SAN JOSE (KPIX) – Fire departments across the Bay Area were changing the way they operate at work and respond to calls, as they try to prevent exposure to the novel coronavirus.

It’s a delicate balance for first responders to prevent exposure to the virus and continue to show up to work when the public needs them the most.

“We are assuming when we show up, every call, every time could be a COVID patient,” said Sean Kaldor the president of the San Jose Fire Department’s IAFF Local 230.

Firefighters are now responding to medical calls in full personal protective gear — masks, latex gloves and gowns — when they believe a patient may be positive for the virus or has been identified as positive.

Many agencies are also sending in one firefighter to assess a patient instead of potentially exposing the entire crew.

Menlo Park Fire District Fire Chief Harold Schapelhouman said they are creating a unit to respond to calls from people who may be infected with COVID-19.

“We have actually guys who volunteered to get on that unit, because they understand that if that protects their fellow firefighters from getting sick,” Schapelhouman said. “Then maybe not only are we helping our own personnel, we’re helping the public as well.”

The virus so far has hit agencies in Alameda and San Jose. Fourteen San Jose firefighters have tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 70 with symptoms are being monitored, said Kaldor.

The challenge for all firefighters in prevention, including social distancing, is that they typically live together during their 48-hour shifts.

“Nature of our work, it’s not something that’s feasible, so we do the best that we can when we’re not engaging in fire suppression or EMS activities,” said Oakland Battalion Chief Demond Simmons.

But if Governor Gavin Newsom’s prediction is right that more than half of Californians could be infected with COVID-19 in two months if nothing is done, the situation for everyone including first responders, could be dire.

“We’re doing everything we can to prevent a big spike that’ll have a huge impact on operations,” Kaldor said.

There is also a concern that there could be a shortage in personal protective equipment if the situation continues for weeks or months. Firefighters respond to more medical than fire calls on a daily basis.

“At some point, we can’t keep letting people off duty or else we’re not going to have a fire agency left,” Schapelhouman said.

That is why there is a campaign from agencies across the Bay Area in urging the public to heed the stay-home-order.

“We’re here to serve you and your families,” said Kaldor. “Our families are at home, we’re asking you to take care of them, by you also staying at home.”

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