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'Our intention is not to freak anyone out': Portland firefighters wear hazmat suits to medical calls

The nationwide shortage of disposable personal protective equipment coupled with the need to protect crews led Portland Fire & Rescue to resort to reusable gear.

PORTLAND, Oregon — As firefighters deal with a shortage of disposable personal protective equipment, many local departments are turning to reusable hazmat suits and masks when responding to medical calls. Portland Fire & Rescue is training its crews to wear them and wants the public to be prepared for the new look.

“Our intention is certainly not to freak anyone out,” said Lt. Rich Chatman. “We just want to show people what it is so they're not scared of it… our fire chief has made the health and safety of our firefighters top priority.”

Chatman said crews will be wearing full face masks includes a filter that offers even better protection than the N95 masks that are in short supply. When firefighters suit up will depend on the call, specifically how close crews estimate they’ll get to patients. Chatman said about 75% of the calls firefighters respond to are medical.

“If we go to a call where symptoms sound like there might be someone who has coronavirus, then we'll wear a full protection suit that doesn't allow anything through it.”

Chatman said crews will sanitize the suits and plastic masks after every call and won’t be wearing them all the time.

“We're not going to be wearing those suits and masks in the grocery stores,” he said.

Chatman said crews must stay healthy and not just for their own sake. Since firefighters come into contact with so many people, they can't risk spreading the virus to others. 

“We're hoping people see the gravity, the importance of what we're doing right now and stay home,” said Chatman. “If this thing does continue to spread, we'll be ready."

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