Coronavirus (COVID-19) - Tips

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Introduction

This tip sheet is for fire department employers and employees as an overview of recommended controls to help reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 in the workplace. Additional controls will also be required depending on the workplace and specific types of tasks performed by workers.

For general COVID-19 prevention practices, both employers and employees can refer to the CCOHS resource Protect Yourself and Others.

Please also refer to the CCOHS resource First Responders for first response information (e.g., assessing and transporting individuals).

If forest/wildland fire fighters are staying at a remote camp, please refer to the CCOHS tip sheet Work Camps.

Consider the Risks

  • The risk of contracting COVID-19 increases in situations where people are in closed spaces (with poor ventilation) and crowded places when with people from outside their immediate household. Risk is higher in settings where these factors overlap or involve activities such as close-range conversations, singing, shouting or heavy breathing (e.g., during exertion).
  • As a firefighter, potential sources of exposure include:
    • Having close contact with a member of the public or co-worker who has COVID-19.
    • Touching surfaces or items that have been touched or handled by a person with COVID-19, and then touching your mouth, nose, or eyes.
  • Each workplace is unique. Employers need to assess the risks of COVID-19 for their specific workplace and the activities conducted by their workers (such as emergency response and daily worker interactions).
  • The employer must then implement appropriate hazard controls using the hierarchy of controls (i.e., elimination, substitution, engineering controls, administrative policies, and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE)). Use multiple personal preventive practices in a layered approach.
  • Consider implementing a written workplace safety plan that identifies potential exposures to COVID-19 and the controls implemented to protect employees.
  • Employers should consider the following:
    • How will employees be screened? It is recommended that all employees are screened before each work shift.
    • How will firefighters be protected if they are providing emergency medical services to a person suspected to have COVID-19? Make sure that procedures are in place to limit exposure, and that firefighters wear the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) during close contact.
    • How will shared surfaces or equipment be cleaned and disinfected? Make sure that all supplies are available, and that the disinfectant used has a drug identification number (DIN) from Health Canada.
    • What precautions will be implemented at fire stations? Assess the risk of COVID-19 transmission for all areas (e.g., apparatus room, kitchen, washrooms, locker-rooms, fitness area, bunkroom, vehicles).
    • Are forest/wildland firefighters staying at fire camps? Implement precautions at the camp. Consider placing workers in “cohorts” or “crews” that stay physically distant from other crews.
    • What tasks are conducted at the workplace? Assess the risk of COVID-19 exposure for activities conducted by all job tasks or roles.

Communication and Training

  • Provide clear information and instruction to employees about the hazards of COVID-19 and what they need to do to protect themselves and others. Topics should include:
    • What COVID-19 is and the common symptoms.
    • What to do if employees feel sick or may have been exposed.
    • How the virus spreads.
    • How layering multiple control measures helps to prevent the spread.
    • How to protect themselves with personal preventive practices.
    • How to properly wear, handle, and care for personal protective equipment and non-medical masks.
    • How to safely use cleaning and disinfection chemicals.
    • How to stay informed about COVID-19 (using reputable sources).
  • Encourage employees to report any concerns about COVID-19 to their supervisor or employer. Employees can also report concerns to their health and safety committee or representative, or union if present.
  • Provide regular communications so that employees are informed of updates and have an opportunity to discuss their questions and concerns.
  • Post signs throughout the workplace as a reminder about the precautions to follow (e.g., hand hygiene, physical distancing).
  • Provide mental health support resources for all employees.

Screening

  • Consider asking screening questions to employees before each work shift using a checklist from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS) or your local public health authority.
  • Some jurisdictions require active screening of employees everyday before they come into work. Active screening steps may involve a self-assessment (e.g., using a web-based tool, having a person complete a questionnaire, or have a designated person asking direct questions). Consider the size of your workforce, the number of worksites, shifts, and activities when choosing your screening method.
  • Employees who have COVID-19 symptoms should return home immediately (preferably not by public transit) or stay home if already there. If they are at work and develop symptoms, they need to wear a medical mask, or if unavailable, a well-constructed and well-fitting non-medical mask. They should also contact their health care provider and local public health authority.
  • The most common symptoms are:
    • New or worsening cough
    • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
    • Temperature equal to or over 38°C
    • Feeling feverish
    • Chills
    • Fatigue or weakness
    • Muscle or body aches
    • New loss of smell or taste
    • Headache
    • Gastrointestinal symptoms (abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting)
    • Feeling very unwell
    • Skin changes or rashes (young children)
  • Symptoms can vary from person to person and within different age groups.
  • Symptoms may take up to 14 days to appear after exposure to COVID-19. Some people have mild or no symptoms.
  • Older adults, people of any age with chronic medical conditions or who are immunocompromised, and those living with obesity are at risk for more severe disease and outcomes from COVID-19.
  • Develop procedures for contacting local public health authorities for further advice in the event of a positive COVID-19 case. If the case is work-related, additional notifications may be required (e.g., the jurisdictional health and safety regulator and jurisdictional worker compensation board for your province or territory).
  • To support contact tracing efforts, record the names and contact information of all workers and other persons who enter the workplace, as required by your local public health authority. Make sure that privacy is protected, and that the information is stored securely. Contact information must be destroyed in a timely manner according to privacy requirements.

Screening the Public

  • Update procedures for dispatch employees to include COVID-19 related screening questions when discussing the situation with callers.
  • Dispatchers should ask questions to determine if anyone at the incident location has COVID-19 related symptoms, has travelled outside the country, had close contact with someone who has COVID-19, or is currently under quarantine/isolation as directed by Public Health. Communicate this information to the firefighters.
  • Educate the public on screening and why it is important to provide honest answers to ensure safe service delivery.

Vaccine

Reducing Potential Exposures

  • Determine if any employees can work remotely (e.g., roles that perform administrative functions for the fire department). Provide ergonomic support and resources for employees setting up home offices.
  • Eliminate non-essential work travel for all employees.
  • Discourage unnecessary physical contact such as handshakes.
  • Review all services provided by the fire department and determine if there are any services (e.g., fire hall tours, community public education events) that could be suspended during the pandemic.
  • Consider implementing contactless options (e.g., online or drop box) for the public to submit open air burn permits.
  • Have firehalls closed for non-essential visitors during the pandemic. Use all available means (e.g., website, social media, signage) to communicate this change.
  • Consider keeping the bay doors down and the exterior doors locked to prevent people from freely entering the station. If a member of the public comes to the station to seek services, direct them to a service area where they can be isolated from the living quarters of the building and contact with personnel can be controlled.
  • Avoid in-person meetings where possible. Use remote communications methods instead (e.g., teleconferencing, videoconferencing). When in-person meetings are required, use a large well-ventilated space, stay the greatest physical distance (at least 2 meters) apart from others, and wear non-medical masks.
  • Review training programs and determine if any training can be conducted virtually. Identify which training is essential and can only be conducted in a classroom setting (e.g., those with a practical component that is considered critical to the department’s operations). Create rules for essential classroom-based training. Consider:
    • Establishing a maximum number of participants.
    • Having participants wear a well-fitted and well-constructed non-medical mask.
    • Determine if training can take place outdoors. If taking place indoors, make sure the training is conducted in a large, well ventilated space.
    • Participants should keep the greatest distance possible (at least 2 metres) away from others.
  • During calls, limit the number of personnel that enter a building (if the situation can be handled safely by a smaller crew).
  • Do not handle other members turnout gear (protective clothing and equipment) during shift change, or for cleaning and disinfection. Have firefighters remove and store their own gear and personal items from the apparatus at shift change.

Physical Distancing

  • Keep the greatest physical distance possible (at least 2 metres) from people outside your immediate household.
  • During a call, when assessing a person under investigation, maintain crew members at the greatest physical distance possible (at least 2 metres) until the assessment is complete. Only the required firefighters needed for care work should be within 2 metres of the individual. Others should remain 2 metres away from others.
  • Maintain physical distancing during shift change, meetings, and training to minimize contact between individuals and groups.
  • For meals at fire stations, consider:
    • Staggering mealtimes (i.e., consider eating in shifts to reduce staff interaction).
    • Removing/rearranging dining tables to maintain physical distancing. Consider taking meals to alternate places to create spacing.
    • Discontinuing buffet service.
    • Removing shared food/condiment/utensil stations.
  • Post capacity signs at the entrances to shared employee areas (e.g., kitchens, washrooms, training room, fitness area).
  • Reduce chairs: Reduce the number of chairs located in common meeting spaces (e.g., kitchen, offices, etc.) to physically deter people from gathering in the same space.
  • For shared sleeping quarters (e.g., bunkrooms), where possible, arrange beds so that they are at least 2 metres apart and the workers’ sleeping position is head to toe. Consider installing temporary barriers (e.g., plastic curtains) that can be easily cleaned and disinfected between bunks where possible.

Ventilation

  • Verify that the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system(s) for buildings are working properly.
  • Ensure preventative maintenance for HVAC system(s) is conducted according to manufacturer's instructions (e.g., regular filter changes and inspection of critical components).
  • In consultation with a HVAC specialist, determine if it is possible to make any enhancements to the HVAC system. For example:
    • Using as much outside air as permitted by the HVAC system.
    • Increasing the filter efficiency of HVAC units, within system capabilities.
  • For additional information on indoor ventilation, please refer to:
  • Increase the amount of fresh air entering emergency vehicles by opening the windows (weather permitting) and setting the ventilation to outside air intake. Do not use the recirculated air option.

Personal Hygiene

  • Provide hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol for all employees.
  • Ensure hand sanitizer is available in each fire apparatus and all other fire department vehicles.
  • Encourage frequent and proper hand washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use a hand sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol.
  • Wash hands at the start of shift, before eating or drinking, after touching shared items, after using the washroom, after removing PPE, after cleaning and disinfecting objects, after each call, after refuelling vehicles, after being in public, and at the end of the shift.
  • Discourage individuals from touching their eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands and from touching the outer surface of their non-medical mask while wearing or handling it, as it may be contaminated. Promote hand washing or use of hand sanitizer after putting on, touching, or removing non-medical masks.
  • Promote good respiratory hygiene. Provide disposable tissues and remind individuals to cough or sneeze into the bend of your arm or a tissue, and to dispose of tissues immediately, followed up with hand washing or use of hand sanitizer.
  • Verify that all necessary materials are readily available in the workplace (e.g., hand sanitizer, garbage disposal, disposable tissues).
  • For bedding in sleeping areas:
    • Encourage the use of a washable base layer on beds (e.g., sheet, blanket, etc.) to create an additional barrier between the bed and personal bedding.
    • Personal bedding and the base layer should be removed after each shift and washed. Do not shake dirty laundry. Launder items according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Machine wash using the warmest appropriate water setting, use laundry detergent, and dry thoroughly.

Cleaning and Disinfecting

  • Viruses can remain on objects for a few hours to days depending on the type of surface and environmental conditions.
  • To promote consistent disinfecting practices, create and provide a routine cleaning and disinfecting procedure, schedule and checklist.
  • Clean and disinfect all high contact surfaces. For example:
    • Fire apparatus and other shared vehicles. After a response, clean and disinfect surfaces such as: door handles, control knobs and switches, the steering wheel, radio controls, portable radios, etc.
    • Tools and equipment used during a call, including any medical devices
    • Vehicle-exhaust capture and removal systems in the apparatus bay
    • Racks to store gear and equipment
    • Office doorknobs, and workstations (e.g., computer keyboard, mouse)
    • Kitchen areas (e.g., tables, countertops, sinks, faucets ranges, light switches, cabinets, refrigerators, and freezers)
    • Washroom surfaces
    • Fitness equipment
    • Furniture (e.g., sofas, chairs), following manufacturer’s instructions about what cleaning and disinfecting products are recommended and won’t harm the fabric.
    • Bunkroom surfaces (e.g., door handles, light switches, nightstands, table lights, etc.)
  • Use household or commercial disinfectants to destroy or inactivate viruses and bacteria. The disinfectant used should have a drug identification number (DIN), meaning that it has been approved for use in Canada.
  • Employees should be trained on the safe use of the cleaning and disinfecting products. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using, handling, or storing the product. Review the product’s label, and (if applicable) safety data sheet to determine what precautions to follow (e.g., use of personal protective equipment).
  • Provide employees with adequate supplies and access to any required personal protective equipment.
  • As much as possible, clean and disinfect PPE (personal protective equipment), tools, equipment, and gear on the scene. If it cannot be cleaned and disinfected on the scene, then bag and tag potentially exposed items. Transport in an outside compartment of the fire apparatus back to the station. Store potentially contaminated PPE, tools, and equipment in a dedicated, well-ventilated area or room at the station. They should not be permitted in personal clothing lockers or in the living quarters of the fire station. Clean and disinfect tools, equipment, and gear in a designated area before returning it to service.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

  • Review and update procedures to include the PPE that will be used to protect firefighters from COVID-19. Follow any specific PPE requirements for your jurisdiction (if applicable).
  • When you are within 2 metres of an individual under investigation, wear the PPE required by your employer. PPE may include appropriate disposable examination gloves (e.g., nitrile), eye protection (face shield or goggles), gown, and respirator (N95 or higher protection).
  • Have individuals under investigation wear medical masks if they are able (if unavailable, they should wear well fitted and well constructed non-medical masks).
  • Ensure that workers are trained on the proper use of PPE including donning and doffing procedures.
  • Training on the care, use and storage of respirators should include:
    • Limitations of the respirator.
    • Inspection and maintenance of the respirator.
    • Proper fitting of the respirator.
    • Cleaning and disinfecting the respirator (if applicable).
  • Ensure that firefighters are fit tested before they are required to wear a tight-fitting respirator (e.g., N95). Fit testing verifies that there is an effective seal between the respirator and the worker's face.
  • Remind employees that they cannot have facial hair that comes between the sealing surface of the respirator facepiece and the face. Facial hair can cause respirators to leak around the face seal.
  • Ensure that there are written measures and procedures regarding the selection, care and use of respirators.
  • Verify that appropriate supplies of PPE are available for firefighters. Extra supplies are recommended to be carried on each fire apparatus and support vehicle.
  • Ensure there is a safe area with disposal and decontamination supplies for firefighters to doff their PPE. Bag any contaminated gear and transport back to the fire station in an outside compartment on the fire apparatus.
  • Develop procedures for the proper disposal of any single-use PPE. Waste should be bagged, transported in an outside cabinet on the fire apparatus, and deposited in an appropriate garbage container.
  • Ensure re-usable PPE is cleaned and disinfected after use according to manufacturer’s instructions. See cleaning and disinfecting section for additional information.

Non-Medical Masks

  • Employers should develop policies regarding non-medical mask use.
  • It is strongly recommended that employees wear a well-fitted and well-constructed non-medical mask whenever they are in a shared space (indoors or outdoors) with people from outside of their immediate household.
  • Ensure the requirements for non-medical mask use set by your local public health authority are followed.

Evaluate Controls

  • Regularly review the adequacy of the controls implemented and make improvements as necessary.
  • Determine if there are any new hazards created by any of the changes implemented at the workplace. For example, if firefighters are issued N95 respirators have they been fit tested? Review and adjust programs as necessary.

Business Continuity Plans

  • Review and adjust business continuity plans to address issues related to COVID-19 such as: alternative work arrangements, what to do if there is a staff shortage, and how communication will be coordinated with stakeholders such as the jurisdiction’s Ministry of Health and local public health authorities.

Forest/Wildland Firefighters

Many of the tips provided in this document would also apply to forest/wildland firefighters. However, forest/wildland firefighters may need to travel to remote areas and stay in camps during the fire season. This section will provide some additional precautions that are specific to travelling and staying in fire camps.

  • Employers should provide workers with information on how to travel safely (e.g., minimizing contact with members of the public, disinfecting hands after refueling).
  • Ask workers to monitor for COVID-19 related symptoms and complete a daily health log for 14 days before arriving at camp.
  • When personnel arrive at camp, complete COVID-19 screening (discussed earlier in this document). Employers should also provide separate spaces for the firefighters to physically distance themselves from others for 14 days, if possible.
  • Depending on the number of firefighters, the employer may consider creating work cohorts (i.e., teams, crews). Cohorts should operate as a unit, and work, travel, and eat together. Each cohort should stay physically distant from other cohorts and should not socialize with other cohorts.
  • Any worker with COVID-related symptoms should be isolated from the rest of the workers. Provide a space for the worker to isolate (e.g., a room or a tent with a separate entrance) and a separate washroom and shower that is only used by that worker. Deliver meals to the outside of the room of any worker in isolation.
  • All camps should have infection control supplies available on site, including adequate handwashing facilities.
  • Minimize visits to the local community:
    • Arrange for all supplies to be delivered, if possible, to the camp.
    • If it is necessary to travel into a nearby community, implement a “town order” method for buying goods for workers, and designate a shopper for the camp.
    • Ask workers to bring any essentials (e.g., toiletries, medications) that they will need for the fire season.
  • Make sure precautions are in place for meals and sleeping areas (discussed earlier in this document).
  • Where possible provide private sleeping quarters (e.g., single rooms in permanent camps or single occupancy tents).
  • Promote wellness (rest, proper hydration, and nutrition) during the fire season.
  • Employers should consider providing cell phone boosters, charging stations and Wi-Fi, when possible, to allow firefighters to communicate with friends and family.

It is important that mental health resources and support are provided to all workers, including access to an employee assistance program, if available.

For further information on COVID-19, refer to the Public Health Agency of Canada.

Note that this guidance is just some of the adjustments organizations can make during a pandemic. Adapt this list by adding your own good practices and policies to meet your organization’s specific needs.

Disclaimer: As public and occupational health and safety information is changing rapidly, local public health authorities should be consulted for specific, regional guidance. This information is not intended to replace medical advice or legislated health and safety obligations. Although every effort is made to ensure the accuracy, currency and completeness of the information, CCOHS does not guarantee, warrant, represent or undertake that the information provided is correct, accurate or current. CCOHS is not liable for any loss, claim, or demand arising directly or indirectly from any use or reliance upon the information.

Document last updated March 19, 2021