National Cemetery Road Crash

Windy Hill firefighters March 14, 2019, stand by at a crash on National Cemetery Road and wait for a recovery crew while Florence County EMS medics treat one person in an ambulance following a two-car crash.

FLORENCE, S.C. — South Carolina’s first responders are calling for changes in the way the state is handling the COVID-19 to make it safer for them and the residents they serve.

The South Carolina Association of Counties sent a letter Tuesday to Gov. Henry McMaster calling for more information to be shared with first responders so they know what kind of situation they’re going to be exposed to upon arrival.

“Local first responders desperately need to know the location of infected persons. DHEC appears to interpret state law as prohibiting the release of location information of infected persons to key county officials,” Tim Winslow and Dwight L. Stewart with the South Carolina Association of Counties wrote in a letter to the governor.

“This means our first responders are ‘flying blind’ when responding to emergency situations,” they wrote in their letter to the governor. “The South Carolina Association of Counties requests a gubernatorial directive authorizing the county emergency management official, as designated by the county, be informed of the location of their infected people.”

The very nature of being a first responder puts people at risk of exposure and knowing where positive tests cases of the virus are located would allow responders to more safely respond, Florence County Emergency Management Division director Dusty Owens said.

“Information is power,” Owens said.

That information would also allow for better use of the limited amount of personal protective equipment to which responders have access.

“We’re having to ration and make last what we have on hand,” Owens said. “If we know with certainty where confirmed cases are located we can use it to our advantage. We can use (PPE) where we need to and save it where it is unnecessary.”

First responders already have access to information on tuberculosis patients in the county along with several other diseases, Owens said.

“We are notified about positive cases so we can put the information in the CAD. The information pops up on (dispatch) screens and we can (tell responders) that upon dispatch,” Owens said. “DHEC has steadfastly refused to share that information with dispatchers and emergency responders across the state.”

“We use information on a daily basis that is restricted to only first responders,” Owens said. “There is no reason we can’t handle this without it being compromised.”

The letter further calls for first responders to be given priority for testing for the COVID-19 virus.

“First responders who do have contact with a COVID-19 patient, without testing, should quarantine for 14 days. Failure to test or quarantine will lead to asymptomatic emergency personnel spreading the virus to other workers or patients. Either of these situations will lead to a shortage of emergency workers and accelerated spread of the disease,” according to the letter.

“The ability to have personnel able to respond to this emergency is critical Without these directives it is likely that counties will quickly run short of emergency workers, exacerbating an already dangerous medical crisis,” Winslow and Stewart wrote in the letter.

“We do not have any responders who are out sick or in quarantine at the moment,” Owens said. “Obviously one of our big concerns is we could have that occur which is going to impact our ability to support the citizens.”

Within the division, Owens said, there have been discussions about what to do should a large number of communications officers or responders be lost through sickness or quarantine.

“Best prevention is to slow or stop the spread of the virus,” Owens said. “A very effective way to do that is for DHEC to release the information about positive or presumed positive cases to responders, not to the general public.”

“We have to be smart in how we deal with this type of thing. We are asking, and have been asking for about two weeks now, for DHEC to be more forthcoming with information,” Owens said.

The South Carolina Association of Counties is not the only organization asking, the state coroner’s association and emergency management association have sent similar letters to the governor, Owens said.

With the pandemic, several fire departments, who frequently respond with medics from Florence County EMS, have changed their procedure to cut down on their possible exposure.

“If you find yourself in a situation that requires a response from us, we’re coming,” said Howe Springs Fire Marshal Michael Page through Facebook. “Now we might have more personal protective equipment or take extra precautions but we’re here to help you.”

The agency has closed its stations to the public (visits by children and residents were welcomed in the past), isn’t currently doing fire inspections, and is delaying smoke alarm installations.

Certificates of occupancy are being handled through appointments, Page said.

The Florence Fire Department has cut back on EMS first responder calls and is rolling only when specifically requested by responding medics, said Florence Fire Marshal Chris Johnson. The agency has also changed how it responds to limit the number of firefighters exposed on any one call.

The Florence Fire Department continues to have full responses to all other calls, he said.

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