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Fire Department Sees Reduction in Calls Amid Pandemic

(Updated at 11:20 a.m.) The Arlington County Fire Department has seen a reduction in calls amid the coronavirus pandemic, though its members have remained busy.

In a typical day, ACFD dispatches personnel to about 80 calls. Currently, the number of daily dispatches is averaging in the mid-60s, according to spokesman Capt. Justin Tirelli.

Calls for things like vehicle crashes, scooter accidents, and workplace slip-and-fall injuries are down sharply, with fewer people commuting to work. Dispatches for possible structure fires are about the same, Tirelli said, but there have been few actual fires over the past few weeks.

“Structure fires are often in places that are not occupied,” he explained. “Now that people are not leaving the house to go to work, they’re at home and they’ve been able to catch it before something happens.”

Medical calls are an key metric to track, a potential harbinger of a worsening outbreak. Tirelli said medical calls are actually down slightly, though that doesn’t tell the full story. Those who are calling are often exhibiting more serious symptoms.

“It could be because people are reluctant to call for help — waiting longer before calling 911,” he said, also noting that with COVID-19 “a lot of people don’t feel the symptoms until it’s very late in the game.”

Anecdotally, ARLnow has heard what seems like an increase in calls for COVID and flu-like-symptoms over the past week. This week alone, we’ve taken note of two life-threatening, CPR-in-progress calls at long-term care facilities. But it’s not just older residents calling for help due to possible COVID-19 symptoms — we also heard a call for a woman in her 20s, in an apartment building, experiencing trouble breathing.

Though slightly reduced in number, on net the medical calls have taken more personnel time due to the increased severity of the symptoms and the need for firefighters to protect themselves, Tirelli said.

“Our [Personal Protective Equipment] process is very methodical,” he said.

Tirelli said there has been no shortage of ambulances in the county and “we’ve been able to manage really well” to meet all needs without issues, thanks in part to some smart planning and actions.

Two-and-a-half weeks ago the county opened a telemedicine line in its dispatch center, to steer those with medical concerns but no symptoms to other resources. More recently, ACFD deployed what it’s calling an “Omega unit” — an SUV staffed by an EMT and an APO, the county’s most highly-trained paramedics. The Omega unit evaluates (in full protective gear) those with minor COVID-like symptoms, while keeping ambulances that can transport patients in service for life-threatening emergencies.

“Medical matchmaking,” Tirelli explained, “using the right resources for the right patients. That reduces both unnecessary ambulance calls and unnecessary ER visits.”

Even though hospitals are doing their best to isolate COVID-19 patients, “the emergency room is not a safe place to be right now…when there’s a very contagious virus like this,” he said.

The fire department expects that Arlington’s COVID cases have not peaked yet, Tirelli said, and the department remains ready to handle a future surge of calls. A second Omega unit can also be deployed, if necessary.

One thing residents can do to help keep firefighters safe and ready to respond to the most serious calls is to dial the right number for help depending on the situation.

“If someone is not having an emergency, the best place for medical advice is the Health Department hotline: 703-228-7999,” Tirelli said. “If they are having an emergency they should call 911.”

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