Asking volunteers and retirees — are you well enough to come back?

It’s a legitimate question in light of the first responder shortage. Asking former first responders, retirees and volunteers: could you return to the field? If trained volunteer EMS came back, it could help bridge the shortage as medical staff fall ill with coronavirus.

So, we presented the following question to first responders in leadership roles to gauge their response:

Should former EMS who have moved on to a second career, but aren’t considered ‘high-risk’ for COVID-19 contraction, or volunteer EMS, sign up to help backfill the EMS shortage?

It’s a big ask, but we’re not the only ones asking. This headline says it all, with words from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis: “’We need folks to return to service:’ Governor asks retired first responders to fight COVID-19,” a story written by Gabriella Nuñez, from News 6, in Miami.

Similar sentiments echo across the nation as more governors, like New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and leaders of other states, like California, Colorado and Illinois, ask retired first responders for help.

Colorado Governor Jared Polis and the state “eased licensure requirements” for retired medical workers who want to help with COVID-19.

Want help with the first responder shortage? Offer low risk options

We caught up with President Elect NAEMT Bruce Evans, MPA, NRP, CFO fire chief with Upper Pine River Fire Department in Colorado to get his take on asking volunteers and retirees for their assistance. He said it’s a more complicated question, considering whether first responders are even healthy enough to help.

“Only if they don’t have risk factors, but a lot are smokers or diabetics, type 1 or 2.  It [COVID-19] is definitely taking its toll on diabetics, pre-diabetics, and people with a body mass index over 30; unfortunately, we have a lot of [EMS] people in these risk categories.”

The Chief’s advice — find low risk jobs for the volunteers and former EMS workers. But, ensure these require little to no patient contact.

“If they don’t want direct patient exposure, they can come back to help distribute PPE clothing as it comes in from stockpiles, or at 911 call centers, they can triage the calls,” Evans said.

He said dispatchers have become inundated with calls from the public who are not necessarily sick but calling 911 for advice about how to stay safe or general questions about COVID-19.

“And these call takers don’t have time to do all of that,” Evans said.

Other lower risk ways to help include asking volunteers to drop off medications for seniors who cannot risk going to the pharmacy or grocery store because they fit high risk criteria, Evans said.

Planning ahead for first responder shortage

In a recent article published by FireRescue1, written by Jason Caughey, fire chief of Laramie County Fire District #2, in Cheyenne, Wyoming, during an infectious outbreak, he suggests that agencies might expect to see at least 50% staff reduction as more first responders become sick.

Wondering where this 50% number originated? I reached out to Chief Caughey to find out. And here’s what he said, via email:

“The 50% was established as a benchmark for planning purposes.  The estimate comes from previous natural disasters around the world where 50% of responders were directly or indirectly impacted.”

Whether first responders take time off to care for ill family members or go into quarantine for precautionary measures, such circumstances could increase the staff shortage even more, he stated.

Rural challenges are real

While we see a lot of news coverage at outbreak epicenters in New York, and the new projected hot spots, rural areas that rely on volunteers and retirees have different challenges to consider when it comes to first responder shortage.

“Much of the rural fire emergency services in our country are provided by retirees. This creates a large population of high-risk candidates for COVID-19. As the virus continues to spread into smaller rural communities, the impact will likely reach 50% of responders being impacted; or choosing not to respond as volunteers due to them being high risk,” Caughey said.

Chief Caughey urges leaders in emergency services to plan for worst case scenarios.

Chief Evans said they are also working with mounted officers from the sheriff’s office who work in back-country wilderness areas. They work to deliver PPE to agencies that placed equipment orders with the health department — most have retired.

Looking ahead

Chief Evans said they are expecting a second, third and fourth wave of people infected with COVID-19 stemming from spring break folks heading home, the onslaught of allergy season and traditional cold and flu season that kicks off in the fall.

Be prepared for patients presenting with co-infections, both influenza and COVID-19, since patients are testing positive for both, Evans said. Other potential co-infections include bacterial pneumonia and COVID-19, or urinary tract infections, common with older patients.

To learn more about what first responders can do to fight coronavirus, check out our COVID-19 resources page.