Health & Medicine

Lexington firefighters train, develop plan for dealing with Ebola

During a simulation, Capt. Brian Dawson, right, zipped "patient" Madison Dawson into a protective covering for transport.
During a simulation, Capt. Brian Dawson, right, zipped "patient" Madison Dawson into a protective covering for transport. Herald-Leader

Lexington firefighters are trained to handle pressure situations. On most days, firefighters respond to a variety of 911 calls — from chemical spills and building collapses to medical emergencies and, of course, fires.

"Each one of those has a unique set of circumstances," Battalion Chief Joe Best said. "We try to train and prepare for those so we can handle them correctly."

This month, the Lexington Division of Fire began training and making preparations for how it would respond to calls related to the Ebola virus. That training continued Monday.

City and state officials have been keeping close watch on the developments with Ebola, which has become an epidemic in several West African countries, including Liberia. The virus has not been detected in Kentucky but it has shown up in Texas.

Public safety commissioner Clay Mason has been watching things unfold, and that sparked a conversation between him and fire officials about the department's ability to handle an Ebola case.

"I think everybody is on a much more heightened sense of awareness to not be caught off guard and be prepared," he said. "Our folks have taken this to a very high degree of preparedness. They have gone over protocol. They have repeatedly sent information out to ambulance crews on every shift."

Firefighters have been training and using hazardous materials equipment for the past few weeks. They also have been going over the rules and regulations provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and other public health guidelines to prevent the spread of a possible infectious disease.

In an effort to be "proactive," Best said, dispatchers at the E-911 center have started asking callers whether they've traveled out of the country recently, have bruising, bleeding or flulike symptoms. Depending on the response, the dispatcher will know whether to have firefighters wear their typical medical gear or hazmat gear that would protect them from contracting the virus. The department also has an ambulance that has plastic covering everything inside.

The patient would be taken to a hospital where more fire personnel would assist them. The fire department has been in constant contact with officials at local hospitals, Best said.

However, the precautions being taken by the fire department, which has a Hazmat Unit, are not only for the patient. Paramedics who respond to a patient with Ebola-like symptoms would go through a decontamination process that includes removing rubber boots, gloves and gowns, followed by showers after the patient is released to the hospital. Responders also use a bleach solution as a disinfectant, Best said.

Fayette County health care officials told the Herald-Leader this month that they quarantined two patients in recent months who developed symptoms resembling Ebola after visiting Liberia. Neither patient had the virus.

Across the country, health care and public safety officials have attempted to equip personnel and make adjustments to procedures after issues surfaced in Dallas when the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the United States died and two nurses involved in his treatment contracted the virus. Ebola is not an airborne illness. It can be passed along only through contact with body fluids, experts have said.

Mason and Best stressed that their efforts to be prepared are only a precaution.

"It is extremely remote," Mason said of the likelihood of dealing with an Ebola case. "It is not a scare. ... The folks here at the fire department and E-911 are as good as anyone in the county and as prepared as anywhere to respond appropriately."