Mississauga firefighters say supply of N95 masks running critically low amid COVID-19
Firefighters now have to wear self-contained breathing apparatus on medical calls
The union that represents Mississauga firefighters say its supply of N95 respirator masks is running "extremely low" and the shortage means members have to wear a cumbersome, self-contained breathing apparatus when responding to medical calls.
Chris Varcoe, president of the Mississauga Fire Fighters Association, International Association of Fire Fighters Local 1212, said firefighters are disappointed and frustrated at the amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) allocated to them by the province.
The union, which represents 715 firefighters, has had trouble securing an ongoing supply since the start of the pandemic.
"We have run into a critical shortage and no new supply is available in the near future that we can see," Varcoe said in a Skype interview on Tuesday.
A memo issued late last week directed firefighters to start wearing their self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBAs), also known as air packs, to medical calls as of this past Monday morning.
Varcoe said firefighters are "towards the bottom of the list" when it comes to provincial allocations of PPE. Members of the association know they are not alone among emergency services personnel in lacking PPE but are still feeling "let down," he added.
"They're pretty upset. They feel they're pretty frustrated. They do a great job. They work hard in the community to serve the public and to serve our citizens. And they feel very frustrated that it's been allowed to get to this point that we just simply don't have PPE for them to go into the field to continue to help out in the community when we're needed," he said.
The N95 masks needed by firefighters are certified, approved by Health Canada and protect them when dealing with people who have COVID-19. Varcoe said firefighters know that other emergency services personnel need PPE as well, but he says firefighters are an integral part of the emergency response system in Ontario.
"We don't consider ourselves above any other front-line worker," Varcoe said.
"We expect that our nurses and doctors and paramedics and anyone else who is interacting with the public in an emergency service capacity is receiving the PPE. We would just also like to make sure that firefighters are also considered in that."
The firefighters' breathing apparatus is heavy and cumbersome and it is difficult to communicate with members of the public while wearing it.
Varcoe said firefighters are now wearing the apparatus when responding to calls involving anyone who is sick or injured. That includes when responding to vehicle crashes.
"The impact is significant to my members. But it is the the only option that we have right now available to us to protect both my members and members of the public," he said.
Varcoe said the apparatus is normally reserved for smoky, hazardous environments, such as fully involved fires in houses, high-rise buildings, commercial properties and industrial settings
The air packs also need to be decontaminated after use and are not disposable as are the N95 masks, he said.
"They're not one-time use. That's an expensive piece of equipment. We're having to wear it, having to come out, bag things, get them back to the fire station, and the truck remains out of service while this is happening."
Situation 'not ideal,' fire chief admits
Tim Beckett, Mississauga's fire chief and director of emergency management, confirmed on Tuesday that firefighters are having to wear their air packs. He said the fire service has about a week's supply of N95 masks and is working Ontario's Office of the Fire Marshal to try to obtain more.
Beckett said the service doesn't want to use them all because it still needs the masks in operations outside of medical calls.
About 14,000 N95 masks are on order, he said. The service ordered about 20,000 in February before the pandemic hit, it received about 6,000 and it has used nearly all of them. He said 3M will not release the 14,000 currently on order.
As well, all of the available stock is going into the provincial stockpile, he said.
Fire services in Hamilton and Ottawa had the same problem several weeks ago, he added.
"We're exploring a few other options that we might have that are viable. Without the stock of the N95s that we require, we are going to be carrying on with the use of the breathing apparatus," he said.
"Not ideal, but it still allows us to maintain a level of service to the citizens of Mississauga and protect our firefighters and the patient."
With files from Nathan Crocker, Lauren Pelley