Fighting fire and virus: Covid and town’s growth pose challenges for Orange

The Orange Rural Fire Department uses an A-E classification system for running medical calls. An ‘A’ — or Alpha call — is comparable to someone waking up with a kidney stone, calling 9-1-1 and getting help, minus the sirens and lights. During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Orange County Emergency Medical System Director temporarily relieved the fire department from running A and B calls. It was a decision Orange Rural Fire Department Chief Jeff Cabe had never before seen.

“That was the first time in my 30-plus years that they’ve ever pulled us off calls,” Cabe said. “Police officers don’t do patient care so they’re probably pretty safe. Firefighters do patient care, but they also fight fires and they do the extrications, and they do the hazardous materials response. If we lose our firefighters, police and EMS can’t replace them. We tried to protect our firefighters by pulling them off of non-life-threatening calls.”

If you think your life was inconvenienced by putting on a face mask, washing your hands more frequently, and keeping a safe distance, consider the work of the firefighter: masks to be worn at the station and on calls, often with an additional 200 lbs. of equipment; if a response was to a known Covid exposure, equipment had to be decontaminated before it could be placed on the fire truck, and then the truck had to be decontaminated once back at the station.

Chief Cabe said the decontamination process was likely to become a fire department routine, even without Covid. “It’s probably just good business practices for what we do and never know, and what we get exposed to, along the lines of the Swine Flu, Avian Flu and Zika Virus and bedbugs,” he said. “As Covid was coming, we were starting to see increases in bedbug infestations in houses and apartments and motels and other places we go. So we were trying to compensate for that as well. A lot of those same practices would help prevent bedbug infestations into the fire department. It’s kind of a never ending battle with that stuff anyway, and as we learn more, we’re doing more and trying to stop it. So we now have a policy on decontamination, we have a policy on bedbugs.”

But Cabe would tell you the biggest challenge he and the department faced throughout the pandemic had less to do with equipment and process as it had to do with the politicization of the deadly virus. 

“The biggest struggle we felt with Covid was the two groups of people in society: the ones that believe Covid exist; and the ones that were believed that Covid was just a hoax, or it was just the flu, or whatever. We respond to one call with masks on, and get berated because we have masks on. We respond to the next call with a mask on and get berated because we weren’t doing enough.”

The Orange Rural Fire Department is in a high-visibility spot in downtown Hillsborough. Training exercises, maintenance, and equipment cleaning are often in plain view. The break room has a large window looking out onto Churton Street. It’s not hard for passersby to observe ORFD staff. Cabe said he fielded numerous complaints about whether the department was following Covid protocols. Crew members were called out when the complaints were legitimate, but Cabe added some guidelines were difficult to follow.

“If we’re going to function in the buildings, with all the equipment we’ve got on, we can’t social distance,” Cabe said. “And it’s not reasonable to expect them to wear masks when they’re going to a structure fire and having to get dressed with their air packs.”

The Centers for Disease Control has relaxed face mask guidelines for people who are fully vaccinated. Cabe said about 80 percent of the ORFD employees are vaccinated. Those who are not, still are required to wear masks. 

Between full-time, part-time, and volunteer firefighters, Cabe said he has 36 on staff, available to do what it takes to respond to the community’s needs. It doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for a Covid outbreak. But it also means the department doesn’t have the flexibility to issue ultimatums when it comes to the Covid vaccine.

“We can’t afford to draw a hard line and say you only will take the vaccine or be terminated,” Cabe said. “The employer can’t require it, but I have to fill those positions because I still have to respond to calls. We’ve kind of left it at that and tried to strongly urge people to do it, but some of them just aren’t going to.”

He said 10 ORFD firefighters tested positive for Covid-19, and two of those could be traced to job-related exposures.

Overall, Cabe said the morale at the fire department has remained steady. “Firefighters aren’t, I don’t think, as affected by threats, like cancers and those kinds of things because, at any point, the next dispatch could be the last dispatch of their lives. I don’t know that Covid really drove anybody down. I think it maybe made guys with young kids and elderly parents more nervous, they took a lot of extra precautions,” he said.

Another area that has been high on Chief Cabe’s list of concerns is Hillsborough’s growth and new residential developments. Expansion plans are in the works to address areas the fire department is expected to serve that fall outside the insurance benefit zone.

“In North Carolina, you need to be within five miles of a fire station to get an insurance benefit from having a fire department,” Cabe said. “Some areas of newer development are more than five miles from a fire station, so those folks pay a higher insurance premium.”

Cabe said a plan is in the works to do a property swap with the town that will enable the Orange Rural Fire Department to build a facility that will enable it to serve the south end of its district.

Getting closer to the new developments is evermore important because, Cabe said, more of the materials used for new construction burns quicker than what was used in the past. And more homes are being built closer together, increasing the chance that more than one structure can be in danger during a fire.

“Even though the incidents of fire have gone down, when we have a fire, the amount of heat and the amount of damage is a lot more significant than what it used to be,” he said. “And some homes are mere feet away each other. All of those things play into why we have bought some different nozzles. They make nozzles called water curtains, or water wall. It basically sprays a stream of water straight up, and makes a heat barrier to try to keep the flames from catching the next house on fire. It’s all of those things playing into it.”

Another problem with some of the newer subdivisions is narrower streets and more on-street parking that can make it challenging for large fire trucks to reach a home that is on fire.

With all the challenges the Orange Rural Fire Department has faced over the past year (including the constant lure of better-paying municipality jobs), Cabe is still quick to express his pride and love for the men and women he works with. 

“I can be come pretty emotional when I talk about them,” he said. “They’re the heroes here and the ones who deserve attention for what they do every day.”

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