First responders in Camden County, N.J. were recently trained on how to prepare for a potential Ebola call.
The crowd of police, firefighters and emergency medical workers included lots of buttoned-up, beefy guys in uniform—who seemed mostly stoic about the potential of being the first one in the door to respond to a person with signs of Ebola.
Lieutenant Jennifer Somers, who leads training for Berlin Ambulance, said she came out to make sure her crews have the right protection.
“There were no surprises,” Somers said. “Just a matter of refreshing everyone’s knowledge, getting that training out to them, so they feel comfortable with it and keep themselves and their family safe at home afterwards.”
Infectious-disease doctor Henry Fraimow gave one of the lectures on Ebola preparedness and said the questions from the crowd were good.
“The education of where that risk is real and where it isn’t real is important,” said Fraimow, an epidemiologist at Cooper University Hospital. In public health, he says it’s part of his job to tamp down needless worry, such as the kind that spread in Burlington County earlier this month.
“There were two children who came from Rwanda in East Africa,” Fraimow said. “There was a big to-do about them attending school (in the Maple Shade School District). They were thousands of miles away from an Ebola-infected area with no risk of Ebola, and no reason for them to be restricted from attending school.”
Fraimow said misinformation and fear was part of the backdrop as he shared information about preparedness and personal protective equipment.
For first responders and health workers, Fraimow said some of the riskiest moments are when the job is nearly done.
“They’re tired because they’ve just worked a long shift taking care of a patient wearing this heavy equipment, and that’s when they are going to make mistakes. That’s when they are going to inadvertently going to touch their face with their gloves, when their gloves aren’t completely cleaned yet,” Fraimow said.
Dressing for the job
At the training, an environmental clean up team demonstrated just what it takes to get in–and out—of all the gear. Chris Costa from the Camden County Hazardous Materials Unit donned a HAZMAT suit and respirator mask while Stephen Pittman stood by to oversee the process.
“Whenever we do this it’s a two by two effort – the taping, the suits, the boots,” Pittman said.
“It’s not too cumbersome, the suit’s pretty flexible it just gets hot inside,” Costa said.
Their team might get called in to move furniture, carry out mattresses or decontaminate the home of someone with Ebola.
“If you’ve ever watched “E.T.” or the movie “Outbreak,” the people in the suits on the movies are what you are going to see in front of you,” Pittman said. “As the public seeing a first responder come in like this, it is scary, just know we are there for your protection, and this suit, this outfit is for our protection.”
After just a few minutes in the suit, Chris Costa’s hair is plastered to his forehead with sweat. His face is bright and flushed.
“The mask does cut off some of your vision to the side, so you always have to be aware of your surroundings, and keep an eye out for things happening around you,” Costa said.
“This stuff adds to heat stress,” said Bob Saunders, Camden County’s Emergency Medical Services Coordinator.
He says the respirator mask most often recommended for Ebola protection does not have an exhalation valve. Imagine breathing hot air inside that mask, he said.
Nonetheless, he said, “over protection can be as risky as under protection.” Double gloves are important, triple and quadruple is problem, he said.
“You’re kind of out there like a child in a snowsuit, you have to have some degree of dexterity to work,” Saunders said.
Filling an emotional and psychological need
He talked about how to respond to patients who actually have Ebola as well as everyone else.
“I’ve learned that 85 percent of the people that report to a hospital after an incident are the worried well. So if you’re not planning on dealing with that, you’re not planning,” Saunders said.
He said right now, chances that someone in the Camden County crowd will encounter someone with Ebola is about as likely as caring for someone who’s been struck by lightening.
Still, he said, “people are fearful.”
The first responder training was designed to meet that emotional and psychological need.
“I think that was mostly what we did today,” Saunders said.