It’s easy to recognize on an individual level how COVID-19 has impacted your personal life, job, and department. Like many agencies in Canada, you have probably seen the effects of COVID-19 in changes in protocols, budget cuts or concerns, and changes in your schedule to eliminate training, community events or recruitment activities. You are not alone. We did some research and compiled an overview of how this deadly virus has impacted the fire service and response models across the country. Here’s what we found:
How COVID-19 Is Impacting Canadian Fire Departments
Budget Cuts Are Wreaking Havoc on Response Times and Access to Critical Emergency Resources
Mass budget cuts across the country due to COVID-19 have put a tremendous amount of pressure on Canadian fire departments, causing shortages in fire service personnel and needed equipment. In July, Calgary Fire Department was hit with its second budget cut this year, a reduction of $7.6 million as part of the city’s $60 million budget cut. (source)
“These latest cuts will mean that our response time performance will degrade,” said fire chief Steve Dongworth, CFD. “In the case of assembling an effective response force at a serious or escalating fire, it will degrade further.”
This caused a reduction of four medical response units at Calgary Fire Department, as well as one less rescue unit. Although layoffs are not planned, Calgary is not actively filling vacant positions due to retirements, and the planned recruit class of 40 firefighters that was supposed to start in mid-July was also cut due to budget limitations. Similar situations are taking place all over the country. (source)
Firefighter Training and Events Are at a Standstill
As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, thousands of industry training, recruitment, and networking events were called off. Departments were forced to suspend or severely alter their in-person training to allow for proper social distancing, many opting for virtual training where possible. (source)
This has impacted training new recruits as well, such as in Ontario. (source)
“We had to revamp the whole program, so we tried to remove a lot of the classwork. Instead, we had them doing practical, hands-on sessions that allowed for social distancing,” said Chief Derrick Clark, Oshawa, Ont. “After we get clear of this pandemic and some of the protocols and emergency orders in place, we plan to revisit some of the subjects that we weren’t able to cover as thoroughly.”
Tensions Rise Over PPE Shortages
Global shortages in PPE have put further pressure on first responders as governments and healthcare facilities found themselves scrambling to secure sufficient supplies of surgical masks, respirators, gloves, gowns, goggles and face shields for healthcare workers. On top of that, there has been poor communication about when more PPE is coming, how much is coming, whether it will be good quality, and where it will being distributed. Anxiety over PPE shortages is contributing to a kind of “moral distress” among healthcare workers. Without adequate PPE, those on the front lines have to deal with the added stress and fear that they could transmit the disease to their patients or to their loved ones, and that’s a whole new level of stress. (source)
First Responder Shortages Due to Isolation Requirements and Sick Time Are Leaving Fire Departments With Fewer Hands on Deck
Once COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, firefighters across the country were forced to go into self-isolation or quarantine after travelling or encountering a potentially infected person. This included stations in Quebec, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Halifax, Langley and Coquitlam, B.C., and Newmarket, Ont. (source)
In March, after 5 Montreal firefighters tested positive for COVID-19, 40 firefighters were sent into quarantine as a preventative measure. (source)
When the US wildfire season was at its peak in early September, three 20-person crews from Quebec traveled to the US to aid in battling the wildfires in California and other states. Crew members had to pass strict health tests before traveling to the US and then quarantine for two weeks when they returned to Canada. (source)
An Unforeseen Consequence: More House Fires
An unexpected consequence of Canadians spending more time at home turned out to be an uptick in housefires. In July, the union representing Toronto’s firefighters reported a 13.4 percent increase in fire calls compared to the same time last year, something it says is a result of more people staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Toronto Professional Fire Fighters’ Association, the majority of these fires started from careless, unattended cooking as well as careless smoking, like flicking cigarette butts from balconies (source).
This was also reported in Calgary. “From January to the end of August 2020, the CFD responded to 1,043 fire calls in the city — of which 138 were related to cooking fires — which resulted in six injuries and $1.6-million in damage.” With cooking-related fires on a steady incline, the department is making educating Calgarians about safety in the kitchen a top priority. (source)
Adapting to a New World: How COVID-19 Has Impacted Firefighter Response Models
The Canadian fire service has been forced to learn quickly and adapt their response models to effectively serve their communities while also keeping their crew members safe. With increasing calls for help and constrained resources, departments have been forced to draw on the same protocol set in place during H1N1 and SARS outbreaks. During those outbreaks, first responders were forced to be selective in who responded to different types of alarms in order to limit exposure.
On March 31, British Columbia provincial health officer, Bonnie Henry ordered the province’s firefighters to discontinue response to “all but the most dire medical emergency calls for the duration of the pandemic”. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia fire departments made the difficult call to only respond to medical calls under certain conditions, such as necessary auto extrication. In Montreal, it was decided only ambulance workers would be dispatched for medical calls. (source)
COVID-19 has made it overwhelmingly clear what a vital role Firefighters play in the healthcare system, not just during a crisis, but every day. As all-hazard responders, firefighters respond to emergency medical calls too, which requires them to morph to difficult situations and learn quickly. In addition, departments are having to get thriftier with their time and resources and seek out new and creative ways to affectively serve their communities. This could mean investing in tools like Emergency Reporting Fire/EMS Records Management Software and Rover Notification and Response Software that can help them do their jobs more efficiently with less hands on deck.