Additional measures to prevent COVID-19 exposures have been implemented by the Township of Langley fire department following an outbreak in November that idled one out of every three full-time firefighters at its height.
A WorkSafe BC inspection report by the Worker and Employer Services Division, released in response to a Langley Times Advance request, said “in response to the outbreak, the fire department developed additional directives to supplement the safety plan, and these communications were shared with workers.”
They include “additional controls” to maintain safe physical distancing between firefighters.
“Written procedures were developed to ensure limited interaction between workers during shift change” the report by WorkSafe BC occupational hygiene officer Millie Baghela recounted.
As well, other Township workers, like mechanics and bylaw enforcement officers are being asked not to enter the fire halls, and staff “are reportedly wearing three layer masks inside of the firehall.”
Baghela met via videoconference on Nov. 20 with two employer representatives and one worker representative.
Other measures listed by the WorkSafe report included limiting the number of firefighters who directly respond to a medical assistance call.
“Patients will be assessed from a distance wherever possible,” the fire department told WorkSafe BC.
Personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical call-outs “include N95 respirator, gloves, and goggles.”
Tyvek suits are also used for patients who are suspected to have COVID-19.
“Non-essential work such as fire safety inspections of businesses has been suspended,” the report noted.
In response to a Langley Times Advance request for comment, the Township issued a statement that said the fire department “reviewed its existing safety plan and developed additional directives. These steps were taken to ensure our processes were sound in helping to minimize the risk of COVID exposures within the fire department. These changes have been implemented and communicated to all personnel.”
“We are proud of the work our firefighters and support staff do each and every day, especially during this pandemic, and we will continue to work together to maintain a safe working environment for our employees and for the public they interact with,” said Stephen Gamble, Township Fire Chief.
When the fire department outbreak was initially confirmed by the Township, there were eight cases in the week of Nov. 9.
By Nov. 18, that number had risen to 11 confirmed and 25 possible cases.
As of this week, Nov. 30, the Township advised that “all members are back/released from isolation related to the recent COVID-19 matter except for three members who tested positive.”
There were no reports of members being hospitalized, said acting IAFF (International Association of Fire Fighters) local 4550 president Duncan McIntosh.
According to the union, the majority of positive test results were related to a workplace exposure.
Due to the resulting staffing shortages, the majority of Township fire apparatus were being staffed with three firefighters, less than the four considered as best practice (known as the “two in, two out” standard).
Three, the union said, still meets the minimum standard for defensive operations, McIntosh explained.
“If a team of two takes a hose line into the structure one member would have to be outside for rescue and one member would have to remain at the truck to run the pump” McIntosh elaborated.
Back in 2015, the township approved adding eight firefighters to Township halls so that four firefighters could, usually, attend every call depending on shortfalls created by sick leaves and vacations.
A Township online post describes the department as a combination of career and paid-call firefighters consisting of “approximately 100 full-time career staff and 100 paid-call members.” Paid-call firefighters are not used to fill in for absent full-timers.
All the COVID cases involved full-time career firefighters, the union said.
It was the second outbreak reported by the Township fire department.
In early March, eight Township firefighters responded to a Langley residence for a medical call. Later, they learned the man the crew was assisting tested positive for COVID-19.
Langley City fire department has, to date, reported no COVID-19 cases.