Milwaukee County first responders prepare for increase in COVID-19 calls

Posted at 10:37 PM, Mar 29, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 21:51:38-04

As paramedics throughout Milwaukee County prepare for more coronavirus related calls, officials are asking the public to only call 911 for life threatening emergencies to prevent the system from being overloaded.

"Before noon, we had nine calls on the med unit. On the Alternate Response Vehicle, they were up to seven. That's considered very high," said Milwaukee Fire Dept. Lt. Jeff Freitag.

The Milwaukee County Department of Emergency Management hasn't noticed a major increase in EMS call volume thus far, but the agency is expecting things to get busy soon.

"At this point we haven’t seen major changes in our 911 volume, and we haven’t seen major changes in our EMS response volume or our transport volume," said Dr. Ben Weston with the Department of Emergency Management.

However, leaders expect that community spread will cause the amount of paramedic calls to rise quickly.

"We do anticipate as COVID-19 continues to spread in our community we will see more responses," Dr. Weston said.

In an effort to combat the spread, local officials are pooling resources and designating fire stations as staging areas for paramedics responding to COVID-19 calls. The Milwaukee Fire Department is even on-boarding its recruits and newly-certified EMT's to help with their response to the pandemic.

When calling for help, dispatchers will ask you a series of questions about your symptoms to see if a specialized paramedic unit is appropreate to respond. Crews have covered the inside of ambulances with plastic. That gets sprayed down with a bleach solution after each patient is transported. First responders suit up with gowns, masks, goggles and boots. They also spray themselves in between calls to stay protected.

"You actually spray the solution on and let it dwell," said Lt. Freitag. "Let it air dry and get ready for next call."

As paramedics take these precautions, officials are looking for you to think; "If you have to call 911, is this a life-threatening emergency," said John Cohn, Greenfield Fire Chief and President of the Milwaukee Fire Chief's Association.

Leaders have considered some creative methods to free up resources within the system. If paramedics respond to your location and find you to be stable, they might ask if you are willing to stay home and consult your doctor. If you agree, healthcare workers will call you in the following days and weeks to monitor your progress. Additionally, they will try to educate callers on managing your health at home.

To clarify, this isn't first responders declining to help during an emergency. This is a method to mitigate unnecessary calls for an ambulance. Paramedics say that the best way to help them right now is to stay home and take care of your health as best as possible, allowing them to respond to actual emergencies.

Leadership within the fire department remains grateful for those who continue to risk their health to help others suffering from the novel coronavirus.

"We're taking these folks and we're saying, go to the most likely to be contagious place. Put your hands on them and help them. Just about every one of these folks volunteered for that duty," said Milwaukee Fire Department Assistant Chief Aaron Lipski.

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