Bucks County Public Safety Training Center Adapts and Adjusts Through Pandemic

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Nicholas Berube, Centurion Staff

On the morning of Monday, May 11, the Newtown Fire Association reported that 1,021 local county residents have recovered after testing positive for COVID-19. This hopeful figure stands out amongst the bleak headlines which have become America’s new norm. Echoing efforts across the globe, attempts to flatten the pandemic curve have been, in large part, thanks to local first responders. Many of which in this area, obtained their training through the Bucks County Public Safety Training Center (BPSTC), offered through Bucks.

Executive Director of the BPSTC and Department of Public Safety Training Certification Liaison Earl “Rob” Freese III, proudly names the center as the largest of its kind in Pennsylvania, and one of the largest in the world. Freese, of Roslyn, has been with the center for 17 years now and is a member of the Fort Washington Fire Company in Montgomery County.

When asked if he thought the pandemic has changed the duties and training requirements of responders in a permanent way, Freese admits, “I think there’s a lot of unknowns. Until we get a clear handle on what life’s going to be like, it’s hard to tell. I think there’s going to be a lot more things done electronically. You could see a little more online training. There’s certain things we just can’t do online.”

The BPSTC graduated its first hybrid class, consisting of in-person and online teaching methods, earning the Fire Fighter I accreditation in November 2019. Fire Fighter I, the National Fire Protection Association’s mandated basic volunteer fire fighter training, is but one of the many programs available through the college. The training center is also responsible for the training of paramedics and EMTs.

Megan Cox, 23, of Philadelphia, was one of the students who graduated from this hybrid class, recognized with the Outstanding Student Award. A member of the Nottingham Fire Department, servicing Bensalem Township, Cox relied on the help of her station’s in-person training sessions to reinforce her understanding of the skills covered in the class.

“If they hadn’t done that I don’t think I’d have been as successful as I was,” she confesses. Having a program which details the protocol for saving lives certainly has its difficulties when divided with an online format. Though for some, due to professional and educational time constraints, without such a class, becoming a volunteer wouldn’t even be possible.

Somewhat critical of the hybrid module, Cox said, “Experience isn’t something you can learn from a textbook or a classroom. They can try to simulate it but you have to experience it.” Freese confirms that since the pilot hybrid class, the BPSTC has yet to conduct another.

Now, as many degrees, certificate programs, and continuing education classes have been instructed to move online, first responder training has been put in limbo.

“I was going through my EMT class… it was half way through and it got cancelled, so I have to start over in September,” Cox explains, after her Bucks training was cut short. She was one of 25 students in the class who expected to graduate in May.

“The hope is, anything that was ‘postponed’ is to finish as soon as possible,” Freese said, adding, “A lot is put on hold, waiting to be finished until stay at home orders are finished. Lecture only classes are online.” Like many responders, he has had to adjust in his own fire house to weekly training sessions being conducted on zoom with roughly 50 members who regularly participate.

Cox also details changes her station has undergone since the lockdown, including limitations on bunk-in programs, where departments, like hers, provide beds for overnight response teams. She notes increased cautionary measures for responders entering residences where it’s unclear what’s going on inside.  She follows up by adding, “If there’s an actual fire we are all hands on deck. We have N95 masks on the truck. We’re still responding to all calls.”

Freese guarantees that the facilities of the BPSTC, which include a center in Doylestown and the Lower Bucks Public Safety Training Center in Croydon, have been sanitized to the same parameters as the college and CDC guidelines.

As far as future additions to responder curriculums based on the current pandemic, Freese guesses that, “… you might see some things for paramedic classes. Anything about body substance isolation.” To this end, Cox suggests, “I would want them to go over what to look for, in particular for COVID-19. Some stations may differ, but if you put it in the Fire I class, at least you’ll have that safety aspect.”

Despite the recent success of a three-week-long hazmat operations refresher course done at his station through the college and on Zoom, Freese worries for stations who rely on events like pancake breakfasts to maintain financial stability. He speculates that, “There’s probably going to be some ramifications for volunteerism. Is that going to be serious or not? It’s hard to tell without the data.”

In response to being asked if the pandemic has changed the nature of responding, Cox says, “Yes, in a way. Just because for me it’ll always be in the back of my mind if someone has symptoms. On the other hand, I think we, as part of the fire department, are always going into something that exposes us to disease, fire, or hazardous material… We’re all willing to go.”