WCESD #4 adjusting, planning for future
By MIKE EDDLEMAN
The challenge to first responders has increased with the hazards of COVID-19, and Williamson County ESD #4 – the fire department in Liberty Hill – has made plenty of adjustments over the past four months.
Fire Chief Anthony Lincoln said the department is responding to a COVID-19 related call about once every two or three days.
“Liberty Hill is getting hammered pretty hard right now looking at the daily stuff,” he said. “It may be like that everywhere in the county, but I get stuff all the time and it’s not over, I can tell you that.”
Through the first few months, that included area business closures and the school closure, Lincoln said call volume went down slightly, but only in one primary area.
“The only thing we saw a decrease in was motor vehicle accidents,” he said. “It was noticeable there weren’t many people on the road and that’s where our decrease came from.”
Call volume remained fairly steady, at 158 in February, 167 in March, 153 in April, and up again to 196 in May.
Even with the increased risk, Lincoln said his department has avoided any positive COVID-19 tests.
“We’ve dodged a bullet and haven’t had anybody sick,” he said. “We’ve had people exposed. We get them to testing, give it incubation time and we tell them not to come to work. There are a few fire departments around that have lost people for days. Total I think we’ve lost as precautionary measures about seven shifts.”
The real concern for him is when firefighters are away from the department, having to deal with crowds at stores and other places.
“I think we’re probably more at risk on our days away from here than we are here,” Lincoln said. “When we make calls here during the day we wear PPE (personal protective equipment). You can just run into someone at the grocery store or a family friend and be more at risk.
“If one person drags it to work and they come at shift change they can expose the shift they’re relieving, their shift and two days later expose the next shift,” he said.
There’s a lot of monitoring for symptoms that goes on in the two stations today.
“Our staff checks their temperature several times while they’re on duty to make sure they’re not coming down with something,” Lincoln said. “I’ll check mine in the mornings when I come to work then in the afternoon. At this point in time we do everything we can do.”
In addition to the standard precautionary measures like regular hand washing, sanitizer and as much social distancing as possible, the department has added measures including treated mats to sanitize shoes, switching shoes, and purchasing Frogg Toggs to be used as personal protective suits.
“It’s kind of like a rain suit,” he said. “For about $50 a person we were able to get two piece suits. We bought those for every staff member and that’s what they’re using for their PPE when they have to go in these houses. We can decontaminate them and reuse them, and we were having trouble getting PPE anyway. There wasn’t any, and there’s still not a great abundance of this stuff.”
Adjustments have also been made in protocols to respond to calls, and Lincoln said early on, procedures could change in a day based on outside guidance and new information. Now, the goal on a call is to expose as few firefighters as possible to potential hazards.
“We would have a call and send in two or three people into a house,” he said. “We don’t do that anymore. We get alerts if everything is working right. But we send one person in now. We will continue to be cautious and look at how we expose ourselves when we go into a house. We may be wearing masks and PPE from now on.”
The department, as well as others around the county, learned quickly that some safety measures can also have a negative impact if not balanced properly, citing some equipment damage issues.
“You pick up one of our gas detectors and it blows out a censor,” he said, explaining how high amounts of alcohol hand sanitizer would damage the hand-held gas detectors. “So we’ve got all these repercussions of how we are trying to protect ourselves that are effecting pieces of equipment. Some departments had electronics in their truck cabs that were starting to fail because they were scrubbing them down with chemicals that were effecting some of the equipment.”
The ESD Board is set to vote at this month’s meeting on the purchase of a new ladder truck, something the department has been looking into for a few years.
The department had the same discussion when the last truck was purchased in 2018, but the need is greater than ever today, according to Lincoln.
“People are still building and we still have commercial projects coming in,” he said. “We have a 24-foot extension ladder. That’s the tallest we have on our pumpers, so any large two-story house we probably can’t reach the roof on it. We have limited access, even on residential two-story houses. We have to move forward with this. The new schools already call for the ability to get to the roof. I told our board that just with the things going on now we need it.”
Getting a new truck into the station is a lengthy process, with more than a year wait for delivery, and it is a high-dollar purchase.
“We’re trying to find out financially how much we’re able to pay down to keep our payment at a certain rate,” Lincoln said. “We looked at this hard when we were opening Station 2. It was three years ago when we made that decision, but it takes a year to build a truck, a year to get into it and now we’ve had it a year.”
The ESD would not begin making payments for two years. A ladder truck will likely cost the ESD about $1.2 million said Lincoln, compared to the engine brought into service last year at $680,000.
The truck would have 500 gallons of water on it so it can be an engine or a ladder. It has a 35-foot ground ladder on it plus the ladder on top is 107 feet.
The ladder truck being looked at is shorter than the traditional truck, which means it will fit in the two current stations with 50-foot bays and 12-foot doors. But Lincoln said when it is received it will be stationed downtown with a four-person crew.
“It’s only like three or four feet longer than our pumpers,” he said. “It’s a pumper with a ladder on top, it’s not a full-blown ladder truck with a platform and stuff like that.”
Today, any call that requires a ladder truck means calling on neighboring departments for assistance.
“I can get a ladder out of Georgetown and I can get a ladder out of Leander if I need to, but sometimes when you first pull up is when you need that ladder,” he said. “You don’t need to wait on it if you have to do a rescue off one of these houses.”