By Mike Dunn

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — A Philadelphia City Council hearing today on how this region is prepared for the risks of Ebola exposed a dispute over whether Philadelphia paramedics are adequately protected.

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Philadelphia fire commissioner Derrick Sawyer told the Council committee that each EMT unit will carry protective gowns and masks that meet or exceed CDC standards.

“For example, a surgical mask is all that’s required,” Sawyer (below) told the committee.  “We upgraded the mask to an M95 mask, which a little bit stronger.  They recommend little footies for their shoes.  We actually ordered booties, so you have added protection with your gown.”

(Philadelphia fire commissioner Derrick Sawyer testifies before City Council.  Image from City of Phila. TV)

(Philadelphia fire commissioner Derrick Sawyer testifies before City Council. Image from City of Phila. TV)


But Joseph Schulle, head of the firefighters’ union Local 22 (top photo), has no faith in the CDC standards and believes that so-called ‘Class B’ hazmat suits are needed for the paramedics should they have to respond to a potential Ebola outbreak.

“What the CDC has approved as a minimum standard is a plastic gown,” Schulle said today.  “The gown has a huge area of exposure at the neck, it’s paper thin, and it’s just not an acceptable alternative to the Class B suit.   The gown that they have ordered and are going to be putting into service simply is not close to that level of protection.  Our responders are going to be at risk, and they’re going to be at risk for potentially exposing their friends and their families when they go home.”

But Commissioner Sawyer said that hazmat suits are not appropriate:

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“We’re not using hazmat suits to protect us from a virus.  What we’re using is gown recommended by the CDC.  We actually purchased new gowns which are better,” he said.

Sawyer said the department currently has 700 CDC-compliant suits, and 1,000 more on order.

Schulle, though, believes penny-pinching is to blame for not ordering more hazmat suits.

“The (fire) department and the city don’t want to use the hazmat suits because they’re more expensive than these paper and plastic gowns that they’re going to have our members use going into this situation,” Schulle says.

Also at the hearing, Philadelphia health commissioner Dr. James Buehler said the city’s 911 operators are now trained to screen for potential Ebola cases, and alert paramedics and hospitals under certain circumstances.

“If (the patients) have this travel history, and if they have these symptoms, that will be known to the 911 team when they get underway, and they’ll have the opportunity to wear the appropriate protective gear,” Buehler said.  “All the hospitals that currently receive transports from emergency medical services should be prepared to receive a patient with this history and these symptoms and perform the appropriate evaluation and treatment.”

Buehler did deliver one key and hopeful fact:

“Thankfully, so far we’ve had no cases of Ebola in Philadelphia.”

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