COCHRANE— Firefighters across the province have been left out of the groups receiving priority vaccinations for COVID-19, which includes other emergency personnel like doctors and paramedics.
“I think it should be a very high priority. We’ve never asked for special privilege, nor will we ever ask for a special privilege or be put ahead of people, but we do attend medical responses, that’s one of our major calls,” said fire inspector Jeff Avery. “We respond to 100 per cent of delta medicals, which is a severe injury, or any type of medical call that could be life-threatening.”
Often times the paramedics in town are taken away from Cochrane-proper for a call, and in those cases, Cochrane Fire Service often steps up to fill the gap.
“When there’s no ambulances in town, which does happen quite often, then we become a medical first response so we’ll respond to all of the medical calls. We are entering residents’ homes on a daily basis,” Avery said.
Members of the Cochrane Fire Service are taking every possible precaution, including using personal protective equipment, and operating in cohorted platoons at the fire hall, but Avery believes that the residents and firefighters in Cochrane would be given some peace of mind if they were included in the priority groups.
“If we get exposed on a call and then we come back to the fire hall, then we’re exposing an entire platoon, which would be devastating for Cochrane Fire Services. If we lost an entire platoon, we would make it work, but it would be difficult on us for sure,” he said. “The potential is there to be devastating.”
There are six members on a platoon, and if a platoon has to quarantine due to exposure, the gaps may have to be filled by casual members, who often work full-time jobs.
Avery said he feels for everyone who is awaiting a vaccine anxiously, including retail workers and teachers, who are often exposed to dozens of individuals on a daily basis.
For now, Avery said, the members of Cochrane Fire Services just have to be patient.
“We’re going to wait our turn, we’re going to do our due diligence, and do everything we can not to infect anybody and not to get ourselves infected as well,” Avery said.
He suspects that there might be some confusion among government and health officials about the role that fire fighters have to play in the province.
"I’m wondering if it’s an education problem where the people who are deciding who gets the vaccinations, do they know that firefighters are going into people’s homes. Not every single fire department attends medical calls, but a lot of them do,” he said. “Multiple times we’re in resident’s homes. I don’t know if the education is there yet. We’re trying to relay that information, but I don’t know if it’s reaching the top just yet.”
He added that he does not believe the decision to omit firefighters from priority groups was made maliciously, rather it was made with a misconception about what firefighters do day to day.
Cochrane fire chief Shawn Polley said he hopes to see the vaccination of firefighters commence sooner rather than later.
“Through the Alberta Fire Chiefs Association, we’ve been providing our support and looking for support from the provincial government and Minister Shandro, but, certainly it’s disappointing that firefighters were not included in [Phase 2B],” Polley said. “From the fire chief's office, we are very supportive of the vaccination program, and at the earliest opportunity where we can get our Town of Cochrane firefighters into vaccination would be, most certainly, ideal.”
Phase 2B of the province’s vaccine rollout plan includes anyone ages 16 to 65 who have severe underlying health issues that could contribute to severe outcomes of COVID-19.
Vaccination of paramedics and emergency first responders began on Jan. 1.
Front-line police and provincial sheriffs are currently included in Phase 2C, which should begin in April, but firefighter is not currently listed as an occupation that requires priority status for vaccination.
The assumption right now, Polley said, is that firefighters will receive the vaccine with the general public based on their birth year.
“As an occupation, and especially supporting Alberta Health Services in a primary first responder role, it is a bit disappointing to see that the province hasn’t moved firefighters into vaccination. I don’t understand the rationale, I suspect that it could be that they’re not going by occupation.”
The province’s health care system is under tremendous strain trying to roll out vaccinations as quickly as possible, but firefighters could be vaccinated with very little effort, or extra strain on the system Avery said.
“We have paramedics working at the hall, and we have paramedic-fire fighters that can give needle injections,” Avery said. “If the government could send vaccines to fire halls like they are with pharmacies because we have enough people working at the fire hall that can give injections so we could do that for ourselves.”
Avery acknowledged how difficult the decision-making process must be for the official in charge, but believes firefighters should be included due to the high amount of community exposure they have.
He also urged the community to take the virus seriously, and do their part to abide by provincial health guidelines and limit the spread of COVID-19.
“The more people that take it seriously, the quicker it’s going to go away."