Social distancing to control COVID-19 spread: Action items for public safety

Cancel station tours, visits, and non-essential training and travel


Social distancing is the newest element for individual and organizational infection control plans and is receiving widespread attention as COVID-19 – declared a pandemic by The World Health Organization on Mar. 11, 2020 – continues its spread across the U.S. This Santa Clara County (California) Public Health Department fact sheet describes social distancing as “limiting large groups of people coming together, closing buildings and canceling events.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines social distancing as “remaining out of congregate settings, avoiding mass gatherings and maintaining distance (approximately 6 feet or 2 meters) from others when possible.”

Social distancing accepts or acknowledges that the coronavirus is likely widespread, community transmission is already occurring and the number of diagnosed cases is going to rise as more people receive testing. Social distancing, along with other risk reduction methods, attempts to slow the spread of COVID-19 and reduce the speed of new diagnoses, especially severe cases, in need of prehospital and in-hospital care.

A patient is loaded into an ambulance, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
A patient is loaded into an ambulance, Tuesday, March 10, 2020, at the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., near Seattle. The nursing home is at the center of the outbreak of the coronavirus in Washington state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

COVID-19, according to the CDC, is mainly spread from person to person between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet) and through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Containment through border closings, transportation restrictions and quarantining sick or exposed individuals will be increasingly ineffective given the growing number of new cases attributed to community-acquired transmission. Nonetheless, the basics of preventing virus transmission remain the same:

  • Frequent handwashing with soap and water (hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable)
  • Don’t touch your face (easier said than done!)
  • Catch your cough or sneeze in the crook of your elbow
  • Stay home from school or work if you are sick

Community social distancing actions

The CDC also states, “The virus that causes COVID-19 seems to be spreading easily and sustainably in the community,” which is prompting the cancellation or reduction of events and opportunities for people to congregate together. Specifically, those social distancing actions include:

  • Closing daycares, schools and college campuses
  • Canceling concerts, parades and sporting events
  • Canceling conferences or offering a virtual alternative
  • Canceling church services
  • Ordering employees to work from home
  • Changing hours or available services at government buildings, like libraries

When people do need to be together in a workplace, school, church or public venue, experts recommend staying at least six feet apart, not exchanging handshakes or high fives, minimizing contact with any surfaces, as well as the standard precautions of handwashing.

Public safety social distancing actions

Public safety organizations – fire, EMS, law enforcement – in consultation with their medical director and local public health officials, should consider taking any or all of these actions to reduce opportunities for coronavirus transmission and increase social distancing:

  • Restrict building access with locked doors or a secured indoor lobby. Designate most areas of the station for only currently on-duty personnel.
  • Cancel station tours by youth and school groups.
  • Postpone non-essential in-person continuing education of all types – lecture, hands-on and high-fidelity simulation.
  • Deliver company training, roll call or shift briefing virtually with a conference call or web meeting.
  • If a group of personnel must gather in a meeting room, ensure that chairs, tables and all training equipment are disinfected before and after the meeting.
  • Require any face-to-face meeting attendees to spread out so they are at least six feet apart. Don’t pass snacks, training materials or other items from person to person.
  • Postpone non-essential station visits for equipment demonstrations or checks. Ask the vendor to provide demonstrations by live or recorded web video.
  • Reduce the frequency of or cancel citizen visits to the station for questions, permits or blood pressure check. If necessary, set-up a specific room or area where these visits might continue, but don’t allow the citizen (often a friendly neighbor) to linger or visit other areas of the station.

Give serious thought to the necessity of personnel moving up to other stations or visiting other stations for training, supply pick-ups or meals. In addition, sending an entire company – on-duty – to a grocery store is an exposure opportunity that might not be worth the risk.

Many companies, including Facebook and Amazon, have canceled non-essential work travel. Public safety employers should be making a similar assessment of the risk-benefit of work-related travel. As of March 10, FDIC International, the world’s largest conference for firefighters, is still scheduled for April 20-25 in Indianapolis. Conference organizers and the Indiana Convention Center have “increased their housekeeping staff and implemented additional precautionary measures including routinely and thoroughly disinfecting all surfaces and carpeting, monitoring and refilling hand sanitizers throughout the facility, purchased electrostatic disinfection equipment, replaced all air filters with hospital-grade filters and more.”

Additional thoughts on COVID-19 planning

Ideally, every public safety agency has already begun to plan for how COVID-19 will impact its personnel, their families and their willingness to report to work. At a minimum, planning should account for:

  • Childcare needs if schools and daycares close.
  • Regular or additional care personnel provide for elderly parents, especially if those elders are already institutionalized.
  • Protection of critical community infrastructure like hospitals, clinics and public safety stations.
  • Changing response configuration. Though unpopular, the FDNY decision to not have firefighters co-respond with FDNY EMS for certain types of respiratory complaints is reducing exposure opportunities.

Maintaining maximum staffing during this pandemic is going to be an ongoing challenge that will require a combination of:

  • Personnel using PPE properly and appropriately.
  • Updated or dynamic protocols for 911 call-taking, resource allocation and patient transport destinations.
  • Ensuring housing and food for personnel, especially if in an in-quarters quarantine is required or they are unable to return home.
  • Supporting families of public safety personnel throughout with preparatory information, prevention techniques, open communication channels and potentially food and housing. The workforce is more likely to report for duty if they are confident their family is OK.
  • Transparent communication internally about department actions, needs and pandemic impacts. External communications to citizens about prevention, resource availability and how to best care for their neighbors is equally important.

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