Keeping your fleet safe during COVID-19
We’ve been living with COVID-19 for a year now, and it has impacted nearly every aspect of our lives and every municipal operation — including fleets. Some communities had a head start on getting ready while others learned of some holes in their system.
New Haven, Conn., was one city that had a head start, according to Rick Fontana, director of the office of emergency management and homeland security for the city of New Haven.
“We were likely one of the first in Connecticut to purchase an AeroClave electrostatic machine for cleaning and binding,” he said.
The city received the machine at the end of March. “So we were pretty well on our way of making sure our first responders were getting the best cleanliness they could whether it was in areas of congregation like the fire station or in fire apparatus or in police cars.”
The machine uses the highest level of hospital grade solution, and the city is using a solution called Vital Oxide, which Fontana said is chemically safe and has been a highly successful solution for cleaning and decontamination in a hospital setting. He purchased 100 gallons up front because he wanted to make sure the city didn’t get shorted on supply.
A local event sponsored by Yale University gave officials a heads-up. The event was held Jan. 26, 2020, and it brought students from 30 different countries — including China, which already had an outbreak of COVID.
“We had to quarantine students in busses and in hotels until they were tested,” he said. “COVID wasn’t here yet, but with our experiences with pandemics, we knew it was best to start preparing.”
By the first week of February, city officials were “in response mode.”
They started putting together a plan and response, ordered equipment, pulled all the emergency responders and partner agencies together.
“We were the first in the state to have tabletop exercises,” he said.
But, Fontana admitted, “We had some challenges, too — our plan wasn’t perfect.”
One of the biggest challenges was not having enough personal protective equipment for everyone in all agencies. The city of New Haven has approximately 400 police personnel and 335 firefighters.
“We were not expecting this to explode like it did,” he said.
Therefore, the city didn’t have enough N95 masks and PPE, leading it to borrow from other agencies. City officials also prioritized communicating with the state.
While those challenges existed, Fontana felt the city did a pretty good job, evident by the fact that few first responders became ill with COVID.
“As I said, never did we think it was a perfect response, but with multiple collaboration and cooperation between first responders, health care and government, we hit this thing head-on.”
Fontana said there was no question about funding; officials were told to buy what they needed, “which would have been great if it was available.”
Fontana, who’s been in emergency management for over 40 years, said the Strategic National Supply was one failure of the system. “I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but there was a huge amount of failure there.”
He explained they were supposed to have vendor management, but he claimed after 9/11, anthrax and Ebola outbreaks, government officials on all levels used the funds elsewhere.
“Then this hit and we went looking for N95 masks and the elastics were snapping because they were old and not well managed,” he said.
He predicts first responders will be wearing masks when dealing with patients long after COVID-19, just like it is now standard to wear gloves after the AIDS pandemic.
He said the second wave of the pandemic this fall hit the city’s personnel harder, but from what officials can tell, those infections came from family or friends not work.
The AeroClave is used in the city’s other fleets as well, including by the park department or the department of public works, especially when there had been some exposure to COVID-19.
“We’ve been using that nonstop,” he said.
Aside from the AeroClave, all vehicles get a thorough cleaning throughout the interior every day. Fontana also stated the city did well with its messaging to residents, which included passing out masks where it could.
“Coordination is key — sharing communication and keeping the public informed,” he said.
Another change made was how they deal directly with patients. Rather than all the first responders going into the home of someone with suspected COVID-19 symptoms, one member goes into the residence and communicates with the others via cellphone in order to minimize exposure to personnel.
“We didn’t want to get shorthanded — we’re busy and have been working around the clock,” he said.
As in all emergencies, having a plan, holding a unified command meeting every day and sharing information “is what helped us survive as nicely,” according to Fontana.
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