LOWELL - Expect discussion by the City Council Tuesday night regarding a policy that no longer requires emergency workers to respond to calls for people with flu-like symptoms. "Put a surgical mask on and respond to the call," Councilor Rita Mercier said of Fire Chief Edward Pitta's decision to enact the policy. "I understand and appreciate his concern, but an emergency is an emergency. That's why you take the oath. Are you not supposed to respond?"
Under the new policy, which was also instituted briefly during a flu outbreak last spring, dispatchers have stopped sending firefighters to medical calls where flu might be present in an effort to minimize unnecessary exposure of emergency personnel to the influenza virus, including H1N1, also known as swine flu. Pitta said he does not want firefighters compromising their health by responding to 911 medical calls for flu-like symptoms, including fever, cough, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, shortness of breath associated with flu, and sore chest associated with cough.
"I was very surprised to hear about this," said Mercier. "It doesn't sound like something I can support." City Councilors Bill Martin and Kevin Broderick said they did not hear about the policy and need more information. Broderick said he intends to bring up the subject at Tuesday night's meeting. "I haven't really formulated an opinion on this issue and I'm going to ask (City Manager Bernie Lynch) for additional information," Broderick said.
The policy does not apply to the Police Department or to Trinity EMS, the private ambulance service that contracts with the city. In a story that appeared in The Sun yesterday, Trinity Vice President Gary Sepe said the majority of Trinity's EMT's have been inoculated and use masks and gloves while treating people with flu-like symptoms. Firefighters, however, are near the bottom of the priority list for H1N1 vaccinations and Pitta stressed that somebody will respond to the medical call, it just may not be as many people as would normally respond.
Police Superintendent Kenneth Lavallee said he has never enacted a policy that addresses H1N1 and has no intention of doing so. "Basically, we have never really been dispatched to calls of that nature," Lavallee said. "The only medical calls we respond to are those in which somebody is in immediate danger, like a car accident or a heart attack or if a young child has stopped breathing or somebody is in peril. We've accompanied fire and ambulance to medical emergencies, but we normally do not get dispatched to those calls."
Councilor James Milinazzo, a member of the council's public-safety subcommittee, said he would defer to Pitta's expertise when it comes to such decisions. "I would hope that all emergency responders take the proper precautions and don't put themselves at risk," Milinazzo said. "I'm sure there are instances where they will respond even though there is a chance that the person has flu-like symptoms, but I'm sure that (Pitta) wants them to do it in a way that doesn't put the responder or the victim in danger."
Mayor Edward "Bud" Caulfield said the issue would probably be taken up Tuesday night, even if only to clarify the city's position. "I respect the chief, but the Fire Department, as well as the Police Department, have sworn to protect and serve," Caulfield said. "When somebody calls in asking for help and they say that they are very, very sick, it is our duty to get to that person as quickly as possible and provide help. How does (Pitta) or the dispatcher know if this is a frivolous call? Chances are that it is not frivolous. Who makes that determination?" City Councilors Rodney Elliott, Armand Mercier, Alan Kazanjian and Michael Lenzi could not be reached for comment.