Even though the coronavirus (COVID-19) is changing the way people function daily, there are still emergencies that need first responders.
But some emergency departments are having to do with a shortened amount of help as volunteer firefighters and first responders take a step back.
Just last year, the Williamsburg Fire Department responded to 4,548 fire and medical emergencies and received more than 12 emergency calls each day, according to data from the department. While the department has a staff of professional emergency responders, it also relies on the help of the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department which helps provide life-saving care, extinguish fires, protect property and educate residents.
However, due to the coronavirus those activities have come to a halt.
At the Williamsburg Volunteer Fire Department, volunteers are currently not responding to any calls or waiting on standby, said president Troy H. Lapetina. Lapetina said the volunteers are currently in reserve status for the time being and can be activated if there is a critical need, such as a professional firefighter getting sick.
“There’s no reason to increase the number of potential exposure to everyone when we can keep that isolation and distance,” he said.
In the meantime, the WVFD’s supply of volunteers has been reduced significantly due to William & Mary students being sent home. Lapetina said many of the volunteers were pre-med students who already had their Emergency Medical Technician Certification.
The volunteer department has also currently stopped its recruiting efforts for the time being but is still taking applications to be considered once the pandemic ends.
One of the changes Lapetina is concerned about is how the Williamsburg Volunteer Department will raise money for its annual fund.
Each year, volunteers from the department knock on doors and encourage residents to donate to their annual fund which provides the resources and tools necessary to perform their work.
Lapetina said this year, in accordance with social distancing guidelines, the department is having to mail approximately 5,000 letters to local businesses and residents asking for donations.
“We don’t want people to just think it’s junk mail and throw it out,” he said. “We understand that there’s a lot of competing charities that are really good and we hope that citizens will continue to be as generous as they have been before.”
At the James City County-Bruton Volunteer Fire Department, work is continuing nearly the same as before the pandemic, said Chief Phillip Murdock.
“It’s still changed things for us, though, it’s changed things for everyone,” Murdock said. “I think we’ve all been equally impacted by what’s happening, whether you’re a volunteer or career [firefighter].”
With nearly 75 volunteers working in the department, Murdock said the staff is still operating as normal except for a few changes.
In concert with the order from Gov. Ralph Northam that prohibits more than 10 people to gather in an area, Fire Station One in James City County is now limiting the number of firefighters and guests in the building at one time.
He said many of the volunteer workers are staying in the fire engine on calls if possible and limiting their contact with others unless absolutely necessary.
The 911 dispatchers are also using additional screening questions, such as asking about symptoms and travel history, that let firefighters and volunteers know if an individual might be a potential risk of exposure. Murdock said in those cases, more skilled EMS workers will be sent wearing personal protective equipment.
However, volunteers are also wearing personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, as much as possible when going on calls.
“We follow the guidelines of the county’s EMS chief,” he said. “We feel like whether you’re a volunteer or career firefighter, we should all follow those guidelines.”
While operations with the volunteer department are continuing as normal as possible, Murdock said the professional department is working hard to communicate with them and keep everyone as safe as possible.
“I think this situation has been a real testament to the teamwork and the relationship here,” he said. “We are two different departments but we have one mission we share together.”