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'There's a weight': Port Coquitlam fire department grapples with absences due to COVID-19

As many as 11 PoCo firefighers across four shifts have been sick with COVID-19 symptoms since the beginning of January
Fire services personnel leave Fire Hall No. 1 in Port Coquitlam to attend a medical emergency.

Port Coquitlam Fire Rescue has resources and operational plans in place to keep services running at full pace despite the onslaught of COVID-19, says the city's fire chief.

But there is no question the department — with its 72 fire suppression officers — is seeing cases mount due to the fast-spreading Omicron variant.

Since Jan. 1 as many as 11 firefighters across four shifts have been sick with COVID-19 symptoms, and four are off now explains Chief Robert Kipps in an interview with the Tri-City News.

He says measures to keep numbers low has reduced spread and is confident the department can continue to weather the storm.

One key measure in place is a policy that ensures staff don't come into contact with each other during morning and evening shift changes.

"They don't see each other, we put a lot of processes in place so on the chance that a shift is impacted by Omicron they won’t transfer it to another shift."

Numerous other protocols, such as full-time mask wearing, except when eating, plexiglass barriers at tables in the common area and a prohibition against visitors is also keeping Omicron at bay.

Kipps says there is a danger that Omicron could slip through the cracks and infect a larger number of firefighters at one time, but the ability to move shifts around and call in off-duty firefighters on overtime will enable PoCo's two firehalls to handle all the city's calls.

"We're definitely seeing more cases than with Delta," acknowledged Kipps. However, he said the department is not in the same situation facing other jurisdictions, such as the Victoria and Edmonton police departments that are in crisis mode.

In the event the department does face a catastrophic number of absences due to COVID-19, PoCo fire has mutual aid agreements in place with neighbouring fire departments.

However, if they can't help, the department would be in the difficult position of having to prioritize cases and deal with those most serious first.

Still, Kipps expressed confidence that systems are in place to prevent that from happening, as firefighters continue to deal with this new variant while handling what has a been an increasing number of emergencies.

For example, he explains he's noticed more health emergencies and accidents from people being at home in the past year, as well as fewer vehicle accidents and an increase in call volume as the B.C. ambulance service reaches capacity.

"The nature of COVID has driven this call volume," he says.

But the fast-paced nature of the job, within the COVID-19 environment, and the fact that firefighters have to enter homes with confirmed COVID-19 has taken a toll.

"They're not stressed, not angry, but there’s a weight: the gravity and the extended nature [of this] is causing a weight on firefighters."

Kipps says he wants Port Coquitlam residents to know he's proud of the hard work by firefighters in these challenging times and that the department is prepared to continue to handle emergency calls that arise.

"Everyone’s really pulling together."

In 2021, PoCo firefighters responded to 3,417 calls — a 47 per cent increase compared to 2,317 in 2020.