(Kaiser Health News)Emergency medical services across the country, already burdened by the high demands of Covid-19, have faced added pressure in the past week as they responded to protests ignited by the death of George Floyd in the custody of Minneapolis police.
No 'rule book' for EMTs responding to protests amid a pandemic
The need to protect themselves against the coronavirus adds another complication to emergency crews' efforts in these dangerous conditions. Their personal protective equipment (PPE) can be difficult to wear in a crowd, said emergency medical services officials. Plus, switching from that gear to equipment needed to shield medics from bullets, rocks or tear gas can be challenging.
Brent Stevenson, assistant chief of the Denver Health Paramedic Division, said facing a protest and a pandemic at once is uncharted territory.
"I don't think there was a rule book for me really to figure out what we're gonna do," he said.
In addition, many crews must overcome the fatigue caused by months of fighting Covid-19. In Dallas, some senior-level EMS officers have worked every day for the past several weeks, said EMS deputy chief Tami Kayea.
First responders are trained to handle emergencies in large events. And even though many protesters have assembled peacefully, the size and mobility of last week's protests surprised EMS officials in some cities.
"Any large gathering of people is unpredictable in nature, because it's just people," said Sean Larkins, superintendent of emergency medical services in Detroit. "You just never know what could happen."
An added consideration is how to distinguish themselves from the police and deflect any crowd hostility, several EMS officials said. In Oakland, California, the word "medic" is printed on the vests, said the private ambulance shift commander.
In Sacramento, California, firefighters wear bright-yellow fire jackets that set them apart from police, said Keith Wade, a captain paramedic and public information officer for the Sacramento Fire Department.
"They're not there for war," said Wade. "They're there to help."
In that environment, treating people who get sick or injured while participating in a protest becomes more challenging.
On June 1 in Dallas, Kayea started putting ambulances and personnel in position for the night's protest at 5 p.m. Hundreds of people were expected and the city had experienced violence and looting the previous night.
The city issued a curfew for certain areas that had been hit by looting. When the protesters arrived, they started moving outside the area controlled by Kayea and her team. Kayea had to move her personnel and redraw the map showing where her team would respond to emergencies — all in real time, she said.