For AFD, new gear proves vital during coronavirus pandemic

New respiratory protection system allows for safer contact between EMTs, patients
Published: Jul. 23, 2020 at 4:43 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - For the 20,000 patients the Anchorage Fire Department tends to each year, a new respiratory protection setup is allowing for safer and more comfortable contact for firefighters and emergency medical technicians, as well as the people they serve.

“We’re using these for most of our patient contacts now, just because of asymptomatic transfers (of COVID-19),” said AFD Battalion Chief James Dennis. “It’s faster to put on, it is a higher level of protection, and it is reusable.”

AFD debuted the new setup earlier this summer after the department and municipality came to an agreement back in March, and received a shipment of the setups in May.

So far, it’s proven to be especially helpful, not only in improving safety, but also making communication easier and use of full-body protective equipment more comfortable.

“It allows patients to see our face,” Dennis said. “They can see our mouths move, it’s better for calming patients down, so they can see who we are.”

The system is technically called a Powered Air Purifying Respirator, or PAPR, and it provides a flow of clean, filtered air to the wearer, also protecting their entire face while still allowing for clear vision. A battery-powered blower forces air through a filter that cleans it; then, the air goes up through a tube before going into a fitted helmet worn by the user. This way, the wearer can safely be in a situation in which they’re in close contact with someone infected with a respiratory disease, such as when EMTs respond to a sick or injured caller.

Dennis added that the PAPRs are pricier than disposable options, such as N95 masks and throw-away suits, but in the long run should prove to save the department time and money.

“One setup is about $1,500,” he said, “but we [decontaminate] these and recirculate them back into the system.

“They’re still interested,” he said of patients, “like, ‘What are they wearing? What is that thing? How does it work?’ But other than curiosity, I think it’s been very helpful to the public.”

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