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Maple Ridge & Pitt Meadows firefighters: ‘We’re here to help’

Extra COVID-19 protocols and changes keep fire crews safe while working the frontlines
Maple Ridge fire chief Howard Exner. (THE NEWS-files)

Firefighters in Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows are used to putting their lives in danger to help those who need it.

And as the threat of COVID-19 spread into both communities, their call to action has been unwavering.

However, it is the angst over the virus and potentially exposing themselves to it that is the biggest challenge facing them each day as they go to work.

“The anxiety of COVID has been a challenge for everybody,” said Maple Ridge fire chief Howard Exner, whether in the fire department or doing anything else.

Firefighters, he said, are only on duty part of the time.

The rest of the time they are doing the same things everybody else is doing in the community, like going to grocery stores to get necessities for home.

“The idea of the disease itself is quite a challenge to everybody and then managing that here, because there is the opportunity that we may become involved with somebody who does have COVID-19 through a medical call or through any other type of call,” is difficult, Exner said.

However, his team is managing well, according to the boss.

Currently they are only responding to the most serious calls, as directed by Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, which means their call volume has decreased.

Typically, the Maple Ridge fire department would attend about 115 purple – immediately life-threatening – calls in a year.

The average, Exner explained, is one purple call every two days or so, and that trend is continuing.

So far COVID-19 has not infected any of the 55 career firefighters, six chief officers, or 65 paid-on-call members of the department.

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Although, Exner noted, some had to go into self-quarantine for 14 days after returning from their travels.

Additionally, Exner has segregated the fire halls. Crew members only go to the operational areas, administration stay within their own areas, and the Emergency Operations Centre stay on the second floor of Firehall #1.

The front door is closed.

They have also doubled up on cleaning and disinfecting measures of the halls with help from dedicated building service workers as well as firefighters themselves.

“Our goal is to protect our ability to do our number one mission: to do firefighting and rescue operations,” emphasized Exner.

Mike Larsson, fire chief with the Pitt Meadows fire department, is understanding of the directives given by B.C. provincial health office Dr. Henry about only responding to code purple calls.

For every medical call – before the threat of COVID-19 – firefighters at the department donned level one personal protective equipment, which included N95 masks, glasses, and gloves.

Now, when they attend purple calls, they attend with the possibility of their patients carrying COVID-19.

And, until recently, they would send only one member of the team in to assess the patient – and from a safe distance.

If the patient was found to be stable, in a comfortable position, and not needing immediate medical attention, crews then waited for B.C. Ambulance to arrive.

Larsson’s team, similar to Maple Ridge, continues to respond to motor vehicle accidents, fires, and alarm-ringing incidents.

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Currently, he said, their units are attending to a lot of backyard burning complaints after the agricultural burning season was suspended.

Smoke from fires could endanger lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and worsen health issues, Larsson noted.

However, with every call they attend, Larsson is not only concerned about the exposure of his members to the virus. But, if one of his own firefighters is sick, he worries about COVID transmission of the virus to the public at large.

Larsson said the biggest challenge for his members is the way they have to respond to any of their calls in these times – by putting on all of the protective gear.

But he believes those precautionary measures have helped ensure that none of the firefighters, staff, or paid-on-call workers, have caught COVID-19 – thus far.

That being said, Pitt Meadows has had upwards of four members at any given time in self-quarantine – because they were either around people who tested positive for the virus or others exposed.

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Firefighters are also finding it difficult adjusting to the elimination of training exercises with paid-on-call members. Still wanting to stay engaged and active, they’ve resorted to regular meetings on a teleconferencing app.

“It’s been a trying time, without a doubt,” interjected Exner, adding that all area residents – in every sector – are facing challenges with their financial stability and job security.

“We’re here to help. If there is anything we can do, we’ll continue to do that,” he concluded.

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Pitt Meadows fire chief Mike Larsson. (Contributed)

Colleen Flanagan

About the Author: Colleen Flanagan

I got my start with Black Press Media in 2003 as a photojournalist.
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