Small communities could face challenge of first responder shortage

SOUTHWICK – As the number of people with COVID19 increases, so do the chances of a first responder contracting the virus. This poses a concern for small communities such as Southwick that rely on part-time and volunteer first responders.

With five full-time employees – plus one in the hiring que – and 45 call members, the Southwick Fire Department is not yet feeling the strain, but they are short staffed. Before the outbreak was declared a pandemic, Deputy Fire Chief Richard R. Stefanowicz pleaded with the Southwick Select Board to hire three more full-time staff, despite them not having completed paramedic school.

Fire Chief Russ Anderson said there is a shortage of paramedics in the hiring pool across the state. Three Southwick firefighters are currently in paramedic school, however, school is on hold and civil service tests have been suspended. Of the department’s 45 call members, 20 are EMTs and none are paramedics.

Anderson said right now, all SFD members are healthy and taking every precaution to stay that way. However, he said that could change quickly.

“It’s a day by day situation,” said Anderson. “We had a member of our department showing some symptoms of coronavirus who self-quarantined and was fine.”

To keep paramedics, firefighters, EMTs and patients as safe as possible, the fire station is operating with minimum staff in the building.

“No one is here unless they’re covering a shift,” Anderson said. “All trainings and meetings are shut down.”

Anderson said they are doing their best to stay on top of the situation.

“We’ve talked to our counterparts in Seattle, which had the first big outbreak,” he said. “They said to expect 10-30 percent of the workforce to get sick.”

Anderson said they are using their equipment wisely and he noted that overall, 9-1-1 calls are down.

“People are calling us less, and many people are refusing transports to the hospital,” Anderson said.

While this does help first responders stay free to handle virus-related calls and emergencies such as accidents, Anderson said residents with a true health emergency or showing any symptoms of COVID19 should call 9-1-1.


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