SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Trent Eichmann would go through a wall for his fellow firefighters.
In fact, he did just that and displayed his acting skills during a recent training exercise for the Pooler Department of Fire-Rescue.
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Eichmann, the department’s training chief, played the part of a downed firefighter, laid out and unconscious in a wall of a burning building (actually a vacant house, not ablaze, used for training purposes).
Dallas Thompson, a recruit, was leading the Rapid Intervention Team to safely remove Eichmann. Lt. Josh Daniels was there to coach and observe the recruit over multiple runs into the building, searching and finding Eichmann’s limp body in various locations, then getting him out of harm’s way.
That was basically it. Three people in a training session. Pooler Fire Chief Wade Simmons said a big change because of the coronavirus pandemic is how the department trains its staff.
There are 59 firefighters at four fire stations working shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off. During any shift there could be about 18 people available for one training session in a classroom, on the grounds of a fire station or in a remote location such as that vacant house.
Training now is broken up over several sessions and several days to keep the numbers down and improve social distancing.
“If, unfortunately, we have somebody who has a positive (case of COVID-19) or thinks they are, we’re not wiping out a whole shift of people, just the three or four on the side of that company that we have to quarantine,” Simmons said.
“We’re trying not to congregate all of the companies in one place,” Eichmann said. “We try to do individual companies, try to do in-house training. We still need to keep our guys top-notch so we’re still training every shift.”
These are the people who go in the direction of the danger when others are fleeing to safety. But the coronavirus could be in any, or all, directions.
“It’s really important that we need to know our enemy,” said Capt. Scott Boyd of the Savannah Fire Department. “When we’re wearing our firefighting ensemble, our enemy is smoke and fire and heat. This is a different enemy. We just need to have the gear in place to combat this enemy.”
Fire departments across the Coastal Empire have made adjustments – some less noticeable to the public, such as reducing the number of participants in a single training session – during the coronavirus pandemic. The objective has not changed.
“The citizens are still getting the same level of protection that they were before,” Boyd said.
“Our citizens count on us,” Eichmann said. “When they dial 911, they expect us to be there, and we as a department want to be there to help our citizens.”
There have been changes on several fronts. While structure fires pose the biggest danger, about 80% of the calls in Pooler are not fire-related, Simmons said. Across the board, firefighters interact more with the public on medical calls, at motor vehicle accidents and when fire and smoke alarms are set off in homes and businesses.
Depending on the type of call, firefighters could be dressed from head to toe in 50 to 75 pounds of equipment, including the full mask and self-contained breathing apparatus. That level of protection has crossed their minds for more routine daily outings in this new normal.
“The biggest thing about it, a lot of us have wives and kids at home, and not knowing if you are carrying (the virus), were exposed during your shift and taking it back home to your family, I think that’s the biggest worry for everybody,” Pooler’s Daniels said. “We’re exposed to all kinds of stuff on a day-to-day basis.”
Instead of three or four crew members approaching a person needing medical attention, one team member makes contact and asks questions. This limits exposure for everyone on the scene.
“They’re also putting a mask on the patient as well,” said Richmond Hill Fire Chief Brendon Greene. “That way, if the patient is COVID positive or whatever the infectious disease could be, if it is an infectious disease, that we reduce the exposure or the risk to our people as well as the patient.”
Greene said firefighters rarely know exactly what they’re going to face on a given call, so that means wearing personal protective equipment and taking every precaution.
“We train every day and prepare every day for absolutely everything,” Greene said. “We’re an all-hazards department and we practice and prepare that way.”
CHANGE OF ROUTINE
For the safety of the firefighters, fire stations have generally closed their doors to walk-up visits from the public except for potential emergencies. This includes a temporary hold on CPR classes, birthday parties and tours, as well as visits to school buildings (which are closed now) and other public spaces for fire safety presentations.
Family members who would customarily stop by work to see their spouse or parent during a 24-hour shift away from home are not entering the building, or are communicating more by phone call or text.
“We’re a big extended family here,” Savannah’s Boyd said. “Everyone’s family is always welcome. That’s definitely taken a back seat during all of this.
“This is all new,” he said. “The fire service is a very dynamic profession, so we’re used to having to adapt to different things coming at us.”
Also new these past several weeks is daily wellness checks when crew members report for duty, usually between 7:30 and 8 a.m. to start a shift. They are asked the same questions they pose to the public about fevers, if they’ve traveled, and if they’ve been in contact with someone with a positive case of the virus.
Boyd said that as tough as they are, firefighters are sensitive to the fact that, because of the close quarters in a fire station, one person’s illness could infect a whole shift of people in a matter of days.
Greene said they understand it’s been a difficult time for a lot of people in the community, so they’ve come up with alternatives to some traditions. Instead of birthday parties at the station, they do drive-by parties on the street in front of the celebrant’s home, with lights flashing, sirens blaring and crews singing live or on a recording — depending on their talent level.
The fourth annual Spring Fling, a fundraiser for winter holiday gifts for families that otherwise would go without, was moved from April 25 to Sept. 26 at J.F. Gregory Park.
Taking a cue from Santa Claus’ annual visit to Richmond Hill children, the fire department arranged April 10 for the Easter Bunny to ride around town on a fire truck for about 12 hours. No hugging, but a lot of waving and smiles while practicing social distancing.
“We want to reduce the fear,” said Greene, noting that the department wants to educate the public on protecting themselves. “You have [a] segment of the population that’s very scared. We want to help them.”
Along those lines, a member of the Savannah Fire Department has for several weeks, on every other Friday at 10:30 a.m., read a children’s book on Facebook Live for Fire Safety Storytime. Part of a partnership with Safe Kids Savannah, the broadcast continues to educate the public during the pandemic.
Pooler’s Chief Simmons said he is proud of how well firefighters are doing their jobs during the pandemic.
“We were a little concerned. It is something new for all of us,” he said. “I can’t be more proud of how they’re handling the situation, how they’re handling professionalism. There’s no doubt. There’s no delay. They understand when they’re dispatched on a call they have a job to do. They take all of the precautions necessary and they’re doing the job. That’s probably the biggest positive out of this entire thing is everybody’s come together and they’re doing their jobs like they’re supposed to.”
This article was written by NATHAN DOMINITZ, The Savannah Morning News from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.