As the smoke begins to settle on the information harvested from COVID-19, some changes in the fire service are inevitable.
To set the background for this column, two of the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (NFFF) 16 Life Safety Initiatives are applicable. Initiative 1 states, “Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety, incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability, and personal responsibility.” Initiative 8 states, “Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.”
The origin of this month’s “Do Not Touch” column comes from an article in The Journal of the American Institute of Architects. The author is David Swartz, and his article is titled “Let’s Find a Built Solution to Protect Our Future.” Swartz explains how architects can design buildings to minimize the impact of a virus like COVID-19. One of the key design features is going “touchless.” More about that shortly.
Swartz states, “At my firm, we are congregating consultants, medical experts, contractors, and architects to investigate two key questions: ‘Is there a built solution that can be implemented to stem future outbreaks of a similar virus?’ and ‘What can we do as architects to create an environment where this problem can be solved?’ ”
There are many ways “Do Not Touch” can be applied to fire stations. Exterior (and interior) doors can automatically open without touching. Think about how this is used in grocery stores, drug stores, and big box stores. It applies to entering and exiting a station, and it is not new technology. It works. Inside the station, one of the most obvious applications is motion sensor lights instead of light switches. A side benefit of this is lower electrical bills.
Another high-frequency touch area subject to contaminants is sink faucets (rest rooms, kitchens, utility sinks, decontamination sinks). These can be opened and closed by motion detection. They are already common in public places and are in several fire stations. Adjacent to the sink faucets can be the touchless soap dispenser and adjacent to that the touchless towel dispenser. Again, motion sensors can activate towels on a roll dispenser. Hand washing and drying can be easily accomplished without touching anything. Can you imagine a bar of soap in a public restroom? A word of caution—touchless blowers for hand drying are not recommended because they blow small particles of water into the air.
There might be consideration for eliminating doors to restrooms. It takes additional square footage, but think about the design of restrooms in most airports. Personally, I’ve always been cautious about touching a restroom door. One never knows if the person ahead of you has washed HIS hands after using the fixtures. Speaking of restrooms, how about installing bidets? They are common in parts of the world. For example, they are required in some European countries such as Italy. They are also common in the Mideast and in some South American countries. They are very rare in the United States. However, add-on kits for existing toilets are beginning to get some traction.
A couple of other frequently touched items are keyboards and TV remotes. Washable covers for keyboards and mice are required in hospitals and food service industries. Maybe every station should have a supply of these to use just as they have tableware. It is said that the nastiest thing in a hotel room is the TV remote. But there are ways around that. One solution is to put the remote in a sealable plastic bag. Another solution is through a smartphone application. I was made aware of this when I “cut the cord” earlier this year and my Roku device quit working. I learned that I could download a phone app that functioned as a remote. It worked! Could each firefighter be able to control the TV from his smartphone without using a shared remote?
Speaking of remotes, there is no reason a fire pump can’t be operated through an app. The engine can be started remotely. One vehicle application I’m familiar with is the Uconnect for a Ram pickup. With the Ram Uconnect, one can lock and unlock the truck, start and stop the engine, sound the horn and turn on the lights, see the fuel level, see the tire pressure in each tire, see how much oil life is remaining, know the mileage, and find the truck should it be stolen or if you forgot where you parked in a very large parking lot. As the saying goes, there is an app for everything, and there will likely be many other “applications” to support the “Do Not Touch” theme. One may say, “Well, we still have to touch a lot of things, so why worry about the items just mentioned?” The benefit is that many of the high-touch areas can be eliminated, thus eliminating the need to constantly disinfect these areas. How much time does it take to disinfect every light switch and door handle in a fire station?
Do Not Touch—unless you must.
ROBERT TUTTEROW retired as safety coordinator for the Charlotte (NC) Fire Department and is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment Editorial Advisory Board. His 40-year career includes 10 as a volunteer. He has been very active in the National Fire Protection Association through service on the Fire Service Section Executive Board and technical committees involved with safety, apparatus, and personal protective equipment. He is a founding member and president of the Fire Industry Education Resource Organization (F.I.E.R.O.).