Red Deer Fire Chief Ken McMullen said Wednesday that there was lots of talk about how to handle emergency services shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association Conference and Trade Show. (Advocate file photo)

Red Deer Fire Chief Ken McMullen said Wednesday that there was lots of talk about how to handle emergency services shortages in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic at the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association Conference and Trade Show. (Advocate file photo)

Alberta’s fire chiefs shared pandemic lessons at Red Deer gathering

Alberta Fire Chiefs Association met in Red Deer this week

Alberta’s fire chiefs shared their pandemic experiences and lessons learned as they gathered in Red Deer for their annual conference this week.

“It was the first time for many of us to be face to face again after two years,” said Red Deer Fire Chief Ken McMullen on Wednesday.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic and how different fire departments responded to its challenges, was a recurring topic of conversation at the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association Conference and Trade Show, which started on Sunday and ended Tuesday.

“I think what’s come out of (the pandemic) is it speaks to nimbleness and that we have to be ready to respond as things change,” said McMullen.

“As first responders, we have always, inevitably been ready for changes because we live in that area of uncertainty in our business. What the pandemic did was just take that to a whole new level — from a staffing perspective to a resource perspective, making sure we had all of the equipment that was necessary.”

The highly contagious virus and its ability to sweep through workforces or other groups working, playing and living close together required an attitude shift towards illness for many employers and employees, who may previously have loathed to call in sick.

“I think before COVID if someone came to work with the sniffles or they didn’t look well we would rally around them and (they might) say, ‘I’m going to tough it out and just get through the day.’

“That’s really not accepted today. If you are sick, people are going, ‘No, it’s time for you to be somewhere else.’”

COVID not only introduced a bug with an alarming ability to pass from one person. As well, there was no real way of knowing if someone infected would have headache and flu-like symptoms for a day or two or would end up on a respirator or be dealing with long-term COVID months later.

McMullen said during pandemic peaks there were days when one-third of fire medics and other staff scheduled to work could not come in either because they were sick or were under mandatory quarantine.

“That’s unheard of. We’d never seen that before,” he said. “At the height of the isolation time frame, where it was 14 days without COVID (before being allowed to return to work), we were at a really critical point from a staffing perspective within the city.”

Every city department was affected, not just Emergency Services, he added.

“The challenge with Emergency Services is it does have a minimum staffing requirement, which means no matter what I have to call people in until I have 31 people in 24 hours a day.”

McMullen said the pandemic also showed the dedication and loyalty of Emergency Services’ firefighters and other staff, who were called in on days off and racked up mandatory overtime to fill the gaps.

“It has, and continues to, hit them hard. It hits them hard personally, from a mental health perspective, from a family perspective, but they still do it. I’m incredibly proud of the work the men and women of Red Deer Emergency Services has done.”

Besides fire-medics, fire inspectors, dispatchers and training officers all had to step into new roles at times during the pandemic.

And while infection rates are on the wane and the latest peak appears to be passing, the fire department is well aware cases may spike again in the fall.

“We’re talking about it. We have not put away our gowns and our extra protective equipment we were required to wear when doing those types of calls.”

The department is also encouraging staff to take advantage of the lull to take some time for themselves.

“Because we’re not out of this yet and it’s probably going to be something we have to plan for on a yearly basis.”



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