The highly contagious coronavirus has forced police and fire departments, often the most public-facing of city services, to change the way they interact with the public.
Whether it's disinfecting police cars and ambulances or limiting in-person response to serious crimes, departments across the region are adapting to keep their members safe.
For St. Louis Fire Chief Dennis Jenkerson, a family trip to Italy in late October indirectly led to an early awareness of the coronavirus.
“About a week, 10 days after we got back, Venice flooded, and it was disheartening to see all the beautiful places that we had visited underwater,” Jenkerson said. “So I was still staying in touch with what was going on in Italy. And then you saw some of the rumors about a virus in China, then the virus is here, so I continued to track it. Basically by staying up with the world events, we were watching this, and it started ballooning pretty quickly.”
On Jan. 24, despite there being just one confirmed case of the virus in the United States, Jenkerson sent a health alert to the department’s nearly 800 employees. It contained a list of symptoms and preliminary instructions on protecting the patients and themselves.
The Northeast Ambulance and Fire Protection District, which serves 17 municipalities around the University of Missouri-St. Louis, also started paying attention in January.
“We were actually monitoring the impact on the hospitals and seeing the uptick in our call load and the symptoms that people were displaying,” said Chief Quinten Randolph. “So that raised the eyebrows to, ‘we need to raise up the level of PPE,’” or personal protective equipment.
In Randolph’s department, all medical calls require masks and gloves. On calls for shortness of breath, or to an address with a known coronavirus case, gowns are worn as well. The St. Louis Fire Department goes a step further, requiring full protective gear on all medical calls.
“We’re also not being as touchy-feely,” Jenkerson said. “Part of what we do, if someone is injured or in a car accident, just that simple touch has a comforting effect. We can’t do that now.”
The virus has also lengthened the time it takes for a crew to get back in service after a medical call.
“We have to disinfect and put a germicide on all the ambulances after every call,” Jenkerson said. “We fog the fire trucks that have been on medical calls. It’s a priority before you come back in service to decontaminate and fog the trucks.”
Northeast Ambulance and Fire crews that respond to a potential COVID-19 case shower and change their uniforms.
“We tell them to decontaminate their uniforms here at the fire department in the decontamination room, and we try to get the unit back in service within 30 minutes after the call,” Randolph said.
Police departments have adapted as well. Officers are wearing masks and gloves, and the cars are being professionally disinfected on a regular basis. Many departments are taking more reports over the phone, only responding in person to calls for serious crimes like assaults and homicides.
In St. Louis County, the dispatch center moves to its alternate site every weekend so the primary location can be thoroughly disinfected.
‘Our supply is stable’
By now, the story of the Illinois assistant comptroller who drove a $3.5 million check to a meeting with a supplier in the parking lot of a McDonald's 80 miles outside of Chicago in order to secure masks for the state is well known. Locally, departments have not had to go to such extreme measures.
“Our PPE right now is at a pretty good level,” Jenkerson said. “When we started ramping up around February, I was fairly comfortable with where we were at with our inventory and our stockpiles.”
Monarch Fire Protection District Chief Cary Spiegel agreed.
“At this point in time, our supply is stable,” he said of the district in west St. Louis County. “But we are always addressing our vendors as well as the St. Louis County health department — they have a logistics department in that operation as well.”
Keeping those supply levels up has not been cheap. For example, St. Louis spent $1.2 million on April 3 alone for 220,000 masks. Labor lawyer Will Aitchison, who specializes in public safety workplace issues, applauds the departments for making the effort.
Federal workplace safety laws require employers to do what is reasonable to maintain a safe workplace, he said. During the pandemic, that would include things like providing masks and other protective equipment. But state and local governments are exempt from those laws unless they voluntarily adopt them.
The toll of COVID-19
The virus has not devastated the region’s police and fire departments in the way it has in cities like New York and Chicago. But there have been cases here. A St. Louis police officer spent more than three weeks in a hospital. Two of Randolph’s men got sick — one seriously enough to be hospitalized.
“I had to come in and have crew meetings and let everybody know that this particular individual has succumbed to this illness and he’s now in the ICU on a vent,” Randolph said. “It’s shocking when you’re the one delivering the care.”
That employee is now at home recovering, Randolph said, adding that he’s been able to keep up the necessary staffing levels despite exposures.
“That keeps me up at night,” he said. “One or two guys being exposed, and us not knowing about it, could possibly wipe out a whole shift. If I had to quarantine a whole shift, that would really devastate our operations and also put stress on our mutual aid companies.”
Jenkerson has also managed to keep overtime costs down. Firefighters who have paramedic or emergency medical technician licenses are picking up shifts on ambulances. When calls for service numbers began spiking the second week of March, Jenkerson canceled the vacations of command staff who have paramedic licenses.
Randolph and other chiefs have to walk a delicate line when it comes to informing their men and women about a positive case in the department, said Marcia McCormick, a law professor at St. Louis University. Federal laws place strict limits on what medical information can be shared. But controlling the spread of COVID-19 requires people who may have been exposed to isolate.
“They should probably limit the information they share with people who would have come in contact with that individual, or the space that that individual was in,” McCormick said. “For example, it’s not important for me to know that someone in a building that I don’t work in tested positive for the virus.”
The availability of that information became an issue within the St. Louis police department, where a number of officers in the traffic division tested positive. The city has a strict policy of not releasing specifics to the public — but officers claimed the information was not being made available to members of the department, either.
“When someone tests positive, we’re not asking for their name, we’re not asking for their date of birth — all we are wanting is to know what division and what day, that’s it,” said Heather Taylor the president of the Ethical Society of Police, during an appearance on St. Louis on the Air in April. “We want to know what hazard will it put us in; did we come in contact with someone in that division? If we work in homicide, did we come in contact with someone who’s in traffic safety, for instance, which had some of the very first positive cases for COVID-19?”
Missouri is one of a few states that have made it easier for first responders who come down with COVID-19 to get workers’ compensation. But that doesn’t help with the mental health aspect, Aitchison said.
“You’ve seen elevated suicide rates for law enforcement and firefighters, before the pandemic, you’ll see it after the pandemic, and it is our role as their employers to make sure they get not just the treatment that they need but the education that they need in order to be more resilient in these circumstances,” he said.
Adding to the anxiety is the pressure that the pandemic is putting on state and local budgets. For now, Randolph isn’t too worried.
“We know that later on down the road there may be some budgetary issues, but at the same time there are some budgetary items that were frozen, so we can reallocate funds,” he said.
Spiegel said Monarch is prepared to balance its budget by “whatever means we need to take to make that happen.”
Jenkerson also expects to avoid cuts, but knows he likely won’t get any more in his budget than he did last year.
He said first responders are used to adapting as new threats emerge. He remembers SARS and H1N1. But COVID-19 is unique in the way that it has essentially shut down society.
“Let’s stay the course. I think we can make it through,” he said. “St. Louis is a resilient town. We see it with the people we’re responding to.”
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