Over the past few weeks, the National Chemical Emergency Centre (NCEC) has received a number of calls on its dedicated Chemsafe 24/7 emergency response helpline from the UK fire and rescue services (FRS) relating to best practice when operating in the COVID-19 atmosphere. We have been reviewing information from safety organisations around Europe on the response to COVID-19. While every incident is unique, we have pulled together some consistent recommendations on how to minimise risk to deployed FRS personnel in the UK. We hope you find this information useful.
This guidance note provides information for FRS personnel who may be exposed to coronavirus (COVID-19) while carrying out their duties. The information provided below is based on NCEC’s research of the available data as at 8 April 2020. FRS personnel are advised to use this note in conjunction with the advice provided by their respective governing bodies. We will continue to monitor the situation and update this if, and when, new information becomes available.
General considerations for UK FRS personnel attending COVID-19 incidents
- Clarification should be sought at the earliest opportunity as to whether there is any potential for responders to be exposed to COVID-19 patients.
- When attending an incident that does not require a property to be evacuated and where someone has COVID-19, their location in the property should be established before entering the building. All reasonable efforts should then be made to follow social distancing, personal hygiene, use of personal protective equipment (PPE) and decontamination procedures recommended in this bulletin and by government bodies.
- A dynamic risk assessment must be carried out by responding personnel prior to entering the premises. Control measures to be considered include – only the minimum number of responders required should enter the premises, social distancing should be maintained, PPE should be used and appropriate hygiene measures should be practised.
- Control measures should also be applied when dealing with members of the public who have been in contact with someone who has symptoms of COVID-19.
Control measures to consider for COVID-19 incidents
Minimise the number of responders
Only the absolute necessary number of responders should attend an incident. Some FRSs in Europe have split up the teams (four in a fire appliance (instead of six) and two in another vehicle).
Practise social distancing
All reasonable measures should be taken to enable FRS personnel to carry out their duties a minimum of 2 metres away from members of the public and, where appropriate, other FRS personnel.
Personal protective equipment (PPE)
If working within 2 metres of people suspected of having COVID-19, FRS personnel should consider wearing:
- Firefighting PPE as appropriate or a disposable splash suit could be used where available.
- P3 facemask – these offer effective filtration for World Health Organization Virus Risk Group 3 particles.
- Double nitrile gloves.
- Eye protection (e.g. safety glasses).
All PPE should be tested to ensure it fits properly (e.g. trained personnel should ensure that P3 facemasks fit each individual properly). Poorly fitting facemasks may increase the risk of responders becoming infected.
Removal and disposal of PPE
All single-use PPE that has been worn at COVID-19 related incidents should be placed in an approved clinical waste bag where available, labelled and disposed of in line with FRS procedures.
Responders should wash their hands regularly with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or use alcohol-based hand sanitiser (that contains at least 60% alcohol) where soap and water are not immediately available.
Objects and surfaces being used by emergency response teams should be cleaned and disinfected regularly. Effective cleaning of plastic and steel surfaces requires particular focus as the virus is thought to remain viable for up to 72 hours.
A review of available information indicates that a 1-minute disinfection of surfaces with 0.1% sodium hypochlorite or 62%-71% ethanol can be over 1,000 more effective than wiping a surface with just water. While these may not sterilise items, they make them safer than usual for responders to use.
Hygiene and decontamination procedures should be carried out as soon as possible – on scene and afterwards in the fire station.
In the UK, NCEC performs a central role in the Chemsafe scheme. Since 1973, we have delivered the Level 1 (telephone-based) emergency response component of Chemsafe through a dedicated 24/7 telephone number that is only available to UK emergency services and other nominated organisations. NCEC also runs a global, multilingual, 24/7 emergency response helpline. Through the helpline, we provide immediate, proportionate and actionable advice to the emergency services dealing with an incident. This helps responders manage their actions by receiving timely and direct access to an unparalleled level of hazmat information and advice.
We shall continue to do this, but taking all the necessary precautions and keeping the safety of our emergency responders as a high priority. If you require any assistance regarding how to approach COVID-19 patients or any other general enquiry regarding emergency response, please feel free to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Specific to the UK
- UK Government: https://www.gov.uk/coronavirus
- UK specific business guidance: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/coronavirus-covid-19-list-of-guidance
- HSE: https://www.hse.gov.uk/news/coronavirus.htm
- WHO: http://www.euro.who.int/en/health-topics/health-emergencies/coronavirus-covid-19
- ECDC: https://www.ecdc.europa.eu/en/coronavirus
- CDC: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html