Critical supplies are in high demand, so much so that even first responders are low on personal protective equipment (PPE).

“If there are people out in the public that have access to things like N95 masks or surgical masks, if people would be willing to donate them to us, we are critically low on what we have,” Scottsbluff Fire Department Capt. Justin Houstoun said. “We honestly don’t have enough supplies to protect our own guys right now.”

First responders have adjusted how they react to situations due to the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), and that includes more PPE than even they are used to.

Houstoun said “everything’s different” as he described the new response protocol for the department. At a minimum, on any call, the fire department will be wearing a surgical mask, eye protection and gloves. When calls come to the communications center, there are pertinent questions the caller will be asked. In the event there is information that first responders might be at risk through a potential COVID-19 patient, on top of the previously mentioned gear, EMTs will level up to Tyvek suits, face shields and N95 respirators.

“In the past, a crew would get there, you’d go inside and start treating the patient,” Houstoun said. “Now, what we’re having to do — because of that 6-foot distancing — when we get on scene, we’re only sending one person to actually make contact with the patient, and they’re doing it from at least that 6-foot distance. We have a list of questions that we’ll start asking (patients). If they hit yes to any of the questions that we ask, then we’re backing out and we’re going to the higher level of protective clothing. It’s just going to escalate based on how they answer the questions when we get on scene.”

Houstoun said that procedure would be followed for any non-fire call, including traffic accidents. Whenever possible, one person will approach parties involved in the accident from a distance to begin communications prior to providing assistance.

“This is truly uncharted territory for us,” Houstoun said. “With the amount of information and how quickly it’s changing, this has been a rapidly evolving learning process for us.

"What we practice today might be totally different tomorrow just based on how quickly the information is coming out. We’ve been trying to adjust and adapt to it. I never in my wildest dreams thought that we would be in a situation like this. This has been very eye-opening.”

Police officers are following the same emergency response protocols as the fire department when they respond to accidents or to help with medical calls. Protocol has not changed for officers on their basic calls, but they do have masks, goggles, gloves and disposable aprons available to them.

“Obviously, if it’s a call where somebody’s out of control or we need to effect an arrest, sometimes there isn’t time to don the PPE,” Capt. Tony Straub said. “But then we’ll get all the medical questions asked and go from there.”

Houstoun said it is critical that instructions from officials are followed.

“Keeping that distance, trying to confine the spread of this is paramount,” he said. “Otherwise, I don’t know when this will end. It’s very important that people are taking the necessary precautions, listening to the advice of all the government officials on how to treat this and handle it. I don’t see any other way around it.”

Listening to recommendations and instructions from officials is vital, as is gathering information from reliable sources.

“There’s a lot of different information out there across all the social media platforms,” Houstoun said. “I feel like there’s a lot of misinformation out there. I think the biggest thing the people can do is listen to what the actual officials are saying. Listen to their directives on how to be coping with this.”

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!


Mark McCarthy is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9049 or via email at

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