COVID-19 Pandemic Impact to ARFF Emergency Services

by Tracy Young

During the past few months we have been experiencing a pandemic, which has created many challenges for emergency services. Local and statewide business closures along with stay-at-home orders were implemented to slow the spread of the virus and prevent an overload of health care systems. What impact did the pandemic have on emergency services and specifically, what impact did the pandemic have on Aircraft Rescue & Fire Fighting departments (ARFF)? 

The impacts of the pandemic have created challenges for ARFF departments at our nation’s airports. Each ARFF department is different – some provide multiple services, while others provide the absolute minimum to meet FAA Part 139 requirements. ARFF departments who provide emergency medical services have the highest risk of encountering COVID-19. To avoid this threat measures must be in place to protect ARFF personnel from the virus and to prevent contact spread. Wearing the appropriate personal protective equipment, such as N95 masks, eye protection, gloves and gowns are vital. Equally important is interaction with the patient at the scene. When possible, having the patient meet the crew in an open area (outside or in a large open space, etc.) is ideal. The crew should send a “scout” to initiate patient contact and obtain information. Additional crew member(s) may be needed to help with vital signs and more. If the ARFF unit is a transport unit, then care must be taken to avoid unnecessary contact while transporting the patient. Once the call is complete, decontamination of the crew and their PPE must be performed. While taking off the PPE, the crew must be extremely careful not to become exposed by using improper doffing techniques.

Although ARFF crews who perform EMS services are at a higher risk of exposure, ARFF departments who do not provide these services are not immune to the virus. Careful consideration must be taken to protect ARFF personnel, including putting measures in place to disinfect the station(s) and apparatus weekly, or as needed. Practicing social distancing in the station, however difficult, should be exercised. For example, not all shift personnel need to eat their meals at the same time. Mealtimes should be staggered to reduce the number of personnel in the kitchen and eating areas.  Wearing of masks inside the station is a management decision that should be made based on the local threat and social distancing capabilities. Training sessions should be held outside or in the apparatus bay due to space needed for social distancing. Lastly, while in public, ARFF crews should wear a mask and practice social distancing. 

Under extreme measures, the following should be considered:

  • No visitors in the station (required visitors should wear masks and social distance);
  • Crews should respond to emergencies in jumpsuits, which will be donned and doffed in the apparatus bay. This reduces cross-contamination inside the station living quarters;
  • Temperature checks should be taken twice daily, at roll call and in the evening;
  • Disinfecting the apparatus after each response – all inside and outside touchpoints.

ARFF management teams play an integral role in establishing policy and implementing measures to protect the workforce. It only takes one ARFF member who tests positive for the virus to have a ripple effect throughout the department. Management needs to have a contingency plan in place should a large number of the workforce be placed in quarantine due to exposure. Since ARFF certification is so unique, the traditional mutual aid back-up support will not usually suffice. Firefighters must be trained to FAA Part 139 requirements, which is not the case in most support departments. Not having enough personnel to staff vehicles could result in a reduced index level capability, which could adversely impact airport operations. 

ARFF managers also need to develop good policies and practices based on federal, state, and local guidelines. Having a pandemic plan or operating procedure in place will help with decision making and establish a formal operating policy. At a minimum, the plan should establish risk levels based on data provided by health departments, personal protective equipment to be worn in emergencies, station preventive measures, disinfection/decontamination and personnel exposure procedures. Along with a formal policy, there should also be a strategy to provide direction for the department.

In order to deal with the virus crisis at the Lee County Port Authority, I developed a strategy for our department, which is based on the following four pillars:

  • Immediate: This pillar covers the immediate concerns for the department, including day-to-day operations that deal with the pandemic and other emergency responses, daily staffing and tactical operations.

  • Compliance: This pillar covers the need to maintain FAA Part 139 requirements. The pandemic has been a disruption to the normal organizational rhythm for the year, but training still needs to continue and all Part 139 requirements need to be completed.

  • Family: This pillar covers family life. There is a need to be aware of our families and how they are dealing with the pandemic stress. Simple things, like grocery shopping, have created a great deal of concern. First responder family members need to be aware of the facts and risk. Support of peers and their families is very important.  
  • Support: This pillar covers the support from federal, state and local government departments, including submitting and tracking resource requests, managing 214 forms for reimbursement and staying engaged with local emergency operating centers on current data and governing policy.

Even the best policies and strategies will not prevent pandemic fatigue. The longer measures are taken such as isolation, wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, the more fatigue it will have on personnel and, eventually, that fatigue can lead to complacency. The opposite of pandemic fatigue is pandemic anxiety. Not all personnel will react the same to the pandemic – some will take a measured approach, while others, due to anxiety, will push for extreme measures. It will be up to the ARFF management team to implement measures that match the threat for their departments.    

About the Author:  Tracy W. Young is the Fire Chief for the Lee County Port Authority, providing ARFF services for Southwest Florida International Airport and Page Field in the Fort Myers Florida area. Chief Young is designated Chief Fire Officer through CPSE and Master Airport Firefighter through AAAE. He holds a BAS In Fire Science and AAS in Fire Administration. Chief Young has been serving for the Lee County Port Authority since February of 2018. Prior to his employment with the Port Authority Chief Young served 23 years as Federal Firefighter ending his career as the Deputy Fire Chief for Wright-Patterson AFB Fire Emergency Services, a position he held for 9 years.