Prank Ebola Call Sparks Concerns From First Responders

A call to the Chicago Fire Department about a potential Ebola case in downtown Chicago turned out to be a prank, officials say, but it exposed a very real problem as some first responders say they are not confident in their equipment if a legitimate Ebola emergency should happen in Chicago, NBC 5 Investigates has learned.

The Level One Hazmat call came out just before 9 p.m. Thursday night. First responders thought they were responding to a patient with Ebola and suited up.

Some of the responders wore disposable N95 respirator masks, but most used military-style, full face masks, called Millenniums.

“They hadn’t been fit tested for the N95, so by putting on the Millennium they thought they would have a better fit,” said Paramedic Field Chief Patrick Fitzmaurice.

A prior NBC 5 Investigation revealed that Chicago Fire Department first responders have never been fit tested for their N95 respirator masks, despite OSHA requirements. Chicago fire officials now say all employees will go through fit testing – starting next week with paramedics first.

“We’re getting a lot of mixed messages about what is proper precaution and you know essentially if you contract this it’s essentially a death sentence, so they’re very concerned about it,” said Fitzmaurice.

First responders are not the only ones getting mixed messages.

“The issue is the guidance is evolving,” said Julie Morita, chief medical officer with the Chicago Department of Public Health.

The CDPH met with emergency medical providers today to go over existing guidelines.

“We recommend people use gloves, a face shield or glasses, those kinds of things,” she said.

Not all of the first responders at Thursday’s Ebola call had the same protective equipment. Some even wrapped towels around their neck in an effort to protect themselves.

“Not every ambulance has protective gear,” said Fitzmaurice.

Officials believe the bogus Ebola call likely won’t be the last.

“Just like Anthrax after 911 we’ll see a spike in those kinds of calls," Fitzmaurice said. "A lot of people are going to be concerned, so yeah we’ll probably see a spike in them.”

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