Sterling Rescue’s motto is “Empowered to save. Inspired to serve.” As COVID-19 transitions from a pandemic to an endemic disease, we took a retrospective look at the last two years of our operations and at how we supported our community during the pandemic. COVID-19 challenged us in many areas, but we rose to the challenges and gave meaning to the words in our motto. Here, we highlight our accomplishments in three categories: people, operations and logistics.
“The commitment of our members was powerfully evident. No task was too small, no challenge ever unmet… we embraced the difficulty of the situation as a team and pushed forward. As leaders, our task was to create an environment where our members felt that they could operate safely. Logistics kept us in the game with available supplies and we purchased state of the art equipment to disinfect our ambulances and equipment. We established policies and processes and held each other accountable. When our members became ill, we took care of them. Sterling Rescue demonstrated their strength, compassion, commitment and resiliency to the community each day.”
– Kathleen Harasek Chief, Sterling Volunteer Rescue Squad
People. Our success begins and ends with people- the volunteers of Sterling Rescue, both operational and administrative. In the beginning, there were questions as to whether volunteers could continue to operate during the pandemic. The answer was “Yes– and operate really well!” This wasn’t easy. Our members routinely deal with risks during their operational service. COVID-19 required everyone to work in an environment more hazardous than in our pre-COVID service. It wasn’t easy. In the beginning, the full extent of the hazard was not known and our protective measures were evolving. Early on, one of our members became gravely ill due to an operational COVID exposure and was placed on a ventilator. The Sterling Rescue response was to double down on our protective measures and pull together as a team. Every member realized that their personal safety depended on the actions of their team members, and that they were also responsible for their team member’s safety. This was reinforced by our leadership, who placed our safety first at all times.
Our COVID response extended beyond our members, to their families and work environments. Sterling Rescue volunteers live with their families and some have family members who are immunocompromised. They have “day jobs” in a wide variety of areas, from medical organizations to engineering and information technology companies. They attend school. Our members met the requirements of their work organizations and schools and took precautions to ensure that they did not spread COVID-19 to others, whether from their rescue operations or other activities. Some members even self-isolated within their homes, to ensure their families were safe.
Sterling Rescue’s support went beyond responding to 911 calls. Dozens of Sterling Rescue personnel served as COVID-19 vaccinators, as a part of the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue’s support to the vaccination effort led by the Loudoun County Health Department, vaccinating thousands of residents.
The teamwork was outstanding, as was the great support from our families and employers. This is the way it is every day in Sterling Rescue, and it became more important during COVID-19. We continued to serve throughout the pandemic, with no gaps in support. As an icon of the dedication of Sterling Rescue’s people, the member who was on a ventilator is back on duty, proudly serving today.
Operations. Another success was our operational agility, and the organization’s ability to “pivot” rapidly, to new information about COVID-19, changing policies, new equipment and changing operational procedures. The change began when we entered the station. We had to enter at a specific entrance, take our temperature and respond to a health questionnaire before we could start our shift. We wore masks at all times and decontaminated our ambulances at the start and end of each shift.
A COVID-19 risk assessment was added to our dispatch procedures and our initial encounter with our patients on scene. We assessed COVID risk “in the doorway” of our calls, often discovering that a fall injury patient also had COVID-19. Our Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) requirements increased dramatically. This involved wearing bulky respirators, ever-fogging eyewear and hot protective gowns while moving patients up and down stairs in Reeves stretchers and stair chairs in the height of the summer heat. We decontaminated ourselves and our ambulances after every possible COVID call. We showered and changed clothes multiple times on a shift, running the station’s washers and dryers continually, with piles of clothing lining our station hallways. Our meticulous use of bleach wipes earned us pinkish “battle scars” on our navy-blue pants from contact with the bleach. We were an early adopter of the Aeroclave interior decontamination system, which fogged the inside of our ambulances with a disinfecting solution, greatly improving the level of decontamination of the ambulance interior and providing a characteristic “Aeroclave stink.”
Our leaders worked with the Loudoun County Fire and Rescue leadership and our Operational Medical Director on a 24/7 basis, to implement policies, procedures and integrate new equipment, all aimed at protecting us and supporting our community. At the high point, there were near-daily changes and alerts. The organization’s agility and ability to adapt was one of our great strengths in the COVID-19 response.
Logistics. Another strength was our ability to keep adequate stocks of PPE and decontamination equipment and material on hand. We always had what was needed. Working at the end point of a long, complex supply chain, that in some cases was managed at the top by the Federal government, required a lot of e-mails, phone calls and leadership interaction. Although we always had what was needed, sometimes we didn’t get what we wanted. The brands and styles of equipment changed week to week, depending on what was available. We welcomed the day when we got our regular nonwoven fabric gowns back and said farewell to the “gowns” that were like thick clear plastic trash bags with sleeves. Logistics was a key element of our operations. Without PPE, we were done. Our logistics team stayed ahead of the curve, ensuring we had everything needed.
COVID-19 is still with us, but we wanted to take this moment to look back and celebrate our great team and our successes.
If you are not a member of Sterling Rescue and this sounds interesting, we are always looking for new volunteers who want to make a positive impact in our community. Please visit us our Join Section.