Salamanca’s firefighters prepped and ready for COVID-19 arrival

This image shared by the city of Salamanca Fire Department Facebook page shows a city firefighter in personal protective equipment that the department has had in stock since January. Fire Chief Nick Bocharski said the department is prepped and ready for the arrival of COVID-19.

SALAMANCA — Although no confirmed cases of COVID-19 had yet been reported as of Tuesday in Cattaraugus County, the Salamanca Fire Department has been preparing for the virus’s arrival for months.

Fire Chief Nick Bocharski said his department took notice of coronavirus potentially making its way to the United States in January.

“A couple of my officers and I got together and we ordered supplies way back in January, the beginning of February, so I would call us ahead of the game,” he said. “We started to study this and train on it, so we’re doing really well here.”

Bocharski said the city is working under the command structure that Mayor Michael R. Smith has set up. The city entered a state of emergency March 19 with many city buildings closing their doors and many staff members working from home.

“We’re just trying to keep the public aware,” he said. “Fear is our biggest enemy right now, the fear of the unknown. Not panicking has been a big thing, so we’ve seen everybody being lighthearted and smiling.”

Although no one knows how long the widespread shutdowns are going to last, Bocharski said the fire department has maintained its staff and is hoping to ramp up its number of firefighters in the coming weeks.

“We’re down a number of firemen right now, two to medical and two have gone to other cities, so that kind of hurts us a little bit,” he explained. “But we’re going to counter that. We’re going to go up in staffing a little bit by tweaking places.”

Bocharski said the city’s code enforcement officer will have his hours reduced in the codes office and use him in the fire hall. The department also has a staff member who is collecting data for zombie housing stock in the city through a grant who will be utilized as an emergency responder, the fire chief said.

“There’s a plan in place through the state of emergency plan,” he added. “The guys have rehearsed at it and they know what they’re doing.”

The Salamanca Fire Department has been working with its medical control doctor through the county, Bocharski explained, with firefighters given protocols on what to do when going out on a call with personal protection, such as wearing masks.

The department has since begun answering calls under that protocol, he said, and the community will see emergency responders in protective gear.

“But don’t be afraid if you see somebody out there dressed like this,” Bocharski stressed. “It doesn’t mean you have COVID-19 or that your house does.”

Some personal protective equipment (PPE) had been ordered for the department in recent years, including for Ebola and H1N1, Bocharski said, so they already had a stockpile. But after watching the situation playing out in China and Italy, he said they ordered more PPE kits, which include a medical gown, gloves, surgical masks.

“We’ve got a nice surplus,” he added. “And we’ve been talking with the city of Olean, sharing ideas, saying, ‘If you’re low on one thing, we may be able to subsidize you,’ just making sure everybody is caught up.”

The department is also stocked with cleaning solutions, Bocharski said, buying several cases of Purell sanitizer in February, which has been out of stock from their buyer for about 10 days.

“We’re way ahead of the game,” he said. “Everything is working smoothly right now, but it’s just the unknown is what it is.”

The city has been following the guidelines issued by the county, such as asking everyone to stay home and to practice safe social distancing. Although the fire department doesn’t deal with that aspect, Bocharski said he suggested to the mayor to close the city’s playgrounds.

“We were noticing all these kids who were off were climbing all over the city’s playgrounds, and so that was a hell of a transition area,” he said. The city’s Department of Public Works has since begun flagging the playgrounds with caution tape, Bocharski said.

“We’re trying to remind people that the more we stay at home and keep our social distancing, the better off the firefighters, police, nurses and doctors will be in the long-run,” he said. “We’re ready for it. I have full confidence in my people. Actually, I’m pretty proud of them.”

(Contact managing editor Kellen Quigley at kquigleysp@gmail.com)