Here's how Bergen County firefighters are stepping up safety amid coronavirus outbreak
By ROBERT AITKEN JR., NORTHJERSEY.COM, Correspondent | March 31, 2020 | NEW JERSEY
Story No. 033120115
BERGEN COUNTY, NJ - New Jersey residents are being told to stay home and avoid the dangers of the coronavirus. Yet thousands of men and women across the state are capable of breaking their self-quarantine at a moment’s notice as firefighters.
First responders are always deemed essential personnel in times of trouble, but the spread of the virus has brought with it added safety precautions. That is especially evident in Bergen County, which has seen the most confirmed cases of COVID-19 of any county in New Jersey.
“Firehouses are closed,” said Alan Silverman, fire official for the borough of New Milford. “It’s not often that you can say that’s the case. All meetings and drills are canceled. The door is locked unless there is a call.”
When there is an emergency, firefighters are asked to come out only if they show no symptoms themselves. Apparatus used is cleaned thoroughly, including a bleach spray for the inside of the trucks, and tools are checked to be in working order, used only in an emergency.
New Milford, much like other communities, has taken to social media and its own website to let people know what steps they can take if there is an alarm. Residents are asked to put signs on front doors if someone inside is infected with the virus. Residents are also being asked to inform dispatchers when calling for an emergency.
Dispatchers across the area have been instructed to relay virus information, providing a code over the radio to firefighters. The code, which may vary from town to town, is confidential to the public, so as to not worry other citizens who may be listening to dispatches.
Fire companies have Tyvek suits and goggles that can be worn instead of the usual turnout gear and bunker pants in case there is a residence with a COVID-19 case. Standard firefighting gear is swapped out when possible in a situation. Despite regular gear being cleaned often to remove hazards absorbed into the materials, the suits provide a safer alternative to first responders in this situation.
“We are here to serve our communities, but our priority for safety has always been our fellow firefighters,” said Marty Loesner, chief of the Little Ferry Fire Department. “If we do not keep ourselves safe, we cannot be there to keep our residents safe. We have to still provide a service, but we have to be as safe as humanly possible at this stage of the game.”
Departments have also cut themselves down to smaller crews in firetrucks when it's possible, to keep crews at a distance from one another.
“We have been fortunate to have a light load of calls,” Loesner said. “We haven’t had to use some of the policies we have in place. Hopefully, we don’t have to. If we do, we hope our residents can help keep us safe so that we can do the same for them.”
Silverman, who also works as a fire inspector in New Milford, said inspectors were informed this week that inspections have ceased for the time being as a safety precaution.
“I am in touch with the borough administrator often to check in on the situation,” Silverman said. “I don’t imagine that we will be allowing any fire inspections in town until probably May. That alone might keep some businesses closed that could otherwise remain open.”
This article is a direct street report from our correspondent and has not been edited by the 1st Responder newsroom.