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‘If we can’t go, who’s going?’: Carroll County firefighters, EMS working amid coronavirus, with some changes

Westminster city workers disinfect benches out of an abundance of caution in Belle Grove Square Park on March 19 after the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department responded to a medical call there that day. Carroll County's fire companies are also taking steps to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus.
Westminster city workers disinfect benches out of an abundance of caution in Belle Grove Square Park on March 19 after the Westminster Volunteer Fire Department responded to a medical call there that day. Carroll County's fire companies are also taking steps to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus.(Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

While many aspects of life in Carroll County have come to a halt during the coronavirus pandemic, fire and emergency medical services carry on — though with some modifications.

Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state of emergency March 5 in reaction to the spread of the coronavirus, also known by the disease it causes, COVID-19. Since then, bars and restaurants have switched to carryout and delivery, businesses deemed nonessential have been closed, and an order is requiring Marylanders to stay at home except for only “absolutely necessary” reasons.

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But when you call 911, someone has to answer.

“We’ve changed things a great deal," said Kevin Dayhoff, public information officer for Westminster Volunteer Fire Department.

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Dispatchers now ask 911 callers questions to determine whether the caller might pose a risk for exposing first responders to COVID-19, according to Dayhoff. If there’s potential for a case, the dispatcher conveys that to the fire company so emergency medical technicians and paramedics can don personal protective equipment before responding, he said.

“We’re going through a lot of personal protective equipment and we’re concerned about the supply chain on that,” Dayhoff said.

Westminster EMS Capt. Laura Tyler told Dayhoff there’s been a need for personal protective equipment for some time.

“We have been strained from the beginning,” Tyler said. "Our normal acquisition routes are having difficulty fulfilling needs across the country since early February, before this became a pandemic or a local threat. Reserving 911 for life-threatening emergencies will help us conserve our equipment.”

Donald Fair, president of Carroll County Volunteer Emergency Services Association, said all volunteer fire companies in the county are taking precautions. First responders are disinfecting equipment, apparatus, and the clothing they wear to protect themselves and others.

“We just want to keep ourselves well because if we can’t go, who’s going?” Fair said.

As of April 1, Maryland has reported a total of 1,985 coronavirus cases. At least 31 deaths cases had been reported across the state.

Firefighters and EMS providers have changed how they operate within the fire station.

For Mount Airy’s fire company, public information officer Doug Alexander said, company members are cleaning the station twice a day instead of once, hand sanitizer is at each entrance and surfaces are wiped down often.

Mount Airy closed its firehouse to the public March 12.

“Anybody that’s not a member of the fire company does not come to the fire station,” Alexander said, and members are encouraged to be present only when they have to be.

He said the pandemic has taken the togetherness out of the firehouse. Before the virus spread to Maryland, some of the eldest members of the Mount Airy company often gathered at the station to drink coffee and talk, he said. But now that’s not happening.

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Chairs that usually are clustered together now sit six feet apart, in accordance with the guidelines or health professionals and state officials.

And the company’s awards ceremony and banquet was canceled.

“Nobody knows when this is going to come to an end,” Alexander said. “We’re not hanging out like we were.”

Fundraising suffers

Another blow dealt to the fire companies during this time is a loss in revenue.

Mount Airy is canceling firehouse rentals and fundraisers two weeks at a time, evaluating the situation as time goes on, according to Alexander. If this continues, it will put a “tremendous strain” on their budget, he said.

The fire company, he said, stands to lose between $15,000 and $20,000 if cancellations continue up to May 24.

“That’s a real healthy bite out of our budget,” Alexander said.

Under normal circumstances, they would turn to the community for help.

“Our community has never let us down, but the problem with this time is our community is struggling because they’re not working,” he said.

Dayhoff is also concerned about the fire department’s finances in Westminster.

“Fundraising remains a problem,” he wrote in an email March 24. “We greatly appreciate the support of Westminster and Carroll County governments. That certainly helps to keep the lights on, but the bulk of our operations are directly supported by public donations. That support is critical; and at a time when we have increased expenditures to meet the demands of the COVID-19 health emergency, the inability to hold fundraisers is a problem.”

Fair offered a prediction for the fire companies.

“I think everyone’s going to experience a shortfall in revenue because of this,” he said.

However, there are some positive aspects to the situation. Alexander said April 1 that call volume is down slightly overall and a good number of members are responding to calls, perhaps more than usual because people are home more, practicing social distancing.

At Westminster, Dayhoff said April 1, first responders continue to work well together and call volume has held steady.

“However, we would like to caution folks to only call EMS for serious emergencies so that we can conserve our staff and supplies,” Dayhoff said.

With an uncertain future ahead, Fair said the volunteer fire companies will modify, adapt and overcome so they can continue to serve Carroll County.

“When you call 911 for help,” Fair said, “help will be there.”

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