In 2009, the Jackson Township Fire Department purchased about 80 half-mask air-purifying aespirators for potential use during the H1N1 flu pandemic.

"We never really used them. I know I never ended up putting mine on," deputy fire chief Shawn Quincel said.

It's a different story with the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

Since mid-March, firefighters have been wearing the masks on every emergency run they make, Quincel said.

"The last pandemic wasn't quite like this one," he said. "This one is really serious, so we're taking every precaution."

The department purchased 80 more masks to accommodate the larger number of firefighters now on staff and to replace older masks that were deteriorating or couldn't be found, Quincel said.

He said the APR masks with filters were ordered this year at a cost of $25 each.

About 83 full-time firefighters work at the department's four fire stations, he said.

When part-time personnel -- a number that fluctuates -- are added in, the department's roster stands at about 100.

Roughly 26 firefighters are working during an average 24-hour shift, Quincel said.

Firefighters work a full 24-hour shift, living and sleeping at their assigned fire station, then taking two full days off before their next shift, he said.

A mask and filter hav been given to each firefighter, Quincel said.

The filters can be used for up to six months before they need to be replaced, he said. The masks can be used indefinitely.

"Hopefully that will get us through this current situation," Quincel said.

In addition to the APR masks, firefighters are wearing N95 masks when they leave the station for non-emergency tasks during their shift, such as going to the store to purchase groceries for the firehouse, he said.

It's not just firefighters who are wearing masks.

"We're also putting surgical masks on every patient we come in contact with, just to limit the amount of exposure," Quincel said. "We're doing everything we can to protect our employees and the public."

Residents shouldn't panic if they see firefighters wearing the APRs and putting masks on patients, he said.

"It's just an extra measure of caution," Quincel said.

Paramedic Clark Smith said he and his colleagues are doing what they can to reassure the patients.

People are already anxious if EMS has been called to help them, he said.

"We try to explain to them that the masks are just a precaution," Smith said. "Sometimes it's hard for people to understand what we're saying through the masks."

Since the pandemic broke out, a team of the department's senior-command staff has been in place to implement an incident action plan, Quincel said.

That plan was changing almost daily during the early days of the pandemic, he said.

After Gov. Mike DeWine extended the state's stay-at-home order to May 1, the fire department suspended all time off for personnel until May 1, Quincel said.

"In my 30 years (in firefighting) I've never seen anything like that happen before," he said. "But we just wanted to make sure we had everyone available for service if needed."

All general training sessions have been canceled for the time being, Quincel said.

"It would be difficult to have training without everyone being close together," he said.

While they are on duty in their fire station, firefighters are maintaining 6 feet of distance from their colleagues, Quincel said.

Only one person prepares the food during an entire shift at each station, he said.

"In the larger stations, we can have people sitting with an empty seat separating them during meals, but in the smaller stations, we sometimes have to have them eat their meals in shifts," Quincel said.

Firefighters spend about one-third of their time on duty at the fire station, said Smith, who works out of Station 201 on Grove City Road.

"There's a lot of socializing and camaraderie that normally goes on at a fire station," he said. "A lot of interacting and joking around. We're not able to do that as much these days. We have to stay more separated from each other."

Firefighters are trained to handle any situation that may arise as part of their duty, Smith said.

In that sense, the adjustments that have been made because of COVID-19 are "just part of our job," he said.

A full 24-hour shift runs from 8 a.m. one day to 8 a.m. the next day, Quincel said.

As a new team of firefighters arrive for a shift, new protocol ensures the members of the two sets of staff members remain separated, he said. The personnel who have ended their shift are required to leave the station by 8:30 a.m.

Washing and disinfecting fire vehicles has always been a regular part of each day's duty, Quincel said.

In the time of coronavirus, firefighters are cleaning the vehicles more often and using a disinfectant that sits on the surface for at least 10 minutes, killing germs before it is wiped away, he said.

Previously, firefighters would wipe down equipment and vehicles by hand, Quincel said.

The disinfectant also is being regularly applied to surfaces in the fire station, including keyboards and door handles, he said.

Visitors aren't getting a chance to see the sparkling clean equipment and vehicles, Quincel said.

"We're a public building, but we aren't allowing visitors or public tours or groups of students coming in," he said. "That was one of the first things we suspended.

"We want to let people know we appreciate the support the community has given us at this time," Quincel said. "People have been donating gloves, surgical masks and hand sanitizers to us. We'll be forever grateful."

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