The Los Angeles County Fire Department is likely to adopt a policy to protect firefighters from communicable diseases following the exposure of four rescuers Sunday to a man with AIDS, fire officials say.
Capt. Gordon Pearson, county Fire Department spokesman, said the department probably will ensure that firefighters in emergencies have equipment for reviving people without coming into physical contact with them.
The equipment would be used even in a hard-to-reach location, as was the case Sunday when firefighters unsuccessfully attempted to revive a man whose car plunged 200 feet over a cliff in Topanga Canyon, Pearson said. One of the firefighters administered mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
The county coroner's office identified the dead man as Mark Edwin Pennington, 33, of Echo Park. Police are investigating the possibility that, because he had AIDS, Pennington intentionally drove off Topanga Canyon Boulevard about three miles north of Pacific Coast Highway.
Incident Prompts Meeting
Pearson said the county may recommend that firefighters handling badly injured accident victims always use protective devices, such as air-bag and mechanical respirators, even if there is no indication that the patient has Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome or another communicable disease.
Sunday's incident prompted a meeting Tuesday between county Fire Chief John Englund and Larry Simcoe, president of Los Angeles County Firefighters Local 1014.
Simcoe said that the union, in order to avoid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, wants all fire vehicles to be equipped with the portable, lightweight air bags for reviving people who have stopped breathing.
The device, which would be part of emergency packs rescuers carry into remote areas, includes a mask that fits over the victim's mouth and nose and is connected by a tube to an air bag that is used to force air into the victim.
The weekend incident could have a "tremendous impact in the station houses," Simcoe said. "You have guys asking, 'How far do I expose myself to assist the public?' "
But Pearson said life-saving measures would not be hampered by a new policy.
"We're not going to reduce the level of service to the public," Pearson said. "We just don't want to come away from an accident with our own victims. As soon as we leave here, we have our own lives and families."
"In no way is a person infected with a communicable disease not going to be treated by the L. A. County Fire Department," Pearson said.
He said a mechanical respirator is used when available but that the county has no formal policy on how to protect fire personnel from contracting communicable diseases.
Fire officials said Sunday's rescue was the first known incident in which county firefighters had treated an AIDS victim with mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. The firemen did not know Pennington had AIDS, a disease that cripples the body's immune system, until a coroner's official found a card listing an AIDS clinic in his wallet.
When confirmation came through Pennington's doctor several hours later that he had AIDS and hepatitis B, another communicable disease, the firefighters went to Santa Monica Hospital for shots to protect them against hepatitis B.
Medical experts on AIDS said the firefighters run little or no risk of getting the disease. They said research indicates AIDS is transmitted only through a significant exchange of bodily fluids, such as blood or semen.
Fire Capt. Jon Galiher, who led the rescue effort and handled the victim, said Shawn Corbeil, the firefighter who gave Pennington mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, "is very concerned, but he's handling it like any professional."
Corbeil, 32, is married, has two children and has worked for the department for about 18 months, Galiher said.
Officials said Corbeil will be checked periodically by the county Health Department for signs of AIDS. His blood will be tested, and he will be examined for any breakdown of his immune system or physical symptoms associated with the onset of AIDS, such as swelling lymph nodes, weight loss and fever, said Dr. Betty Agee, chief of acute communicable disease control for the county Health Department.
If the AIDS antibody should be detected in Corbeil's blood, it would mean he had been exposed to the AIDS virus but not necessarily that he would contract the disease, Agee said.