STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - French fire crews accustomed to attending road traffic accidents and putting out fires are adapting to a new line of work -- first responders in the fight against coronavirus.
With the French healthcare system under massive strain from the numbers of people sick with the virus, firefighters are being asked to help more than usual.
In the region around Strasbourg in eastern France -- site of one the biggest coronavirus clusters in the country -- fire crews are despatched to people's homes if there is a suspicion they may be suffering from coronavirus.
That takes the burden off regular ambulance crews, particular in transporting critical cases to hospitals with spare beds.
The number of callouts for suspected coronavirus cases has "increased exponentially", said Laurent Tritsch, chief doctor for the fire service in the Lower Rhine region around Strasbourg.
French firefighters normally play a role in supporting the ambulance service, but with coronavirus that part of their work has become the main focus.
Of the 180 callouts firefighters in the Lower Rhine region deal with on average each day, 100 are related to coronavirus, said Patrice Gerber, deputy director of the region's fire service.
One evening last week, a crew was despatched to the home of a possible coronavirus patient in a Strasbourg suburb.
They put on masks, gloves and surgical gowns before driving to the address.
An elderly man wearing a surgical mask, unsteady on his feet, came out of the house and clambered onto a stretcher in the back of the firefighters' vehicle.
A crew member took the man's temperature and called out the reading: 37.5 Celsius (99.5 Fahrenheit).
"Have you had any respiratory difficulty?," one of the crew asked, before fitting the patient with an oxygen tube.
As darkness fell, the crew delivered the patient to the accident and emergency department at Strasbourg's Civil Hospital.
Firefighters are aware of the risks. Thirty in the region are confirmed coronavirus cases, and another 60 are considered probable or possible cases.
"A firelighter is not a superhuman. It's someone who is also worried about their health, the health of their family," said Gerber, the regional deputy head.
But he said they were getting the job done.
"It's about 30 years since I've been in this profession, and with every major event it surprises me how the fire service in general, on the national level, is able to mobilize itself."
(Reporting by Christian Hartmann; Writing by Christian Lowe, editing by Ed Osmond)