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First responders need protective equipment, too

It's not just health care workers who are trying to stock up on personal protective equipment

MACON, Ga. — Fire departments don't get days off.

Individual firefighters do, sure, but entire departments? Never.

Not even now, as so many other workplaces shut down or move to remote work.

"From our perspective, we're public safety and, therefore, we're going to be on the front lines," said Bibb County Fire Chief Marvin Riggins.

Now, in addition to the heat and smoke and the million other dangers firefighters face on when they respond to calls, they now have an invisible threat to contend with.

"We're trying our best to limit the exposure and minimize the ill effects of COVID-19," the Chief said.

Riggins says that means firefighters are trying to keep a 6-foot distance from the public, when possible, and using protective gear, like N95 respirator masks, if a patient is showing symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

Over the phone, Riggins says each fire unit has 3 or 4 masks. They're supposed to be single-use tools, but he says firefighters are sanitizing and reusing them to try to get more use out of them.

It's a move many health care agencies are making all across the country.

Still, eventually, they will need to be replaced.

"For the last couple weeks, we've been able to keep up with that, but we've certainly got our fingers crossed and we got our asset procurement people trying to find more for us -- as you just said, those are worth their weight in gold now, they're hard to come across," Riggins said.

To cut down on mask use, Riggins says dispatchers are screening callers over the phone, asking them if they have a fever or a cough. Firefighters on scene are repeating the questions from a safe distance.

They're also moving to a system where on many calls, only one firefighter makes initial contact with the patient--as opposed to the entire crew.

Riggins stresses regardless of your answers, help will come. 

Those questions just help firefighters know what kind of gear they need to be using while on the call.

"If our people appear to be somewhat distant, please don't take it as a personal thing," he said.

Obviously, if it's a life-threatening emergency, firefighters aren't going to wait and try to take your temperature before they get to work.

But Riggins says, when they can use them, these steps help firefighters use their gear strategically. That, in turn, helps them make masks and other protective equipment last longer.

Chief Riggins says his department will accept donations of supplies.

Right now, he says, they need N95 masks, Tyvek coveralls, and sanitizing supplies.

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