Running Low on Supplies, Firefighters, Paramedics Scramble to Find Ways to Protect Themselves Against COVID-19

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In Dallas, an entire fire station was temporarily shut down for cleaning, and nine firefighters are off work, quarantined after a fellow firefighter tested positive for Covid-19.

In Fort Worth, nearly 200 vital N-95 protective masks are used daily by ambulance crews, as North Texas and the rest of the world scramble to get more in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

Meanwhile, some fire departments are running out of the masks, and looking for other ways to protect themselves from the virus.

“Nationwide, N-95 respirators are in short supply. So we have developed some contingency plans,” said Jake Owen, battalion chief for the Frisco Fire Department.

Among them, ambulances in Frisco are equipped with regular firefighting masks – normally worn in smoke-filled buildings – with each specially fitted with a filtration cannister, providing protection in case the N-95s are not available.

The ambulances are also sanitized, using special sprayers both inside and out, after each run, providing safety for patients as well as first responders.

“Without the firefighters being here and our paramedics, we can’t serve the public. And that’s what we’re here for,” Frisco Fire Chief Mark Piland said.

Across the Dallas-Fort Worth area some EMS providers are nearly out of masks, including in Fort Worth where MedStar is burning through about 200 masks a day.

Without fresh supplies, MedStar said it will likely run out of masks before the end of the week.

“We knew this is going to happen, and it should be preventable by now,” said Dr. Peter Hotez, one of the nation’s top epidemiologists who works at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

“I mean, our only recourse if this continues in large numbers is to bring in special units of the National Guard. And that itself has a lot of implications,” Hotez said.

Responding to the crisis, the International Fire Chiefs Association and the U.S. Conference of Mayors sent a letter to President Trump, saying: “If we lose our emergency personnel to the disease, we cannot transport people to hospitals and protect our citizens…”

The letter added, “We need updated and transparent information regarding the national stockpile.”

First responders, often used to chaos, told NBC 5 Investigates that that novel coronavirus has put us in uncharted waters.

“Unprecedented is a good word to be using right now because this is something none of us have ever seen before and, quite honestly, you don’t even want to contemplate,” said Capt. Michael Glynn, president of the Fort Worth Professional Firefighters Association.

Glynn said paramedics within the fire department try to screen patients over the phone, while rushing to help them, in hopes of knowing what protective gear to wear when they get there.

Still, there is a worry among the rescuers on the front line.

“I’ve got family, kids … and not wanting to transmit it to your family members,” said Clay Daugherty, a lieutenant in the Fort Worth Fire department.”

“We’re just doing the best with what we know to keep it from happening,” Daugherty said. Meanwhile, more masks are being made available from the federal government’s strategic national stockpile, though it is not known how many or when they will arrive at local distribution points.

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