The doors are always open at Sunnyside Fire Department
Luis Valdez sits at the front desk of the Sunnyside Fire Department, smiling. He’s on the phone with an elderly woman he met that day, listening as she excitedly tells him, “I’m ok! I don’t have COVID!” Earlier that day, the woman came to the Sunnyside Fire Department, struggling with her mobility and not feeling great. She was worried she had COVID, and came to the fire department to receive a free at-home test available through their partnership with WA COVID-19.
To ensure safety, Sunnyside’s lobby is secluded from staff aside from Luis, the Receptionist/Operator, and masks are available to all visitors. When community members call ahead to ask about testing, Luis asks if they’ve been exposed or have symptoms of COVID-19. If so, they’re asked to send a family member or friend to collect the testing kit, or to wear a mask when they enter the building. Additionally, Luis wears gloves to distribute tests and disinfects the office following each visit.
The elderly woman came to the station already masked, and Luis could see the concern in her eyes. But she was also grateful. As Luis explains, “The woman was so glad she got tested, that she knew where to get a test, and that she could do it herself.”
And she was even more grateful when the test was negative.
The woman didn’t have to call the fire station to tell Luis the news, but she did and – if you met Luis – you’d want to call him back and update him as well. He’s open, kind and engaging. Luis’ role in the department, Receptionist/Operator, was something that Chief Haubrich has wanted to create for a while now. It’s a role aimed at making the fire station more accessible to the community it serves.
Chief Haubrich and his team are out in the community every single day, helping people with everything from dog rescues, to common coughs, to traumatic injuries, to fighting fires. But during COVID, the fire department wasn’t open to the public and lingering staffing shortages created challenges until recently, as Chief Haubrich explains:
“The biggest challenge was the one that we’ve just overcome – which was making us as a Fire Department readily available to our community. For so long, we’ve been forced to be reactive. But now we’ve increased our staffing – and not just administratively, but also with our line firefighters. We’ve finally had the opportunity to beef up that staffing and get to more appropriate levels. So now we’re cresting that threshold of starting to be able to be proactive rather than reactive. This partnership with Health Commons [and Department of Health] is one of the first steps in that proactivity.”
Sunnyside Fire Department partnered with WA COVID-19 to improve COVID-19 at-home testing access in their rural, agricultural community. With strong support from the City Manager, Elizabeth Alba, Sunnyside started implementing the program in December 2022. But before they were able to bring in Luis to cover the front desk, Chief Haubrich couldn’t consistently distribute tests and could never be sure anyone would even be at the fire department if a community member stopped by.
Sunnyside Fire Department has an annual call volume of 4,500 calls per year. They’re an all-hazard Fire Department, which means if someone calls 9-1-1, no matter what the reason, they go. They also run a public ambulance service with Advanced Life Support (ALS), and receive a high volume of EMS calls. Additionally, their role is changing with law enforcement reform and mental health reform. Chief Haubrich notes, “Before we wore a lot of hats, now we’re wearing all the hats. But that’s the job we signed up for. My guys and girls are rock stars. We do a lot, but that’s what we do.”
With two crews covering a 400 square mile response area, there’s a lot of time tied up in transport. This is complicated by the fact that, due to funding shortages, local hospitals don’t provide critical trauma care. And, unfortunately, Sunnyside sees a lot of trauma patients due to high-speed accidents on rural roads. These trauma patients need to be taken to Yakima or Richland, which are both over 30-minute trips, even with lights and sirens. “By the time we get there, get the patent, get them to the hospital – that’s easily 3 hours,” says Chief Haubrich.
This is incredibly taxing on the department, and it means that they are always very busy. And, before Luis joined the team, it also meant that the doors of the Fire Department weren’t always open. It was impossible to consistently distribute at-home COVID tests to interested community members when the crew was out serving other community members most in need at that moment. Now, Sunnyside is able to do both.
“That was the big hurdle. We knew we had this resource through WA COVID-19. We wanted to be able to distribute these tests. But unfortunately, when someone called the fire station and asked about tests, we had to say, ‘I don’t know if we’ll be here based on our call volume.’ But having Luis here managing the front desk, greeting people coming in and connecting with media outlets, we can do that. Thanks to Luis and our other staff, we’re definitely getting there.”
In his role, Luis doesn’t only manage the front desk and distribute tests, he also helps redirect non-emergent calls to appropriate resources, connects with the media to get the word out about the WA COVID-19 program, and helps improve outreach to the Hispanic community, who have historically been hesitant to call 911.
Sunnyside is actually using the WA COVID-19 testing program as a platform to help bridge the communication gap with Spanish speaking community members. By providing testing information and resources in both English and Spanish, Chief Haubrich is showing community members that the fire department is a reliable, trusted resource. “It’s a way to show that we are here for you in your time of need. If you don’t speak English, that’s ok! We have a number of services in Spanish.”
Sunnyside is still in the early stages of providing their COVID-19 testing service and they are continue to reach out out the media contacts and building social media content to get the word out. But, as Luis explains, “People are really happy. They’re really stoked that the tests are here and they can come in and grab one and then go home. We’ve had tremendous support.”
WA COVID-19 doesn’t just offer tests and technical support. Fire stations can also receive funding for equipment needed to maximize COVID-19 programs, like tablets, tablet accessories, hot spots, labor stipends, signage and digital reader boards.
400 square mile response area (unincorporated Yakima County)
“We want to provide any and all services to our community that we possibly can. We want to be that resource. We’re trying to curb non-emergent call volume, but we want people to know that we are there in your time of need.”
“We’re tax funded, so we want people to know: This is your fire station. We have tests available for individuals who need or want them. And that gets people in the door and allows us to build rapport with our community and break down the communication gaps. When people come in for tests, it establishes a comfort level. We can say: Hey, this is your fire station. We are your firefighters. This is your fire department.”
Note: The end of the Federal Health Emergency does not mean the end for WA COVID-19!
The Federal Public Health Emergency ended on May 11, but Sunnyside and other fire departments enrolled in WA COVID-19 will still be able to access free tests for the community!