As first responders, central Alberta firefighters want to be included in Alberta’s initial phase of vaccinations.
“We are the first responders at medical calls,” said Penhold Fire Chief Jim Pendergast on Wednesday. “We are facing the same risk as paramedics because we are the first to make the assessments.”
In rural Alberta, firefighters, who are either volunteers or paid on an on-call basis, often arrive at car crashes and other crises before ambulances. Up to 70 per cent of firefighter calls are to medical emergencies.
On Monday, paramedics were moved into the first phase of vaccinations by Alberta Health, along with front-line staff at hospital ICUs and nursing homes.
But as of Wednesday, firefighters/first responders are still waiting to learn where they fit on the government’s priority list.
While the Alberta Fire Fighters Association and the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association are applauding that vaccines are coming for paramedics, the organizations feel their members are in no less jeopardy from COVID-19.
The fire chiefs association questions why firefighters are expected to provide essentially the same service without vaccine protection? “We encourage government leaders to designate members of the fire service, who are at risk, as eligible recipients of the vaccine during the Phase 1A roll-out.”
Usually there’s no advanced warning that COVID-19 virus may be present when firefighters are sent out on calls, said Pendergast. And crews deal with vulnerable populations.
Pendergast said his members generally arrive wearing non-medical masks. More protective cartridge masks are scarce and expensive, so are worn only while firefighters are doing CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), involving a machine that provides a patient with oxygen and manual chest compressions.
While the firefighters take as many precautions as possible, including washing their overalls after every call, “obviously things can still happen when we’re the first ones there. We should be included to get the vaccine,” said Pendergast.
Red Deer County Fire Chief Dave Laurin said, “There’s always a possibility of catching the virus, no matter what PPE (personal protective equipment) you wear.”
Laurin agrees with the association that firefighters are at risk from the virus and should be vaccinated during the Phase 1 roll-out.
He noted three of his crew members have been isolating as they caught the COVID-19 (while off the job).
Some of Pendergast’s fire crew has also had to self-isolate.
The Alberta Fire Chiefs Association stressed that the risk to communities will grow if more firefighters become sick and can’t respond to 911-calls.
“It is proper and fitting that emergency responders, who have a high likelihood of coming into contact with the virus, should be protected through vaccination.”
Tom McMillan, spokesperson for Alberta Health, said “We recognize the important role of firefighters and all first responders.”
Alberta would like to be able to vaccinate many more individuals/groups earlier, he added. “Unfortunately, the limited supply from the Government of Canada has forced us to constrain who can get vaccines early.”
McMillan said the top priorities for vaccines at this point are continuing care residents and staff, and other health care staff who work around COVID patients routinely or are at the highest risk of exposure.
As the supply of vaccines hopefully increases, he said, “we’ll expand our approach to others based on the degree of risk.”