First responders concerned about protective equipment shortage

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  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell demonstrates the donning of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, eyewear, and N95 mask, outside the department's headquarters on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell pinches the nosepiece on his N95 mask, the last step in donning an array of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, and eyewear. Photographed at the department's headquarters on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell demonstrates the donning of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, eyewear, and N95 mask, outside the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell demonstrates the donning of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, eyewear, and N95 mask, outside the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell demonstrates the donning of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, eyewear, and N95 mask, outside the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell holds a NIOSH N95 health care particulate respirator and surgical mask, part of his personal protection equipment (PPE). Photographed at the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell holds a NIOSH N95 health care particulate respirator and surgical mask, part of his personal protection equipment (PPE). Photographed at the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Northampton firefighter Matt Burrell demonstrates the donning of personal protection equipment (PPE), including hooded coveralls, gloves, eyewear, and N95 mask, at the department's headquarters on Wednesday, March 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 3/27/2020 9:34:04 AM

AMHERST — When business owner Glenn Barrett was sent a reserve of N95 respirator masks from his company’s manufacturing operations in China, he thought about who might need them the most at home during the COVID-19 crisis.

That’s why Barrett, the founder of OrthoLite, an Amherst-based company that manufactures proprietary insoles for shoes, called up the Amherst Police Department to see if they needed masks. As it turns out, Barrett said the department’s order of 100 of the same masks had been back-ordered for four weeks — so Barrett went over to the station and donated 80.

“We’re all in this together,” Barrett said Thursday. “Nobody invited this pandemic, but it’s here. No matter how small or seemingly insignificant the gesture is, I think it’s incumbent on all of us to take care of each other in this time.”

The Amherst Police Department, however, is not alone in dealing with supply-chain shortages of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Scarcity of protective equipment such as eyewear, gloves, masks, face shields, and gowns have not only left first responders worried about supply, but also health care workers and others on the front-lines. 

In Easthampton, Deputy Fire Chief Wayne Hennemann said Wednesday that the department only has enough inventory for first responders, such as paramedics, to dress in 35 complete sets of PPE that health officials recommend front-line workers wear in order to protect against COVID-19. And if the pandemic starts to worsen and calls reporting symptoms increase, so would the supply problem for the department, he said. 

“Literally in a day or two that could wipe us out,” Hennemann said.

He said PPE for first responders was important because without it, front-line workers responding to possible COVID-19 calls could get sick themselves. He characterized the amount of PPE the department has as “finite.” The department had already been using some level of PPE for every call even before the pandemic, he said.

“If we don’t have this PPE to protect ourselves, we’re not helping anyone and we’re helping spread it,” he said.

Hennemann has put out pleas on Facebook calling for donations of masks and gloves. He said the community has stepped up and donated boxes of surgical masks, gloves, and N95 masks — though he said he doesn’t feel comfortable with the department’s supply levels.

With the increase in PPE demand around the country, equipment from the department’s normal vendors has been back-ordered, Hennemann said.

“With every state, department and agency needing the same equipment, we’re not able to get it from our normal vendors,” Hennemann said.

Hennemann said the department has been searching the internet for smaller companies who may be able to fill in some of these gaps, as well as larger companies like Lowe’s who may have goggles and gowns. He’s also put in requests for equipment to the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) as he said they have a stockpile of PPE.

“Hopefully we will start seeing some of those requests filled shortly,” Hennemann said. 

Northampton Fire Rescue Chief Jon Davine said that his department is “in really good shape” in regard to PPE supplies. Mayor David Narkewicz made Davine’s department the central ordering point for the entire city, Davine said, meaning they order PPE for not only themselves, but for the police, Department of Public Works, the Board of Health and others.

He said the department had kept a lot of PPE from the Ebola and H1N1 swine flu outbreaks. Davine also said that he believes the department was ahead of the curve when it came to ordering PPE before the COVID-19 pandemic escalated — though he said he’s still waiting on some supplies, like sanitizer for city buildings.

“I think we got a good jump on everybody else,” Davine said.

At the moment, Davine said he wouldn’t feel comfortable donating PPE to other departments because he doesn’t know what the department’s call volume may eventually look like during this crisis. But being in charge of the entire city’s supply prevents over-ordering between municipal departments, freeing up supplies for other towns and cities who are in need, he said. 

“I think we have a really good system,” he said.

According to Jeff Olmstead, assistant fire chief for the town of Amherst, his department currently has a “stable” supply of PPE. He said Amherst College and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, as well as the public, have donated supplies. 

But Olmstead also can’t predict what sort of strain COVID-19 may put on his department’s supplies — not to mention his department is also having issues with getting equipment from vendors.

“We have found that, for most of our normal supply chains, everything is back-ordered and not available on stock,” Olmstead said.

And since a lot of the supplies Olmstead’s department needs are of a certain rating or certification, that makes it harder to acquire them and more expensive to buy.

“Remember that you’re also competing with the world,” Olmstead said. “I’m hopeful that the supply networks will get into gear and manufacturers will ramp up manufacturing.”

Michael Connors can be reached at mconnors@gazettenet.com. 


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