POWHATAN – In a time when so much about daily life has changed, Powhatan Fire and Rescue is trying to keep things as normal as possible.
Now more than two months into the restrictions that have severely impacted Virginia in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, fire and rescue chief Phil Warner said he is proud of the way the men and women of his department, as well as other first responders in the county, have continued to serve the community. They have had challenges along the way, but they are also making great strides to stay connected to residents. Overall, he said, the system is working.
One challenge the department has faced came in mid-April, when a volunteer with the Macon Volunteer Fire Station tested positive for COVID-19. The volunteer was tested at work, the Virginia Department of Corrections, and a week later, a roommate who is also a volunteer tested positive, Warner said.
When the station’s president reached out to notify Warner about the positive case, they worked together to close the fire station for 36 hours to do a deep cleaning before returning to normal service.
Warner announced in March that his department had reduced its response to non-life threatening medical emergencies to just a medic unit, and that system is still in place. The department has three different levels of medical response.
Priority 1 calls involve life-threatening emergencies and first responders are still dispatched in these cases, he said. In Priority 2 and 3 calls, only an ambulance is sent to minimize potential exposure. The 911 communications officers are also asking if anyone in the house is having difficulty breathing, fever, and/or cough and will pass the information on to responders so they are prepared pre-arrival.
“I think everything is working very well. The 911 center is doing a fantastic job of notifying us if the questions or address comes up in CAD that we need to take extra precautions,” he said. “But our personnel are already coming in with gloves and masks anyway to make sure we are not walking into something that we don’t want to walk into unprotected.”
From preliminary information he has received, EMS call volume is down 15 to 20 percent, Warner said. However, the stations are still running other significant calls such as motor vehicle accidents and a recent structure fire.
From Feb. 1, 2019, to April 22, 2019, the fire and rescue department ran 734 calls, said Tom Nolan, director of public safety communications. From Feb. 1, 2020, to April 22, 2020, the department ran 638 calls. He clarified these numbers don’t include duplicate calls or calls not entered into the county’s computer aided dispatch for a public safety response.
The fire stations are still limiting those on site to staff and volunteers only instead of allowing their family members to come for visits, Warner said. Some of their work requires the firefighters and EMTs to get really close to each other and those they are helping, so they are practicing social distancing as best they can and continuing to wear gloves and masks, he said.
Three of the stations – Companies 1, 2, and 4 – are also working to assure the community that staff and volunteers are still there for them.
Powhatan Volunteer Fire Station president Brenda Breon rounded up volunteers on Company 1’s Wednesday night crew to go on the first “quarantine drive-by” on April 8 in the Courthouse area and Scottville. She had seen videos of first responders in other communities doing something similar and thought it would spread a little cheer among residents.
The crew took what apparatus was available and could be staffed and slowly drove around waving and shouting greetings to residents who came out to see them. The purpose was simply to say hello and let the community know they are still there for them, she said.
Families came out to sit in their yards, on small side streets, or driveways and waited to watch them drive by. Some made signs of thanks and encouragements to display as the apparatus passed their homes. Breon hopes they got a kick out of the experience, especially the children, but she also felt it was a morale booster for the volunteers and paid staff members who came along on the rides to know they are appreciated.
“We are like everybody else. We are in the house, too,” she said.
Now the station is getting requests from neighborhoods to have them come visit.
The idea also spread to Huguenot Volunteer Fire Station (Company 2) and Fine Creek Volunteer Fire Station (Company 4), which started visiting neighborhoods in their areas.
When Company 2 did its first neighborhood visit on April 13, members simply wanted to bring joy and smiles to local residents, said James Sullivan, company president. When they go out, they try to take along as much apparatus as they can staff.
“All of the firefighters were having a blast with that. There is nothing better than reaching out to the community in some fashion. Being human, everybody wants to be around people and it is the hardest thing right now not being able to,” Sullivan said. “We know how tough things are and the stressors that come along. There is nothing that brings joy to your face more than seeing kids, adults, and even some of the elderly out there fist pumping, smiling, and waving with signs posted and everything. It was such a cool thing.”
Sullivan pointed out that even while they are out greeting the community, they are first and foremost on duty. During the April 22 neighborhood visit, they had to respond to a structure fire on Hickory Shade Drive and reschedule one of the neighborhoods. Fortunately, they were close to the fire and “had four apparatus on scene in a very short amount of time.”
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.