Volunteer Minn. fire-rescue suspending first response service due to PPE shortage

The volunteers will no longer make first responses to medical calls before the primary ambulance provider arrives


Emily Cutts
Post-Bulletin

STEWARTVILLE, Minn. — With personnel protective equipment in short supply for emergency responders, the Stewartville Fire and Rescue announced earlier this month it would temporarily suspend its first response service.

The volunteer department made the announcement on its Facebook page on April 2.

“Being a volunteer organization, a lot of the members that are a part of this organization are here because they really want to serve the public and it's a very large drive for them,” Stewartville Fire Chief Vance Swisher said. “To hold them back because we don't have the PPE is a very challenging issue as the fire chief.”

The service brings first responders and emergency medical technicians from Stewartville's department to medical calls to stabilize a patient before an ambulance arrives on scene. But because of changes to the personal protective equipment required for those calls during the coronavirus pandemic, the department does not have the necessary stockpile of PPE to provide basic contact with a patient.

“People will still receive medical care. It may take longer to get there, but they will still receive medical care from their primary service area provider, which is one of the ambulance providers,” Swisher said.

The Stewartville Fire Department will still respond to fires, rescue calls, extrication calls and crashes.

“Our community has been very blessed with our department being able to, for many years, be a part of what we call first response calls,” City Administrator Bill Schimmel. “Many times, we can actually get to a call the quickest of all the responding entities. So our citizens have gotten used to that. At the same time, the only way we can keep responding to the wide variety calls is if we keep our personnel healthy.”

The decision to temporarily suspend the first response service was not an easy one, Swisher said. The department was one of the first in the state to begin this type of response more than three decades ago.

“It was very challenging for us to step back from that,” Swisher said. “At the end of the day, what it came down to was that we cannot protect our staff if we don't have the appropriate PPE to send them into these environments. What we equate it to is we can't have firefighters going into a structure fire without turnout gear.”

The department typically responds to 30 to 45 of those calls a month, according to Swisher.

Schimmel cautioned Stewartville residents not to panic and said the fire department and first response would still be working as backups.

Five days after the announcement, Swisher said they are hopeful they will be back up and running in a few weeks. The department has identified its gap in gear and has been actively looking at getting the necessary equipment.

“It's a question on when the equipment arrives,” he said. “Once we get the amount of equipment we need to be back in service, we'll be back in service almost immediately.”

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