Rio Rancho Fire Rescue Department Lt. Travis Locher demonstrates new equipment to help the disinfect potentially contaminated surfaces. Photo by Roberto Rosales, Albuquerque Journal.

Rio Rancho firefighters are finding new, more efficient ways to disinfect their equipment and living quarters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rio Rancho Fire and Rescue firefighters and emergency medical providers use personal protective equipment (PPE) to keep them and members of the public safe as they take care of patients. After they return to the station, response-team members must remain in PPE while they use diluted bleach to wipe down the surfaces in the back of the ambulance to kill germs, according to a news release from the department.

“Following the lead of several fire departments in other states, most notably Tulsa (Okla.) Fire Department, RRFR is developing a method to use self-contained breathing apparatus to create a light mist of a disinfectant to spray on surfaces inside the ambulance, on emergency equipment and even inside of their station’s living quarters,” according to the release.

Firefighters use older breathing apparatus designated for training only due to lacking the most current safety features. Then they add an air hose and an inexpensive paint sprayer from the hardware store.

With the device, they can finish decontamination in a fraction of the time, according to the release.

“We are very excited that we have found this solution to help us during this health crisis,” said Fire Chief Paul Bearce. “I am proud of our personnel for looking to our colleagues in Tulsa to find creative methods to address some of the challenges facing our department.”

Also, firefighters are working to get the ability to produce hypochlorous acid, a strong disinfectant approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to kill bacteria and viruses within minutes.

Bearce said the electrostatically charged salt-water solution isn’t toxic to humans, is more powerful than bleach, is inexpensive and won’t damage the department’s equipment. It’s routinely used in drinking-water systems and food preparation.

He said firefighters would initially dissolve tablets purchased from a janitorial supply vendor in water to create the solution. The department has ordered appliances to make the solution, and Bearce plans to issue a set of equipment to each fire station.

“It looks like a drinking-water pitcher and plugs in to an electrical outlet,” he said of the appliance. “We will mix water and non-iodized salt, and in eight minutes have the solution to use.”

The time saved decontaminating equipment will keep crews more available for emergencies, according to the release.

Meanwhile, Bearce said the department’s call volume has remained steady during the pandemic, although calls involving flu-like symptoms have increased. He also said the community’s outpouring of appreciation has been heart-warming for crews.

“The biggest help is in the area of PPE to help keep our crews safe,” Bearce said. “The hand-sewn face masks are being used when we are out in the community. The folks who have spent time making these for firefighters and other essential city employees are invaluable.”