As executive director of the St. Louis Fire Department Foundation, Laura Keller is tasked with helping the department in any way she can. Lately, that’s meant helping purchase much-needed protective equipment for firefighters, who remain on the front lines even as the coronavirus spreads across the U.S.
And Keller recently did that work under challenging circumstances: She herself was diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the same coronavirus that firefighters need protection from. While she’s now recovered from the disease, her illness shows the reality that firefighters now face daily: The coronavirus might be lurking at every stop they make.
On Friday’s St. Louis on the Air, Fire Captain Garon Mosby explained that the department had a head start on being prepared for the coronavirus — and not just because Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson was unusually alert to the headlines coming out of Italy (although that certainly helped). He credits the profession’s perpetual readiness.
“We are taught at the very beginning, at the entry level of medical care/emergency medicine providing, that everyone has ‘it,’” Mosby said. “It doesn’t matter who the person is, you assume that everyone has ‘it.’ What is ‘it’? ‘It’ is what you don’t want to get.
“So the way that we approach it, it’s putting on proper protective equipment, and you have to do it every time, every call. The minute you’re lax, or you don’t put it on correctly or take it off correctly, it's a germ. It’s not something you can see. It doesn’t take a lot of ‘its’ for you to get it.”
Mosby said that firefighters have been able to acquire enough personal protective equipment to keep themselves safe. Still, he acknowledged, the department has seen some cases, including a “small cluster” of “a handful” of cases within a fire station he did not name.
It is, to some extent, an occupational hazard for workers who don’t just take calls together but also live together.
“Sometimes you’re going to work a patient, work a fire, and it is not possible to be 100% socially distant,” Mosby acknowledged.
Even so, he stressed the department’s overall rate of infection is very low: fewer than a dozen people have tested positive of the 800 uniformed officers in the department. And despite steady call volume, response times, too, remain low — four minutes in cases of suspected fire and between eight and 10 minutes for medical units.
That’s even as that pandemic has caused an endless series of policy changes and preventative measures within the department.
“We don’t have a long enough show to go into all the new processes that have been implemented,” Mosby said.
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.
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