Sask. emergency responders take precautions during coronavirus pandemic

While many people are staying home, or practising so-called social distancing, neither are options for emergency responders on 911 calls for medical patients.

Emergency responders cannot practise social distancing on the job, but are using protective equipment on calls

Regina firefighters and firefighter-paramedics are taking rigorous precautions if a medical patient is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, says the fire department's deputy chief of operations. (Daniella Ponticelli/CBC)

While many people are staying home amid COVID-19 pandemic concerns, or are practising social distancing‚ neither are options for emergency responders. 

Some Saskatchewan police headquarters are closing their doors to screen visitors for symptoms and recent travel history. And they're asking people to phone their non-emergency lines if appropriate. 

But what pandemic precautions can first responders take when they're headed to an emergency call? 

Neil Sundeen, the deputy chief of operations with Regina's fire department, said if a medical patient is exhibiting flu-like symptoms, the precautions are rigorous for their firefighters and firefighter-paramedics. 

"Our crews are expected to use full protective equipment, and that includes a protective suit, an N95 mask, eye protection and gloves," he said.

"And we feel that certainly exceeds the protocols that are set out, so our crews are fully equipped to deal with any patient in any condition, and to protect themselves."

The Regina Fire Department's Neil Sundeen, seen here in a 2018 photo, said crews are carrying full protective equipment to calls. (Abby Schneider/CBC)

While call-takers are asking for information about symptoms that may be of concern, Sundeen says crews are carrying all that equipment with them, because details are not always clear until they arrive on scene.

Saskatoon paramedics from Medavie Health Services are similarly carrying and wearing appropriate personal protective equipment, depending on the case.

Medavie director of public affairs Troy Davies also said their treatment begins on the phone. Dispatchers are placing priority on COVID-19 risk questions, to ensure paramedics and patients are safe.

"Communication is key for us. We have to know when we can use our N95 masks, and when … we can use paper masks. And that's something we worked out prior to [COVID-19] coming even to Saskatoon," he said.

"So we knew down the pipe this was coming when we'd seen what was happening internationally." 

Davies added that Medavie paramedics in Saskatoon moved up their usual fittings for personal protective equipment to January this year, in anticipation of the possibility of coronavirus arriving in Canada.

Regina police are also beefing up their personal protective equipment training and fittings. 

"We're preparing PPE kits," RPS media development officer Les Parker said. "Members will have masks. You won't be seeing them out in public, but if there is a call where COV-19 is suspected, members would mask up."

Call 911 in an emergency

Davies recommends anyone concerned about symptoms or risk call the 811 health line if appropriate, or try the province's online self-assessment tool

But he says, ultimately, people who need emergency medical care can and should call them. 

"If you feel that you need an ambulance, we want you to call an ambulance. If you feel you're in any type of medical emergency or if you're having difficulty breathing to the point where you're scared, or you feel like you're in distress, you have to call 911 and we will respond," he said. 

At Regina police headquarters, Parker says contagions are not a new factor for people who respond to emergencies, so officers have simply adjusted their usual protocol for this situation. 

"If we go to a call where somebody has hepatitis, for instance, that's a contagious thing that we would have to adjust our response to. So we're taking our emergency response and we're keeping in mind the conditions of COVID-19."

Davies says paramedics in Saskatoon had one call soon after the virus first appeared in Saskatchewan that did not end up being COVID-19 related, but paramedics were initially asked to self-isolate.

Sundeen says to his knowledge, the Regina Fire Department's emergency responders have not responded yet to a known COVID-19 case. 

"We're confident we've given our people the tools they need to protect themselves and to serve the people, no matter what the instance is," he said.

"We're constantly updating to have the best information and we're making plans to continue to do that as we move forward into uncharted territory."


Tory Gillis


Tory Gillis began work as a journalist with CBC Saskatchewan in 2012. You can hear her deliver the afternoon news on weekdays on CBC Radio One in Saskatchewan. She has also worked as a reporter, and as an associate producer on CBC Saskatchewan's radio shows, The Morning Edition, Bluesky and The Afternoon Edition.