North Memorial Ambulance turns to Ghostbusters-like backpack to disinfect rigs

The backpack gear Alex Trembley is wearing might normally be used to spread fertilizer. Instead, he's spraying a disinfectant solution for a rig.

As supplies become harder to come by, ambulance crews like other health care workers are having to figure out alternatives.

North Memorial Ambulance Service is among those struggling to get needed supplies. But, as the agency faced a shortage of a product to disinfect gear, Alex Trembley, the service's quality supervisor, used some ingenuity.

"We used to use these wipes that you see in hospitals, nursing homes, and clinics," he said. "But they’re getting harder and harder to come by. So we have to think a little differently in an ambulance. That’s what we’re good at."

With emergency responders on the very frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic, staying safe and healthy is the top priority. That includes sanitizing rigs after every call and every patient transport -- even when supplies are tough to find.

"It feels a bit like the calm before the storm," he said. "And we’re ready for it when it happens."

North didn’t provide specific numbers, but Trembley explained, pre-pandemic, their top three calls were for chest pain, abdominal pain and, traumatic injury. Now, respiratory distress has joined that list.

To help prep for the predicted coronavirus surge that’s expected to strike Minnesota in weeks, Trembley recently devised a sanitizing apparatus that’s more Ghostbusters than the typical gear his EMTs are used to donning.

"The crews like it," he said. "It looks science fiction-y."

It’s a battery-powered pack that might typically be used to spray fertilizer or pesticides. Instead North Memorial is using an ethanol-based sanitizing concoction courtesy of several area distilleries -- most notably 11 Wells Spirits in Saint Paul.

"It’s made from the leftover products of making liquor," Trembley said. "80 percent ethanol, so it’s a high concentration of ethanol. Almost double what’s in Lysol can."

The early reviews are glowing. North now has 19 backpack units in circulation for its fleet. While a slightly gentler product, that’s also donated, is used to keep the driver compartment and electronics safe in the front of the ambulance.