Windham first responders brace for the coronavirus peak
‘I haven’t been to my house in three weeks’
WINDHAM — The alarm at Windham Fire Station 28 is low and continuous, a few seconds of electronic bass, before a dispatcher’s voice breaks through and describes the latest emergency.
It’s a tone I’ve heard several times before when visiting the station. But I did not hear this tone when I went there in the early afternoon of Easter Sunday. What I heard instead was the faint hiss of a modified paint sprayer operated by Elmedin Beganovic, a 26-year-old EMT who’s been at the station for a year and a half.
Instead of applying a fresh coat of paint, Beganovic was pumping a fine mist of CDC-compliant detergent into the back cab of 2811, one of the station’s ambulances, decontaminating the rig for the second time that day.
While Beganovic sprayed, Dale Martin, a paramedic and Windham’s EMS coordinator, used bleach wipes to sanitize the driver’s side of the ambulance.
“Beginning of the day when you come in, the first thing that we do before even checking out the squad, do a de-con spray,” said Martin, a three-and-a-half year veteran of the Windham Volunteer Fire Department. “We’re supposed to do it after every call and in the morning when you come on to the shift. So hopefully it’s been double de-con’ed.”
Habitual decontamination of equipment and vehicles is one of the many measures first responders are now taking to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. For those at Station 28, it is part of the new normal they’re facing and a necessary precaution for them, their patients and their families.
The pandemic has proven to be a morbid test of America’s medical system. Supplies, from ventilators to N95 respirators, have run drastically low across the country. Inside the brick-and-mortar walls of Station 28, that national shortage looms over the supply lockers and inventory sheets of the department.
“It’s not a shortage with us, [but] we don’t have an abundance,” said Windham Fire Chief Rich Gano. “We’re watching everything.”
Dr. Amy Acton, Director of the Ohio Department of Health, predicts confirmed cases of Covid-19 to peak at the end of this month. That peak of cases will mean more emergency calls and greater risk of exposure for first responders. The station is prepared for now, in terms of PPE, to deal with their regular amount of calls. But Martin worries their stock won’t be enough when the peak hits.
“We are fine — however, we won’t be once the peak season [hits],” Martin said. “We’re really unable to order unless it’s large quantities … which we can’t afford in our budget.”
Despite some budget setbacks and shortages, the department has been able to order some equipment and supplies, though wait times and back orders are another issue. Thermometers for example, are on a two- to three-month back order.
Until a few years ago, Windham’s fire department was an all-volunteer operation. But the station can only afford to have two people on a shift at a time and still has a network of dedicated volunteers, including Chris McPherson.
McPherson, 26, is a volunteer firefighter with Windham and has been working at the station for 10 years, first as a cadet and later as a certified firefighter. Usually, he visits the station on a regular basis, but because of the outbreak his visits have been less frequent unless needed on a call.
Some departments, he explained, have taken to using their Scott Air packs — the breathing apparatus firefighters use to enter burning buildings — when N95 respirators are unavailable.
“You can put the mask on, you have your full-face seal, not worry about [patient’s] spit or whatever. It’s not going to get in your nose, lungs, anything like that,” McPherson said. “If we run out of N95s we’ll start using the air packs.”
The department has begun reusing masks as needed. Unless a responder comes in contact with a person confirmed to have Covid-19, the masks they’re mandated to wear are to be reused for another call. These masks are not put back in the general stockpile, but instead stay with the responder till needed again.
Beganovic, the EMT who doused the interior of the ambulance with disinfectant, described his concerns as being not so much if he gets it, but if he were to spread it to his family.
“I have a little one at home, so I really don’t want her to catch it, you know, or anyone in my family,” Beganovic said. “You’re a little anxious if they say flu-like symptoms, but you just get ready, put on PPE and [follow the] six-foot rule. We’ll see where it goes from there.”
That sentiment is shared by McPherson and Martin, who both have family members with high-risk comorbidities. Because of that, all three have been taking extra precautions both on and off shift. Extra showers and spare changes of clothes, wiping down phones and electronics regularly and social distancing from relatives have all been common for the crews of Station 28 since the outbreak began to worsen last month.
Martin, who has elderly family members and an immunocompromised sister, has been living on his family’s farm in Pennsylvania when off work to avoid any potential spreading of the virus.
“I haven’t been to my house in three weeks,” Martin said.
During our conversation, McPherson pointed out that dark humor between the crews is one of the few surefire ways to relieve stress on the job. That notion tends to apply for journalists as well, and there are plenty of things redacted from the transcripts of my interviews for this article to protect the innocent.
But toward the end of my conversation with the three first responders I asked them if there was anything they wanted people reading to know.
“Just stay home if you don’t need to go out. Stay home.”