The unfolding COVID-19 pandemic might have changed the routines of firefighters across the Saanich Peninsula in many ways, but somethings remain the same.
“For us, as an essential service, it’s business as usual, when it comes to responding to structure fires or motor vehicle incidents,” said Chris Vrabel, chief of the Central Saanich Fire Department.
Brett Mikkelsen, chief of the Sidney Volunteer Fire Department, strikes a comparable note. “It seems very quiet out on the streets, but the work and calls don’t stop,” he said. “It has definitely slowed down a little bit, but we are still doing calls. People are still getting sick and things are still going on.”
Case in point two recent fires in Central Saanich.
On Sunday, March 22, 27 firefighters from Central Saanich, Sidney and North Saanich responded to a fire in the 2700-block of Skyline Crescent that caused extensive damage to a family home. On April 10, crews responded to a Friday night fire that damaged a Brentwood Bay pub.
These incidents raise a number of questions, starting with the question of how firefighters douse fires while maintaining social distancing. Vrabel said department members do their best possible to maintain physical distancing in all of their activities.
“There are times when it is just not practical,” he said. “We are a very safety-focused culture and we work on a buddy system. We do our best to be as practical as we can.”
These incidents underscore how things have changed for first responders. For one, only serious incidents such as structure fires trigger a call-out to all members. “That is done to protect fire first responders and also to preserve personal protective equipment,” said Vrabel.
And it is only when the bell rings for serious incidents that firefighters will leave their homes to assemble and form a response, said Vrabel.
This reality of gathering only when absolutely necessary has meant that in-person practices — an essential element of the job — have been largely suspended, or when absolutely necessary held in a safe manner in accordance with social distancing recommendations.
“We no longer train in the same traditional manner,” said Mikkelsen. “We would all typically gather here on Thursday night and break into three to four different groups and train.” In the face of social distancing, training has moved online with assignments done through interactive methods, he said. “That is how we are delivering training during this situation.”
COVID-19 has also changed how other social behaviour among firefighters. First, nobody can report for duty when they are experiencing any flu or cold symptoms, said Vrabel. “The second is that we check in regularly with our staff to ensure that they are practicing physical distancing when they are at home, away from the fire station, and with their families, so that their [would-be exposure] is minimized to the greatest degree possible.”
Without these restrictions, the department would not be able to deliver services, said Vrabel.
But if COVID-19 has changed these elements, the departments have tried to maintain external and internal relations as best as possible.
The automatic aid agreement in the case of any structure fire across the Saanich Peninsula between the departments in Sidney, Central Saanich and North Saanich remains in place and contingency plans exist for the three Peninsula departments to support each other in case one department goes out of action because of a large number of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases.
Both Sidney and Central Saanich are also making sure their members remain as connected as possible under the circumstances.
“It’s really important that in the department we maintain the social connection as much as possible,” said Vrabel, pointing programs designed to help firefighters as well as their families deal with various stresses. “That is what keeps us together — we are a family.” Sidney also offers support along those lines.
Finally, both departments have also received measures of support from the community. In the case of Central Saanich, it came in the form of a thank-you note, while Sidney residents living in the neighbourhood near the fire hall have paid tribute through notes posted in front windows and noise-making.
— Central Saanich Fire (@CSaanichFire) April 7, 2020
— SidneyVFire (@SidneyVFire) April 4, 2020
— SidneyVFire (@SidneyVFire) April 14, 2020
The Peninsula News Review also reached to the North Saanich Fire Department.