Best Practices for Protecting EMS Responders Amid COVID-19

EMS personnel deal with difficult situations on a daily basis, but COVID-19 is a public safety crisis unlike anything the United States has seen before. It’s crucial that we protect the health of first responders on the frontlines of this pandemic, both physically and mentally.

Unique Challenges for EMS Personnel

The doctors and nurses manning the hospitals and clinics across the U.S. can expect a certain level of cleanliness and sanitation in their workplace, but the same can’t be said for EMS responders. EMTs and paramedics often have to go into the homes of patients, including ones who could potentially be positive for COVID-19. This and other unique challenges mean EMS responders often have to take extra precautions to protect their health. Despite best efforts, many emergency responders have still tested positive for COVID — resulting in a diminished workforce.

EMS agencies have also seen an increase in call volume, with citywide 911 calls reaching record numbers in places like Staten Island. For first responders, working long and intense hours was already part of the job — but the pandemic has taken it to another level. To avoid fatigued staff, EMS agencies should take advantage of EMS personnel management software and its smart scheduling features. Designed for law enforcement and EMS systems, personnel management software makes it easy for EMS agencies to create schedules that adhere to fatigue guidelines, ensure proper licensing and certifications, and comply with PPE protocols.

Protecting Their Physical Health

Hospitals, clinics, and EMS agencies across the United States have implemented protective equipment protocols and infection prevention and control (IPC) practices to protect the health of patients and staff. The CDC put forth detailed recommendations for EMS systems and PSAPS (public safety answering points, or 911 call centers) in particular. These recommendations, to be used in coordination with the guidelines of local and state health departments, include:

  • All EMS personnel should be screened for symptoms at the start of their shift; anyone experiencing symptoms should be sent home.
  • PSAPs should modify their caller queries to include questions about COVID-19 symptoms and recent close contact. They should communicate any information about a patient who may be positive for COVID to EMS responders before their arrival.
  • EMS agencies should develop IPC procedures and policies, which should include providing all personnel with adequate PPE education, training, and equipment.
  • EMS personnel should exercise caution with all patients and give the initial assessment from six feet away if possible.
  • Paramedic transport vehicles and equipment should be cleaned and disinfected after transporting a patient with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infection.

The CDC’s recommendations for EMS agencies and PSAPs go into much more intensive detail about specific PPE and IPC protocols. These policies may be strenuous, but they’re necessary to protect the physical health of EMS responders.

Protecting Their Mental Health

One thing the CDC doesn’t address is the mental health needs of EMS personnel. Even before the pandemic, EMTs, firefighters, and other emergency responders had a lot on their shoulders. Now, when they’re under more strain than ever, their emotional health can’t be ignored. We call our first responders heroes — and they are — but they’re human beings, too, and we all have a breaking point.

It’s crucial that EMS personnel get the help they need from mental health counselors if they’re experiencing mental health issues. Counseling allows first responders to work through job-related PTSD and sleep-deprivation, as well as any personal mental health problems such as stress management. Professional counselors can also help with more serious issues and crisis situations like substance abuse or suicidal impulses. EMS responders should be able to see a mental health counselor for individual therapy or family therapy as needed.

Other conversations are also opening up about the mental health of EMS clinicians and taboos surrounding things like napping on the job. The pros of intra-shift napping include reduced feelings of anxiety, stress, and burnout, improved mental and emotional recovery, and cardiovascular health benefits. While the verdict is still out, the discussion is highlighting the need for additional resources and strategies to protect the mental health of emergency responders.

First responders are some of the most essential workers out there. As this pandemic continues, it’s clear that we need to be doing all we can to protect the physical and mental health of our EMS personnel — from PPE protocols to mental health counseling.

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