedics to a suspected COVID patient’s house to advise on what to do and how to keep them out of the hospital is still taking calls, but is now stationed at the No. 7 Firehouse at Interstate 55 and Butler Hill Road to test all the first responders in St. Louis County who call a St. Louis County hotline. So far, the unit has tested about 150 first responders. The paramedics conduct the tests Monday through Friday and take them to the lab.
Although Mehlville has had positive COVID cases and crews down due to quarantines, as a larger district with multiple firehouses it can still keep service at regular levels despite that type of setback. But when the Lemay Fire Protection District had to quarantine all its firefighters after one tested positive, Mehlville and Affton had to rush in to take calls at Lemay’s firehouse. Since all Lemay crews run out of one firehouse, all crews had contact with the firefighter who tested positive.
Hendricks said due to Mehlville’s size, the district is “very fortunate to have a lot of redundancy in our system, the number of employees, the number of engine houses, so we can make adjustments to meet the needs of the community in the event that we would lose an engine house.” Just in case, the district has a plan in place how it would still provide the same service.
Mehlville firefighters also have to be quarantined at home if a family member is waiting on a COVID test result, turning into a full quarantine if the family member is positive.
To treat every call like it’s a COVID-related call takes a lot of personal protective equipment or PPE, and the district acted fast to increase its supplies as the pandemic started in March. Knowing that it would exceed the district’s budgeted line item for medical supplies, Hendricks went to the Board of Directors and asked to stock up on PPE. That comes from the district directly buying it, as well as receiving some for free from St. Louis County or the state.
The board agreed to provide more money to stock up on masks and other PPE.
“Obviously this board is very proactive with our community paramedics and our critical care paramedics,” Hendricks said. “We will do whatever we have to do to protect our people first and foremost and deliver the service.”
Due to the early purchases that put the district ahead of where it needed to be, buying PPE right now is no issue because production has ramped up to meet demand, the chief said.
“We’ve taken the position that we will always have six months of PPE, standalone with no help, and anything that we receive from the county or the state is a bonus,” Hendricks said.
Cleaning at the firehouses is “very diligent,” Hendricks said. All of the firehouses are decontaminated on a regular basis, wiping down all hard surfaces, phones, flat surfaces and fire trucks according to guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. The district has ultraviolet lamps that kill viruses and bacteria and uses those once a week at a minimum at all the firehouses.