Firefighters should be able to work as medical first responders during the pandemic if they get the right personal protective equipment, the head of the Fire Service Association of Nova Scotia said Tuesday.
Daniel Gaudet spoke to CBC News after hearing about April George, a Nova Scotia woman who died after collapsing last week at her Bass River, N.S., home. It took 80 minutes for help to arrive after her husband called 911, despite a fire hall sitting just minutes away.
Nearly a year before, at the start of COVID-19 lockdowns, Emergency Health Services (EHS) told firefighters across Nova Scotia to no longer attend most medical calls for safety reasons.
“It was the right call at the start, but now knowing COVID and the cases in Nova Scotia, I feel comfortable that if they have the proper PPE [personal protective equipment], they could respond to calls,” said Gaudet.
“However, those numbers can start rising again, so I think we need to be very cautious.”
As of Tuesday, Nova Scotia had 12 active cases of COVID-19.
Training for firefighters ongoing for months
Firefighters are now being called only for fires, vehicle crashes, or if paramedics request help moving a patient from the scene to the ambulance.
Gaudet, who is also the chief of Nova Scotia’s Saint-Bernard fire department, said mask fittings and training on COVID-19 protocols have been offered for up to six firefighters at each station since last summer.
There are roughly 270 fire departments in the province with 2,000 medical first responders.
Gaudet has been calling stations trying to determine who can respond to medical calls, and estimates 50 fire halls now have that capability. He did not say which ones.
McNeil says Bass River case ‘alarming’
On Tuesday, Premier Stephen McNeil said what happened in Bass River is “alarming.”
“I know that it’s being looked into to see what happened in that particular case, and what we can do to make sure that service is there,” McNeil told reporters at a COVID-19 briefing.
“My understanding is now that training is ongoing and that part of that service will be back up and functioning.”
He couldn’t say when that would happen.
Volunteer firefighters and paramedics are also eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, said Dr. Robert Strang, the province’s chief medical officer of health.
EHS at heart of problem: Gaudet
Gaudet said the root of the problem is EHS, where understaffed and overworked paramedics struggle to respond to calls. That leaves big holes in coverage, meaning people might wait hours for an ambulance.
“It’s not for the medical first responders program to fix the problem that we have right now with the ambulance service in the province,” said Gaudet, who has called on the government to make a report on ambulances public.
Charbel Daniel, a senior manager at EHS, told CBC News that 35 groups of medical first responders were fitted with masks and trained in September, so they can now respond to all calls. He didn’t say where those first responders are located.
He said EHS is now training 58 more groups and will prepare all of the remaining 126 groups in the coming months.
‘A vital role’
Michael Nickerson of the Nova Scotia Paramedics Union said overworked and under-resourced paramedics could use the help of medical first responders.
“In rural areas, when ambulances are responding from greater distances, medical first responders do play a vital role. They’re not a replacement for paramedics in any way, but they can start to provide treatment before paramedics do arrive,” he said Tuesday.
He said paramedics feel a personal obligation to answer every call for help. That leads to burnout.
“It’s extremely frightening and bad. The paramedics are suffering as well as the citizens,” he said. “It affects them mentally, emotionally and physically, not being able to help people.”
In Bass River, meantime, Kevin George is fundraising to hold a funeral for his wife of 19 years.
“Only 46, she was,” he said Tuesday. “She was the heart and rock of my whole entire life.”