Shawneri Guzman (center), who was named Washington’s Fire Educator of the Year, and her team of community resource firefighter paramedics: Janette Anderson (left) and Capt. Nicole Picknell (right), at the Lynnwood Fire Station. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Shawneri Guzman (center), who was named Washington’s Fire Educator of the Year, and her team of community resource firefighter paramedics: Janette Anderson (left) and Capt. Nicole Picknell (right), at the Lynnwood Fire Station. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

A pandemic playbook, used nationally, was made in Snohomish County

South County Fire helped transport “patient zero.” Their COVID manual has helped departments far and wide.

EVERETT — When a South County Fire ambulance transported the United States’ first confirmed COVID-19 case, there was no fallback plan and “no phone a friend,” Deputy Chief Bob Eastman said.

But now, the department’s COVID-19 playbook has received international attention. And expertise from southwest Snohomish County will help inform national guidance for future epidemics.

“Basically, our plan became the template,” South County Fire Assistant Chief Michael Fitzgerald said.

South County leadership credited the work of the Snohomish County Fire Task Force, a collaboration of departments across the county that emerged amid the pandemic.

“I’ve been doing this for 37 years, and these last two years are the highlight of my career,” Eastman said. “Never has the fire service been united like this before.”

The playbook spells out when and where personal protective equipment should be worn, how to safely transport a COVID-19 patient and where to take special precaution. While departments across the county helped develop it, Granite Falls Fire Chief Jim Haverfield said a small department like his couldn’t have pulled it off on their own.

“Everything in the early stages of the pandemic, and even today, focuses around that playbook,” he said.

If you ask Snohomish County’s emergency medical services director, Dr. Eric Cooper, the playbook was actually years in the making. In a situation where seconds count, Cooper said, even the font, color and word count can make a difference.

South County Deputy Chief Shaughn Maxwell was already connected with experts at NASA working to create checklists for high-stress scenarios.

Maxwell recalled poring over coronavirus studies and research early on. He would later virtually present the playbook to panels in Asia, Europe and South America.

A fire chief in Burnsville, Minnesota, BJ Jungmann, adapted the playbook to fit local needs, later passing it on to his state’s Fire Chiefs Association. Jungmann said he was looking to South County Fire before the virus even made its way inland in 2020. Touching base with Eastman meant his department got a head start of a few weeks on pandemic preparation.

Given the nature of the fire service, “it’s not too often we get a heads-up,” Jungmann said.

To date, Snohomish County has documented 789 people lost to the respiratory virus. But emergency responders never faced a dire PPE shortage, and contingency plans made sure fire stations would remain staffed, even if half the county’s population was sickened.

Eastman said many fire chiefs “put their egos aside” to respond with a united front. Much of the work that went into writing the playbook, he said, will be retained for future emergencies.

“For me,” Eastman said, “the citizens that live in this county need to know that we did it right.”

Maxwell was getting treated in the emergency room for a kidney stone when he got word of “patient zero.”

It was serendipitous. His doctor happened to be Dr. Cooper, the EMS director. Standing in the ER, Cooper got the call: a local man had COVID-19 and needed to get to a hospital.

Maxwell and Cooper stayed in the emergency room, and over the next few hours, they made calls and helped figure out how to transport the patient without exposing paramedics, hospital staff or the public.

“What are the odds?” Cooper said.

The next day, South County Fire was scouring the market for protective gear. Eastman would soon be stationed at the county’s emergency coordination center, buying in bulk for local agencies which otherwise wouldn’t get their hands on masks and gloves.

One of Maxwell’s connections, a NASA astrophysicist, ran numbers that led the fire authority to purchase toaster-sized PPE sanitizers. At one point, officials considered buying a mask-making machine. It would have taken up an entire conference room. Other fire officials got creative, as well.

Shawneri Guzman, South County Fire’s community outreach manager, recalled being one of the first agencies to start shifting classes online for first aid and other public health services.

“How do you reach the community from home?” she said.

Suddenly, the fire authority needed ring lights so educators could film demonstrations. With the pandemic in its early stages, there were few places to go for guidance.

“It was literally just a cellphone and a firefighter,” Guzman said. “Amateur videos. But highly effective.”

Guzman was recently named Washington’s Fire Educator of the Year — in a year when the pandemic is still not over. She helped get more than 6,000 vaccines to homebound residents, long-term care patients, students and people of color.

Online education through the fire authority, like so many other newly remote classes, will likely continue in some capacity after the pandemic, Guzman said.

So will the fire operations center, or “war room,” that was set up in a South County Fire conference room.

Fire chiefs, public health personnel and other local officials convened there to plan for a worst-case scenario: a county where the coronavirus sickened much of the region and hamstrung emergency responders.

They ran drills in a room with whiteboards and projectors lining the walls, with data feeds from hospitals and the dispatch center, helping fire chiefs figure out how a barebones emergency network would operate.

“Thank God we didn’t have to do it,” Eastman said. “But all that was going on behind the scenes.”

If too many people were out sick, some emergency responders would have needed to commandeer stations outside their jurisdiction.

“It sounds little, but it’s not,” Eastman said. “You had fire chiefs and labor and everybody there to make that stuff happen.”

In the future, task force leaders want to replicate that war room in multiple locations across the county.

Snohomish County learned lessons from H1N1 back in 2009, Maxwell said, when fire departments helped run public vaccination clinics. Then, the county’s emergency command center learned more from the Oso landslide in 2014. Now, Maxwell is working with the International Association of Fire Chiefs to help develop a pandemic playbook that could use in the future around the United States.

“One of the benefits of this pandemic is the fire service learned we’re much stronger together than apart,” Eastman said. “The faster we can unite, the faster we get in front of it.”

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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