OCEAN CITY — For much of the last year, the Ocean City Fire Department has been on the front lines of the pandemic, including taking an active role in administering the vaccines as they become available.
For about 11 months, the department has seen its daily operations altered significantly as the pandemic continues. How to respond to endless calls for service, from medical emergencies and traumas to fires and rescues, has changed significantly since the outset of the pandemic. COVID-19 has altered the department’s daily operations from the personal protective equipment (PPE) worn daily to the constant decontamination of the equipment, apparatus and facilities.
Bowers and core staff on Tuesday briefed the Mayor and Council on how the OCFD’s operations have changed and how they are now on the front lines of vaccine distribution in the community.
“It is very important for the council and the community to know what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and who we are working with,” he said. “This is a deadly virus and it’s not going away. … This particular pandemic has been extremely challenging. Our men and women have really stepped up throughout this. We’re all working together as a team and that’s how we’ve been successful.”
Last winter Bowers said he and his command staff were keeping a close eye on the spread of the coronavirus nationally and even internationally well in advance of its widespread arrival in Maryland. By the time COVID-19 really started to ramp up locally in mid-March, when Gov. Larry Hogan declared a state-of-emergency and issued the first of his many executive orders, the OCFD had already been implementing new protocols and procedures to combat the virus.
“We witnessed early on this could be a national and international pandemic,” he said. “We loaded up with PPE ahead of time because we saw the potential. We educated our men and women, so they knew what was coming and we trained for this. You all made some tough decisions along the way and we did the same.”
The OCFD was already facing some staffing challenges long before the pandemic hit, and COVID only exacerbated some of those issues. The OCFD includes both career and volunteer divisions, and even in “normal” times, there are often challenges in covering every shift with the appropriate level of personnel.
The OCFD relies on part-time paramedics and EMTs who work in other departments and fill in their downtime by picking up shifts in Ocean City. It’s a common practice, which has been curtailed during the pandemic, according to Bowers.
“The challenges of staffing really reared its head during COVID,” he said. “A lot of our part-time people that work elsewhere were not able to come in to work with us. We had 30 part-time personnel discontinue their service to the OCFD.”
Deputy Chief Chris Shaffer said the OCFD was proactive in terms of gathering needed supplies in advance of the pandemic including critical PPE. Masks, disposable gowns, gloves and face shields have become the uniform of the day for the town’s firefighters and paramedics throughout the pandemic. After responding to any incident, large or small, the firefighter-paramedics, their protective equipment, the apparatus and the facilities all must be decontaminated to help prevent the potential spread of COVID.
At times, the great lengths to which the department has gone to prevent the potential spread has created challenges with response times and getting crews back into service. According to Shaffer, the OCFD was proactive in acquiring the necessary PPE and developing protocols and procedures. He also said the local business community stepped up and assisted with PPE and other necessary supplies.
Bowers said the OCFD has been willing to share PPE and other resources with neighboring departments, but remains reluctant to share personnel.
“Some of our neighboring departments weren’t as fortunate as we were with planning for PPE,” he said. “We did share some of our supplies, but we have been cautious about sharing personnel. We don’t want personnel from other departments that were doing less in terms of exposure coming in to work with the OCFD. They could contribute to the spread within our department and in the community.”
Bowers said despite the recent decline in some of the state’s key COVID metrics, the battle is far from over.
“We’ve been on the front lines for 48 weeks and six days,” he said. “It’s been challenging, but we’ve been out in front of it.”
Early this year, the state of Maryland began rolling out two COVID vaccines, but the process has largely been slow and fraught with challenges. The state relies on vaccination supplies distributed by the federal government and those doses are then sent to each county health department for local distribution.
Worcester has been steadily administering the COVID vaccines as they have become available through various clinics and other venues throughout the county. In Ocean City, vaccine distribution has largely fallen on the OCFD. Early on, it was determined paramedics and EMTs could be trained as efficient administrators of the COVID vaccines and the OCFD has been on the front lines locally.
“The state recognized paramedics could administer the vaccines when they became available,” said Bowers. “When the EMTs were trained and certified to do it, that was a force multiplier for us. We quickly developed and implemented a plan of action.”
The first phase of the state’s COVID vaccine distribution plan included healthcare workers, first-responders and individuals over the age of 75. The OCFD has been administering the vaccines to those groups, with clinics largely for the latter group at Northside Park and clinics for first-responders at the Ocean City Police Department substation at Worcester Street. To date, the OCFD has hosted 12 clinics and has administered close to 800 vaccines.
“That’s the good news,” said Bowers. “We’re getting vaccines into the people who need them the most.”
OCFD Battalion Chief Rick Koch said scheduling the clinics and then having the vaccines available to meet the demand has been a moving target. Such was the case this week for Thursday’s scheduled clinic.
“We had 100 available for public safety personnel and residents over 75,” he said. “Then we learned that changed to 40. Just yesterday, the county called and said they had 300 more, so now we’re back up to 100 for Thursday. We’re chasing the ball, but sooner or later we’re going to catch it.”
In response to a question about the challenges of distributing the required second dose of the vaccine for those who have received the first, Koch said that has been a big concern in some areas, but not locally.
“This pandemic is not going away,” he said. “We’re have to be vigilant. We’re going to continue to do whatever we have to do.”
After the lengthy presentation, the Mayor and Council praised the OCFD and its command staff for having a plan in place to battle the pandemic and executing it.
“We’re all certainly proud of each and every one of you,” said Mayor Rick Meehan. “Thanks for stepping up and being proactive. We’ve seen what has happened in other areas.”