Ask the experts - Chief John Giannelli & Firefighter Bob Patitucci


Last updated 3/18/2020 at 4:39pm | View PDF

Jim Slonoff

Hinsdale Fire Chief John Giannelli and firefighter/paramedic Bob Patitucci, an infection control officer for the department, say officers are following special procedures for pre-screening patients they treat and ensuring the responding medics are properly protected. (Jim Slonoff photo)

How is the fire department responding to COVID-19?

Residents reaching out to 911 with a health emergency during this time of heightened vigilance may be asked a number of questions. Please be patient and answer them, Hinsdale Fire Chief John Giannelli said.

"A call comes in: 'My mom's sick.' OK, well has she been traveling? Does she have a fever or a cough? Those are all necessary questions that our dispatch will ask anybody to prepare us for when we get in there," he said. "We change our response to someone who's possibly infected (with COVID-19)."

Firefighter/paramedic Bob Patitucci, one of the department's infection control officers, said the answers are needed to protect both the first responders and anyone they may subsequently come in contact with.

"Any information that we can get on our way to the call is just more for us to use to prepare," he said. "Is it necessary for us to bring four people in? Maybe we can just do this call with two people and leave two guys outside with the engine and not take a chance of them being in that environment."

Patitucci said if any symptoms resembling those of coronavirus are presenting, the paramedics will put on protective face masks and gowns. They also will notify the hospital that they are transporting a potential COVID-19 patient.

"We have masks that we can put on the patient also," he said. "We're going to treat it like it could be a possibility of COVID-19."

The department began acquiring the masks and gowns over the last few years in preparation for H1-N1 and Ebola outbreaks. Giannelli said an emergency meeting of the area fire chiefs was called a couple of weeks ago to develop "a COOP - a continuity of operations plan - if, God forbid, something happened here and guys got exposed and we had to send people home and we lost a shift or the fire house had to be decontaminated, we could continue operations.

"We would help them, they would help us," he said.

Maintaining social distancing can be challenging in the station where officers spend extended periods of time in close quarters, Giannelli noted. Firefighters are wiping down surfaces regularly and must have their temperature taken at the start of each shift.

Wearing disposable gowns mean the officers don't have to wash their uniforms every time there's a chance they've been exposed to the virus, Patitucci said.

"We don't want to go home and find out a day or two later that, hey, this patient did have it and we didn't use the proper precautions," Patitucci said.

The time it takes to get test results for the virus can make for some anxious waiting. In the meantime, Giannelli said the department will maintain a high state of readiness.

"We just want people to know that we're going to be overly cautious. If the call isn't (COVID-19), we're still going to wear (the protective gear) because we have to treat it as the worst," Giannelli said.

Patitucci concurred.

"We'd rather overact and look back and say it was overkill than under-react and have it be worse than we had anticipated."

- by Ken Knutson


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