FARGO — As cases of COVID-19 spread around the world and here at home, F-M Ambulance Service has taken additional steps to protect patients and its emergency responders, and to ensure clear communication among staff.

Meanwhile, the service is reporting a decline in call-volume recently, which may turn out to be a quite a gift in the weeks to come.

Don Martin, communications manager at F-M Ambulance, said they’re using a computer software program employed during previous infectious disease outbreaks and making slight modifications in some procedures and in the use of Personal Protective Equipment, or PPEs.

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Kristi Engelstad, clinical learning and development specialist at F-M Ambulance, said the moves will help protect people.

“It’s pretty scary for our health care providers on the front line,” Engelstad said.

F-M Ambulance, owned by Sanford Health Systems, recently established a Department Operations Center in its main office at 2215 18th St. S. in Fargo.

Employee work spaces have been moved to a central area, six feet apart, allowing for centralized emergency management.

F-M Ambulance has set up a Department Operations Center for centralized emergency management at its location in South Fargo. It allows employees, following the social distancing recommendations of being six feet apart, to coordinate plans and communication efficiently. Special to The Forum
F-M Ambulance has set up a Department Operations Center for centralized emergency management at its location in South Fargo. It allows employees, following the social distancing recommendations of being six feet apart, to coordinate plans and communication efficiently. Special to The Forum

When Red River Dispatch gets a 911 call, it uses a triage system to prioritize the emergency and get pre-arrival instructions for the ambulance crew.

As soon as there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 in North Dakota or Minnesota, F-M Ambulance brought back its Emerging Infectious Disease Surveillance (EIDS) tool, also used during the 2003 SARS epidemic and the 2009 H1N1 pandemic, Martin said.

It prompts arriving paramedics or emergency medical technicians (EMTs) to ask particular questions, including the patient’s travel history, and symptoms of fever or chills.

If there’s a high probability of COVID-19, or other infectious respiratory illness, the EMTs don protective gear even before they enter the scene.

“When in doubt, mask up,” Martin said.

The protections include earloop procedure masks, the more protective N95 mask, or a combination of the two, as well as gowns, glasses and goggles.

In some cases, EMTs may put a face mask on the patient, rather than themselves.

Patient assessments are done from six feet away, following distancing guidelines.

When EMTs do common procedures such as checking the patient’s pulse, blood pressure or lung sounds, they stay off to the side so as not to be in direct line of a cough or breath exhalation.

But if intubation is required, where a tube is placed in a patient’s airway, physical distancing isn’t possible.

“That’s a very close procedure,” Engelstad said.

Asked whether F-M Ambulance has adequate supplies of PPEs, Engelstad said they may run out if there’s a massive surge in cases.

The good thing is, the F-M area can learn from what other, larger cities have and haven’t done.

“I’m glad we’re not first. We can learn from mistakes others have made,” Engelstad said.

As life has slowed to a crawl and fewer people are out and about during the outbreak, F-M Ambulance has had fewer emergency calls. Martin said there have been fewer car accidents and not as many slips and falls as usual.

Before the pandemic, crews were responding to an average of 650 calls a week or 93 calls a day. Now, they're averaging 560 calls a week or 81 calls a day, Martin said.

The lighter call volume might be helpful in the coming weeks, especially if ambulance crews are hit hard by the coronavirus.

“That helps us out if we don’t have the staff to cover it,” Martin said.

Like many health care entities, F-M Ambulance is screening employees and asking them to self-report any symptoms. Employees check temperatures at the start of their shift, Martin said.

Engelstad said she and her co-workers feel lucky that all of the disaster training their company has done before is helping them stay organized in the midst of a pandemic.