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Coronavirus creates unique risks for volunteer fire departments

Volunteers are taking extra steps to prevent exposure to COVID-19, but fear cases could diminish limited resources.

BALLARDSVILLE, Miss — Volunteer fire departments are facing a unique threat as coronavirus continues to plague local communities.

According to the US Fire Administration, 76.1% of Kentucky and 74.2% of Indiana fire departments are "volunteer" departments, while about 14% of departments in both states are also considered "mostly volunteer."

Now, places like the Ballardsville firehouse are under strict regulations for its paid and volunteer firefighters.

“We're having the volunteers stay at home and the only time they're coming to the fire house is to make runs”, said Ballardsville Chief Stephen Fante.

On the way in and out of the fire hall, firefighters must log their body temperatures. At the end of a run, they are required to report any health changes.

Fante has cared for this rural Oldham County community for more than two decades, saying they've weathered the uncertainty of other viral concerns. Still, COVID-19 has brought major changes.

Volunteers are hard to come by. If one gets coronavirus, and others are around them, CDC guidelines require quarantine. In a tight knit community, that could limit resources in an instant.

“A volunteer station is just that," the Chief said. “That's why we do have paid staffing daytime, because historically [the volunteers] are at work."

The Kentucky Association of Fire Chiefs is helping with advice, PPE regulations and gear. President Gregg Bayer said they trying to protect those still dedicated to volunteering that face unemployment and life stresses.

"I think the response times, they're going to try to remain consistent," Bayer said. "However the amount of personnel that may be able to respond is something that really comes in question.” 

Fante said he was optimistic, but said the risk is ever present. He insisted that patient care is their number one priority, even if it does come at a risk.

“If we train and we properly protect ourselves then I feel like we should be fine," Fante said.

His department has experienced other changes due to coronavirus concerns. Continued training is an important part of volunteer fire departments. Their Monday night trainings have been moved to online courses. While Fante said online courses are not optimal, they’re trying to do what they can with what’s available.

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