Some fire districts in St. Louis County have reported problems handling an increased number of calls while running out of the personal protective equipment needed to fend off the coronavirus. But for the Mehlville Fire Protection District, the story is the opposite: Calls are down overall, and the district has plenty of PPE.
Call volume has stayed consistently lower than usual for the last several weeks. The chief attributes that to the high number of people who usually come into the district to work every day but aren’t anymore, and the lack of traffic volume on the roads. The fire district responds to car crashes on Interstates 55, 255 and 270, along with other major roads.
“Obviously people aren’t moving about, they’re following the rules, they’re staying at home and that’s what’s driving the call volume down,” Chief Brian Hendricks said.
The district planned ahead early on for extra purchases of PPE to keep its firefighter-medics and paramedics well stocked with protective gear, Hendricks said: “Our people are well protected, we have everything we need.”
Employees and the district have taken measures to keep things that way, the chief said. Several employees canceled planned vacations to make sure that the district had enough manpower to handle a potential higher volume of calls. The district has canceled all public-relations events such as open houses, keeping firehouses locked down to the public. Non-emergency inspections have been suspended until further notice.
COVID-10 calls in the district are down from what they were a few weeks ago, when the district was taking eight to 10 possible positive COVID-19 patients to the hospital each day.
“Everybody’s sitting around waiting for the quote-unquote ‘surge,’ everybody’s waiting for the peak,” Hendricks said.
To keep equipment and ambulances available for patients who might need it, minor calls like illegal burns and assisting an invalid now get a “quick-response vehicle” instead of a full ambulance.
The district has implemented a staggered work schedule for office staff, and although the Board of Directors has continued to hold in-person meetings during the pandemic, only the three board members and Hendricks attend.
When the district receives calls that could be COVID-related, paramedics show up in full protective gear, with suits, gloves, goggles and masks. So far those measures have worked, with no employees getting the coronavirus.
COVID Mobile is launched
As paramedics responded to calls in the community in the first few weeks of the oubreak, they noticed that people calling 911 were frightened and unsure what to do or whether they had COVID-19. It’s an understandable reaction, Hendricks said.
“Heck, these are unbelievable times where you watch the news and they’re like, don’t go outside, stay away from people,” the chief said. “And I think it affects people differently. I think people are scared, and when they start to develop these symptoms they don’t know what to do. We’re just trying to give people a resource to help navigate this unfortunate time that we’re all going through.”
To help the public deal with that uncertainty, a dedicated unit of Mehlville Fire Protection District critical-care paramedics will perform in-home health screenings for district residents who are experiencing coronavirus symptoms through a new “COVID Mobile” program that launched April 8.
COVID Mobile does not administer COVID-19 tests, but instead visits patients to assess their condition, take vital signs, and recommend an appropriate course of action ranging from home monitoring to transport to the emergency room.
COVID Mobile operates from 7:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., seven days a week.
District residents should request appointments via a form posted on the front page of Mehlville Fire Protection District’s website, www.mehlvillefire.com.
The fire district initiated the program to help free up capacity in local hospitals as cases increase, Hendricks said in an interview with The Call.
Many have been discharged the same day because their symptoms could have been managed at home if they had known what to do, the chief said.
Any resident who is short of breath or feels they need to go to the hospital can still call 911, and the fire district will respond.
But residents who are experiencing more minor symptoms or aren’t sure what to do or whether what they have is coronavirus can schedule an appointment.
Once a person schedules an appointment through COVID Mobile, paramedics can do the health screenings on the front porch if that makes the resident more comfortable, Hendricks said.
But if the person is in bed or wants the screening inside, that can be done too.
The paramedics will conduct a complete health screening on the patient in the home, taking a full set of vital signs.
They might even leave behind a pulse oximetry unit after showing the resident how to use it. With the unit, the resident will be able to monitor their own oxygen levels.
“We’ll teach them how to use it, we’ll tell them what the numbers mean and when they get to a certain point, if they move in a negative direction that’ll be what prompts them to call,” Hendricks said. “And then of course if they get scared at any time, they can call and we’d be happy to take them in.”
The COVID Mobile program is repurposing the existing Mehlville Mobile integrated health unit, which makes house visits to the district’s high-volume 911 callers and has led to a dramatic decline in emergency visits from those patients.