PITTSFIELD — For nearly 25 years, the cases of half-face respirators stored in the basement at Pittsfield Fire Department headquarters were all but forgotten.

City Fire Chief Tom Sammons wasn't sure why the department bought the personal protective equipment in 1996, but the 100 pieces of PPE were never used.

They were finally put to good use after the coronavirus pandemic reached the Berkshires in March.

"We were scratching our heads about how we were going to address PPE for our first responders — at the beginning the sky was falling," Sammons said.

Headquarters' firefighters soon stumbled across the respirators, tucked away in the basement. Designed to cover the nose and mouth, Sammons says the respirators have a P100 rating, a higher level of protection than the N95 surgical masks.

They are now standard issue for the Pittsfield's nearly 90 firefighters and fire department officers, thanks to COVID-19.

"We're assuming every call we respond to has someone who is COVID positive," the chief said.

The global outbreak that has killed more than 300,000 people and infected millions more has changed how city firefighters handle fires, car accidents, medical emergencies and other 911 calls.

Sammons said response protocol now includes:

- The 911 operator asking the caller if a suspected COVID-19 person is involved.

- If so, first responders are equipped with a Tyvek suit, half-face respirator or N95 mask, and face shield.

- Decontamination of fire personnel and equipment is made upon return to the station.

- Firefighters store their N95 masks in brown paper lunch bags between shifts.

"Everything we do at the station has also changed," Sammons noted. "We have installed washers and dryers at each station to clean our uniforms, so they never go home."

Additional station protocol involves:

- More intense cleaning and disinfecting of each station.

- Taking the temperature of firefighters before they start their shifts

- Limit the number of people allowed to enter each station, who must wear a PPE mask at all times.

- The department's civilian staff work from home as often as possible.

As the pandemic hit its stride locally, the fire department turned to the newly christened Berkshire Innovative Center for added protection against the coronavirus.

City fire officials asked BIC's staff about reverse engineering a commercial self-contained breathing apparatus or scuba face mask adapter so it can use off-the-shelf P100, P95 and N95 filter cartridges when the firefighters respond to COVID 19 emergency calls. Sammons said that the project remains a work in progress.

"[BIC] has been great working with us to address our PPE concerns. They are still working on the adapter for our face pieces and getting it inspected and tested," he said.

Dick Lindsay can be reached at rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com.