The City of Thornton: A Public Health Story

Photos provided by: Thornton Fire

When the novel coronavirus arrived in Colorado in early 2020, the City of Thornton relied on Thornton Fire Department (TFD), which provides fire and emergency medical services and serves as the city’s hazardous materials and infection control expert, to respond. Immediately, Captain Theo Gonzales noticed an issue: insufficient testing complicated TFD’s ability to do so. Working with the Tri-County Health Department and the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPHE), TFD implemented testing sites to serve the city’s 1,300 employees, identify infections, prevent outbreaks, and ensure that municipal services could continue uninterrupted.

While administering tests was a new endeavor for TFD, the logistics came naturally. TFD, like most fire departments, operates under the Incident Command System, a standardized emergency management structure to facilitate in the management of resources in complex incidents. This meant Captain Gonzales and his team could deploy quickly and efficiently.

When faced with delayed results from the CDPHE facing a massive statewide demand, TFD purchased its own lab instruments, becoming the first fire department in the nation to operate a COVID-19 testing lab. Rather than wait 8-12 days for results, they were now in hand in about an hour.

And when vaccines rolled out in December 2020, almost overnight, TFD expanded upon its testing operations, providing vaccines to groups as they became eligible.

Once again, logistical challenges arose. Vaccines had more stringent storage, tracking, and reporting requirements than tests. Additionally, it was now winter in Colorado, which made offering drive-through vaccine clinics more difficult.

Leveraging funds from the city budget, CARES Act, and a FEMA grant, TFD rose to the occasion, procuring the necessary equipment to keep vaccines at appropriate temperatures. And leveraging its strong relationship with the Adams 12 School District, the department secured the use of the Adams 12 School Administration building – and the participation of school district staff and volunteers – to conduct vaccine clinics indoors on Saturdays, streamlining operations to provide 4,000 vaccines a day.

Thornton Fire’s response to the public health emergency presented by the COVID-19 pandemic flowed naturally from their mission to mitigate the public safety needs of the community. For decades, fire departments have recognized the importance of fire prevention as a part of fire response. Thornton Fire Department also sees prevention as a key part of health care response, and it is their goal to play as much of a role in preventing 911 calls as they do in answering them.

Thornton Fire’s exceptional work was acknowledged by the Congressional Fire Services Institute who presented the department with their Excellence in Fire Service-Based EMS Award in April 2021. The award is presented to fire and emergency services departments for innovation in the delivery of emergency medical services.

It is simply not possible to overstate the invaluable service the Thornton Fire Department is providing to people in Thornton – and many outside of our city limits. Providing emergency medical services in a community of nearly 150,000 people is challenging even in normal circumstances. But when you take into account the challenges this pandemic has created, it is even more impressive to see what the TFD has accomplished.

Mayor Jan Kulmann

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