By Jeff Todd

THORNTON, COLO. (CBS4) – As the pandemic raged for the past year and a half, the Thornton Fire Department has been one of the more ambitious organizations in the Denver metro area pushing the limits of what a fire department can do for the community.

“In EMS, our backs were against the wall. There wasn’t a lot we could do for people. We really wanted to give our citizens a better service,” said Capt. Theo Gonzales with the Thornton Fire Department. “We really got to thinking, we got to innovating and then we got a lot of support.”

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Tuesday night the department was given an award by the Congressional Fire Services Institute for excellence in its pandemic response.

Thornton Fire has transformed its response during the pandemic. During some 911 calls, a paramedic works with a doctor through telehealth to see if a patient can stay home and avoid a costly trip to the emergency room.

“When they may just need a prescription, and they don’t need to be exposed to all those things at the hospital, we can just treat them really in their own home. They don’t have to go anywhere, and they can still see a doctor,” Gonzales said.

When testing wasn’t widely available, the department set up a community testing site just a few months into the pandemic. The model was used again when vaccines became available. In total more than 20,000 tests were administered, and more than 80,000 vaccine doses were given out by the fire department.

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“We’re really proud of that work, and we think it really helped mitigate the pandemic and we’re continuing to do it,” said Gonzales.

The department even worked with a new kind of vital signs monitor, from Masimo, to monitor COVID patients who had close ties to the department, either firefighters, staff, or their family members. It’s credited with likely saving one man’s life.

“In early pneumonia’s that O2 saturation drops pretty markedly. That’s before people have signs and symptoms,” Gonzalez said. “We were able to catch that pneumonia very early. We were able to get him in, get him treated, and he had a great outcome.”

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Gonzales is quick to credit the department’s leadership and quick actions by the City of Thornton to allow the department to experiment with new ideas and ways to treat the community. He says partnership with Tri-County Health and other organizations were essential in getting many new programs set up.

Now other fire agencies around the country are taking notice and trying to use Thornton as a model.

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“We’re really excited to keep mitigating the pandemic and really hopefully be a model for what that intersection looks like between public health and emergency medicine and fire rescue in the future,” Gonzales said.

Jeff Todd