MAPLEWOOD, NJ — Before the novel coronavirus crisis, when the Maplewood Fire Department took a medical call, the ambulance and EMT crew were away from the station for an average of 45 minutes. Now, having to put on two layers of personal protective equipment (PPE), being extra cautious at the call, and having extra wait times at hospital emergency departments and extra steps to ensure no viral contamination, each call can last for 90 minutes or more.
“We’re taking extra precautions. It’s working,” said Chief Michael Weber in an interview with TAPinto SOMA. “It’s a challenge.” They have ramped up their protocols for every aspect of an ambulance call, from transportation to decontamination, to meet the CDC guidelines in the past two months as the virus has increased in the area.
“The guys have done a tremendous job” handling the situation as it’s gotten more intense, said Weber, who has been with the department for 29 years and was sworn in at the beginning of November as chief.
The precautions are a must as a small fire department. There are four platoons, and Weber acknowledged that if one fire fighter/EMT — and in Maplewood they serve this double duty — gets COVID-19 then that whole platoon will be out of service in quarantine for two weeks. “Then we’re in trouble. We just don’t have the guys to cover it,” he said.
“Everyone is a little nervous, obviously,” Weber said, as they have had days when they have transported six or seven positive cases to area hospitals. “Everyone’s biggest concern is bringing it home to their families.” Cleaning has been ramped up in the fire house to twice a day, social distancing is being maintained where they can, and they even installed hands-free faucets in the sinks. “We’re trying to hit it from every angle,” said Weber. “We try to be a little more diligent than most.”
The advice offered to residents who might call 911 isn’t what they’d usually say, admitted Deputy Chief Christopher Ariemma: “Now is not the best time to go to the hospital” so if it is a true medical emergency, of course still call 911, “however, if you’re not sure, call your primary doctor first.”
Maplewood residents are taking the quarantine seriously, observed Weber and Ariemma, especially within the past two weeks. Overall during quarantine, Ariemma added, “call volume is probably down a little bit, but it’s much more focused on this COVID crisis.” With schools closed and residents at home, playground injuries are non-existent and — an automobile rollover a few days ago notwithstanding — “we’re not getting a lot of motor vehicle accidents,” said Ariemma. But they are nevertheless a fire department: “Fire alarms are still going off,” he said, and the department still provides mutual aid to neighboring towns such as Millburn and Irvington. “We’re still operating as normal.”
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