First Responders Try To Stay Safe During COVID-19 Outbreak / Interview with Contra Costa County Fire Protection District


Steve Inskeep


NPR’s Steve Inskeep talks to Steve Hill of the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District in California about how emergency medical responders are staying safe during the coronavirus pandemic.


All this week we’re bringing you stories of first responders to the pandemic. We’ve heard voices of medical professionals, and this morning we focus on firefighters, including Steve Hill, who is with the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. He is the public information officer in that district, east of San Francisco, and his team are, of course, among the first on the scene when a 911 call comes in with a patient responding to COVID-19 symptoms or anything else. Good morning, sir.

STEVE HILL: Good morning, Steve. Thanks for having me.

INSKEEP: Is your job that much different than it normally would be in this crisis?

HILL: Well, interestingly, we are in a fairly diverse county, across the bay from San Francisco. We have a lot of industrial facilities and a lot of transportation arteries, so we tend to have a lot of risks for emergency incidents. So fortunately, we have some experience in planning for those – for the unexpected. This is certainly radically different from anything else we’ve planned for up till now.

INSKEEP: I’m thinking about basic things of just keeping the fire engines staffed. To state the obvious, you must be essential personnel. All your people must be asked to show up to work. But their kids are home. They may be sick. Are you – do you have enough people?

HILL: Well, that’s an excellent point. Our firefighters are a reflection of the society we serve, and so they have all the same concerns that everyone else has out there. We put quite a bit of attention into keeping them informed and finding ways to help them to care for their personal concerns that they have, just like everyone else has.

Do we have enough people? Yes, we do. We’re actually very satisfied with where we are right now relative to staffing. We’re one of the larger fire districts in the state. We have about 400 – a little bit more than 400 personnel, and about 300 of those are firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, first responders. And with just a few limited exceptions, they’re all available and ready for work this morning and are on call, and we expect that that is going to continue at least for the next few weeks. We don’t have a crystal ball, of course. We don’t know what a surge looks like…


HILL: …Or when it might happen. But for the next few weeks, we’re satisfied.

INSKEEP: Well, that’s my question because hospitals, of course, have to look forward to a moment when they may have too many patients and not enough personnel, fewer personnel even than normal as people fall away. Are you having to plan for that possibility in your area?

HILL: Well, the first thing that we did – the answer is yes. The first thing we did was we worked immediately, a few weeks ago now, on crew protection because we recognized that if we didn’t have crews, we wouldn’t be able to provide the services that are expected of us. So that was the first thing we did.

We immediately turned our attention thereafter, once we were satisfied with those protocols, towards contingency planning and just trying to anticipate every possibility we could. We feel like we’re in pretty good shape in that regard and have some levers to pull if we need to to adjust levels of service, stations, that sort of thing, should it get to that. But at this point, we don’t see any need for that. We’re in good shape staffing wise.

INSKEEP: Oh, adjust levels of service, meaning if you have fewer people, maybe ask them to work more hours, extra shifts, that sort of thing. Can I just ask how a 911 call might be different now as firefighters respond to this, knowing there is this additional danger beyond anything else they might expect on a 911 call?

HILL: Yeah, that’s a great question, and it’s one that we’ve tried to share with our communities here so they understand the differences that they might observe when we do respond to a – especially emergency medical calls.

The first – one of the very first things we did here, several weeks ago now, is we adjusted our – what we call EMD, our emergency medical dispatch procedures, to do an initial screening on the phone for – from callers to 911 to ask them the basic questions, which your listeners can probably predict, but back then it was a whether they had traveled internationally, whether they exhibiting any flu-like symptoms or anyone in their home was, things like that. Had they been exposed to a known COVID-19 person? We’ve adjusted that a little bit over time, over the last couple of weeks. We’ve gotten away from the travel questions.

But the point of it all is, as you suggest, we want to give our first responders en route to any incident a warning if there’s any sign of the possibility of an infection on that incident.

INSKEEP: Can I just ask – many of us here at NPR feel like we’re doing an essential job that’s more important than ever. You must feel even more so in your line of work right now.

HILL: Well, I think that all of our – I think that that’s something that’s common in the fire service in general, any time. I believe that at times like this, there – it’s probably even more so. Every one of our people out there, 400 of them, they’re all – as you suggest – essential workers here in the county. They are all working, whether they’re in our fire stations or dispersed, working at home as many of them are right now. They’re all very dedicated to providing the services that our communities depend on from us.

INSKEEP: Steve Hill of the Contra Costa Fire Protection District in California. Thanks so much.

HILL: Thanks, Steve.

This article was originally published here:

About Steve Inskeep

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR’s Morning Edition, as well as NPR’s morning news podcast Up First.

Known for interviews with presidents and Congressional leaders, Inskeep has a passion for stories of the less famous: Pennsylvania truck drivers, Kentucky coal miners, U.S.-Mexico border detainees, Yemeni refugees, California firefighters, American soldiers.

Since joining Morning Edition in 2004, Inskeep has hosted the program from New Orleans, Detroit, San Francisco, Cairo, and Beijing; investigated Iraqi police in Baghdad; and received a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for “The Price of African Oil,” on conflict in Nigeria. He has taken listeners on a 2,428-mile journey along the U.S.-Mexico border, and 2,700 miles across North Africa. He is a repeat visitor to Iran and has covered wars in Syria and Yemen.

Inskeep says Morning Edition works to “slow down the news,” making sense of fast-moving events. A prime example came during the 2008 Presidential campaign, when Inskeep and NPR’s Michele Norris conducted “The York Project,” groundbreaking conversations about race, which received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for excellence.

Inskeep was hired by NPR in 1996. His first full-time assignment was the 1996 presidential primary in New Hampshire. He went on to cover the Pentagon, the Senate, and the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he covered the war in Afghanistan, turmoil in Pakistan, and the war in Iraq. In 2003, he received a National Headliner Award for investigating a military raid gone wrong in Afghanistan. He has twice been part of NPR News teams awarded the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Silver Baton for coverage of Iraq.

On days of bad news, Inskeep is inspired by the Langston Hughes book, Laughing to Keep From Crying. Of hosting Morning Edition during the 2008 financial crisis and Great Recession, he told Nuvo magazine when “the whole world seemed to be falling apart, it was especially important for me … to be amused, even if I had to be cynically amused, about the things that were going wrong. Laughter is a sign that you’re not defeated.”

Inskeep is the author of Instant City: Life and Death in Karachi, a 2011 book on one of the world’s great megacities. He is also author of Jacksonlanda history of President Andrew Jackson’s long-running conflict with John Ross, a Cherokee chief who resisted the removal of Indians from the eastern United States in the 1830s.

He has been a guest on numerous TV programs including ABC’s This Week, NBC’s Meet the Press, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell Reports, CNN’s Inside Politics and the PBS Newshour. He has written for publications including The New York TimesWashington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The Atlantic.

A native of Carmel, Indiana, Inskeep is a graduate of Morehead State University in Kentucky.