COVID-19: THE CHALLENGES FOR COLOMBIAN FIREFIGHTERS

Bogota Fire Department - Specialized Team of Hazardous Materials and CBRN Agents   Sergeant Javier Claros | Chief Wilmar Cristancho   

The city of Bogota is the capital of Colombia, which has an area of 163.635 hectares, 7.150.000 inhabitants -according to the preliminary results of the 2018 census- and is the administrative center of the country. Due to its social complexity, it is a city that presents various risk scenarios; such as torrential avenues, forest and structural fires, floods, mass movements, earthquakes, crowds in public and those framed in construction activities.  

In 2019, a total of 21.733 incidents were recorded in the city, the most frequent being those related to traffic accidents, damages to public service networks (energy, gas and water), tree falls, burns and fires.  

For the comprehensive management of these types of incidents, the Bogota Fire Department is part of the risk management system of the city. The Bogota Fire Department is an entity with 125 years of service and is distributed in 17 stations, which strategically serves the 20 locations in the city. Likewise, the entity has a human capital of approximately 600 firefighters; who are distributed in three shifts of operation, which implies that there are around 230 firefighters daily to respond to incidents and emergencies in the city, being highly demanding of this type of service.  

The Bogota’s firefighters have their actions defined in accordance with the general law, which specifies their responsibility in risk management against fire, attention to incidents involving hazardous materials, and search and rescue in all its forms.  

In the course of 2020, the city and the country have faced a particular situation in the social and economic dynamics, as a consequence of the pandemic by COVID 19, which nowadays leaves around 1478 confirmed cases of contagion in Bogota. This situation has required the implementation of measures by the district administration, where the institution plays an important role in the continuity of incident care and its support is expected, in the event of a massive contagion scenario. 

Source: Diego Bauman, Bogota City Hall.

Now, crises in societies open up a sea of opportunities where evolutionary changes are taking place. Therefore, the last few weeks have been full of challenges and work in the preparation and planning of the attention and response to the biological risk generated by COVID 19. The Specialized Team of Hazardous Materials and CBRN Agents in Bogota has taken up this challenge, which has allowed to generate knowledge from various sources of the global order and coupled with the support of staff with international capacity and experience, who have been ready to offer their support to adapt this expertise to the Colombian reality.

On the other hand, although Bogota has a Fire Department with capacity, organization and experience, it also has the responsibility of providing support to the regions and their fire departments, which have a lower capacity to face this risk. In this sense, the exposure that the firefighters from the remote regions from Colombia may have during the pandemic is high, increasing the risk of contagion. For this reason, the information prepared has been made public, in order to share knowledge with the Colombian firefighters, strengthening teamwork in the national order and establishing criteria that are adapted to the reality of the country; through the coordination of a unified response to biohazard incidents.

We are now observing the collateral effects that the global pandemic situation has generated, including for the response organizations that have modified their daily activities to deal with incidents, such as the transport of recoveries, the transfer of bodies, and other humanitarian work and actions, which results in a considerable increase of exposure to COVID 19. This has triggered alarms for pandemic preparedness.

Based on the experience of the European response entities, which are an example for the response agencies of Colombia and South America in taking decisions to reduce the risk of contagion and improve the response, researches have been carried out, both from official and unofficial sources. Good practices have thus been strengthened, which has facilitated the preparation for Bogota’s Firefighters.

The work carried out by the Hazardous Materials Incident Response Team has been to classify this information and discard the less relevant one. Based on the above, a document has been prepared with instructions and recommendations for firefighters from Colombia, from the moment to enter to the station to receive the shift, until the review of equipment, the incidents that can occur (direct focus of contagion), and finally the demobilization and withdrawal of shift. These actions have shown their efficiency in the Bogota fire stations. Since the first case of contagion identified in Colombia, on March 6, 2020, there have been no cases of infected firefighters, as in the United States and Europe.

It is noteworthy that the South American fire departments face a shortage of personnel by number of inhabitants in each city, added to budget and training problems. That being said, having isolated response personnel, in observation or - in the worst-case scenario - infected, would cause the response system to collapse and vulnerability in the response. Cases like the one in London, with more than 300 firefighters isolated in a preventive way, are a good comparison considering it is the equivalent of men in Bogota, and represents more than one work shift.

Source: Specialized Team of Hazardous Materials and CBRN Agents, Bogota Fire Department.

Underlying Factors

One of the underlying factors in the face of this pandemic is “risk homeostasis”, which is equivalent to ignoring the recommendations, habits, protocols and procedures that have been implemented in the last month. Common sense, hand in hand with good habits and benchmarks as well as standards would be expected to be consistently applied, but risk homeostasis demonstrates that they tend to be easing over time; which leads to new risks, with the false belief that by using a mask, for example, we are already fully protected. All this would result in an increase in the number of people infected, weakening the response during the peak of the pandemic, which has not yet occurred in Colombia.

Another underlying factor, which is a historical reality in fire departments of Colombia, especially voluntary type, is the lack of resources. Despite the existence of a legal framework that obliges spending authorities (mayors and governors) to invest, equip and train this type of fire department, conditions are currently precarious, with a shortage of personnel, equipment and little training; which means that the response is almost nil in the context of this pandemic.

Corruption is another underlying factor, and as the order of the day in countries in South America, Colombia is no exception. While it was a problem under normal conditions, the declaration of a pandemic and the measures taken as a result of all this has not made such practices disappear, and it has had negative impact on fire departments and other entities that ensure essential services; which leaves them vulnerable to the virus.

These endogenous factors –among others- increase the impact of a pandemic on Colombia's fire departments, making their work more arduous, with greater exposure and without the possibility of responding adequately to the world reality.

Learning from the crisis

It is important to draw the lessons learned from this pandemic. Fire departments and risk management organizations must further prepare to deal with this type of risk. The response system must be restructured: this includes the creation of reserve centers, the development of adequate staffing, training, and contingency plans, which must be supported by the government budget.  

It should be noted that the preparation of South American fire departments to respond to incidents with hazardous materials has improved, thanks to the training, as well as operational and intellectual growth of their technicians regarding chemical risk. However, it is essential to identify here an opportunity for improving the incident management and response for biological risk, which is a rare variable in incident management. Actions should then be taken, and skills be developed to guarantee security in operations. And given the low recurrence of this type of event, specific knowledge to be explored needs to be identified. In addition, creative solutions have been found, such as homemade fumigation systems, decontamination mechanisms that are tailored to the needs of each region, among others.  

Source: Specialized Team of Hazardous Materials and CBRN Agents, Bogota Fire Department.

To conclude, the first pandemic that impacts Colombia in this generation has shown that the fire departments have complied with what is legally framed in their mission: protocols, procedures have been created and the implementation of these healthy habits cannot stop at the end of the pandemic. This should not be temporary, as it is time to reinvent the response system and articulation against future biological risks, to improve the actions and care of the personnel who face these threats day by day.  

Sergeant Javier Claros Losada has worked 20 years for the Bogota Fire Department. He is now an expert in Administration and a Senior Management Specialist and Technician in Hazardous Materials. He is also the Coordinator of the Incident Response Team (MATPEL NBQR) of the Bogota Fire Department and an Instructor PRO BOARD NFPA 104.

Corporal Wilmar Morales Cristancho has worked at Bogota Fire Department for 14 years and is currently the Coordinator of the Hazardous Materials Team. He is an Environmental Engineer specialized in hygiene and in emergency management of ammonia (ASTI). He is a licensed hazardous materials technician from the TEEX, a fire and emergency technician from SENA and an independent consultant for ICONTEC. He is also a professor at the Central University, where he holds a chair in Risk Management and Chemical Threats.