UK firefighters give medics a helping hand with Covid patients

a person wearing a mask: Firefighters are "used to dealing with high levels of psychological stress", says Dan Joslin, making them especially helpful on Covid wards © ADRIAN DENNIS Firefighters are "used to dealing with high levels of psychological stress", says Dan Joslin, making them especially helpful on Covid wards

Dan Joslin has been a firefighter for 14 years, but for the past six weeks has been helping to lift and turn Covid-19 patients in a hospital intensive care unit.

"I never thought I'd be doing this in my career," said the 33-year-old watch manager, one of eight firefighters volunteering at Queen Alexandra Hospital in Portsmouth, a historic port city on England's south coast.

Joslin, second-left, and fellow firefighter Tom Ventress work with critical care nurses to roll a patient onto their front © ADRIAN DENNIS Joslin, second-left, and fellow firefighter Tom Ventress work with critical care nurses to roll a patient onto their front

Altogether, 27 firefighters in distinctive red medical scrubs have been helping out at four hospitals in Portsmouth and across the county of Hampshire, working 12-hour shifts.

Firefighters drafted in to help at the Queen Alexandra Hospital have been wearing distinctive red scrubs © ADRIAN DENNIS Firefighters drafted in to help at the Queen Alexandra Hospital have been wearing distinctive red scrubs

They are the first full-time firefighters to be sent to ICUs, where the most severely ill Covid patients are treated, said station manager Alex Rhodes, from Hampshire Fire and Rescue Service.

"I think we're fairly confident it's the first time, (we are) the only fire fighters to do it across the country," he told AFP.

"It's a groundbreaking bit of work we've been doing," added Joslin.

Now, they hope other regions across Britain will follow their lead, if virus cases peak again, to bring some respite to hard-pushed hospital staff.

- Welcome support -

Britain has been one of the worst affected countries in the world by the global health crisis, with more than 126,000 deaths from over 4.3 million positive cases.

New, more transmissible variants of coronavirus led to a surge in hospital admissions over the winter months, stretching hospital bed capacity and staff to the limit.

Some firefighters have been drafted in to help drive ambulances, as all emergency services have pulled together in the unprecedented response. 

Across the country they have also been helping in vaccination centres, as Britain rolls out its mass inoculation programme under the guidance of the National Health Service (NHS).

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: All of Britain's emergency services have pulled together for the unprecedented response to the Covid crisis © ADRIAN DENNIS All of Britain's emergency services have pulled together for the unprecedented response to the Covid crisis

Cate Leighton, a senior clinical administrator at Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust, said the support was welcome.

"The critical care team and wider Trust are incredibly grateful for the enthusiasm and dedication of the firefighters who have volunteered to work with us and our patients," she said.

a group of people in a room: The firefighters would be ready to re-deploy to intensive care units within 24 hours © ADRIAN DENNIS The firefighters would be ready to re-deploy to intensive care units within 24 hours

"They have brought a real boost to our staff during these difficult times and helped support them with a wide range of tasks."

Firefighters can be useful quickly because of the work they usually do, said Rhodes.

"The hospitals have all said how fantastic it's been, having people who are used to working with trauma and intensive care patients."

Firefighters are also "used to dealing with high levels of psychological stress", said Joslin.

The 27 firefighters, several of them women, are now ending their deployment for a positive reason -- the drop in case numbers means that medics can now cope on their own, said Rhodes.

When first sent out, during the busiest period, they focused on helping to "prone" patients, or roll them onto their chests to help them breathe more easily. 

The delicate task takes between four and six people as patients are hooked up to so many tubes.

Lately, with fewer very sick patients, they are doing more "general dogsbody" work, Joslin said.

- Ready to deploy -

All the firefighters had to be vaccinated and underwent psychological screening due to the difficult nature of the work.

Joslin, whose wife is a nurse in accident and emergency, trains firefighters in medical care and was better prepared than most.

But he said helping in the hospital had been an eye-opener, particularly working with medical staff who have often been treating Covid patients flat-out for the past 12 months.

"We're in awe at what the nurses and the ICU staff have been doing," he said.

Helping out with those most sick, "we have seen a lot of the patients that we've been working with over the last six weeks pass away", he said.

But Joslin shared in the delight of medics when patients improved enough to leave intensive care.

While firefighters usually work frantically in the "initial hour" after an accident, helping those who require urgent medical help, a hospital ICU has a different rhythm, he said.

"Here it's a lot calmer, a lot more controlled."

If their services are needed again, the firefighters would be ready to deploy to ICUs within 24 hours, says Joslin.

photo-am/phz/jit/kjl

UK firefighters give medics a helping hand with Covid patients