Responders brace for coronavirus Police, VFDs take precautions to safeguard others, themselves

March 25, 2020 Cranberry Local News


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For police officers and other first-responders, public safety is the top priority. Nothing will change that — not even the coronavirus.

“If someone’s house is on fire or if there’s a vehicle accident, there’s not a whole lot we can do differently,” said Nathan Wulff, an assistant chief with the Unionville Volunteer Fire Department.

Essentially, the same goes for police departments. Police have a job to do. No matter what.

“I tell my guys to take all the precautions they can,” said Butler Police Chief Bob O’Neill. “But there’s not a lot of precautions we can take.”

He said the department is trying to adhere to guidelines put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, such as practicing social distancing.

But that can only go so far when officers have to make an arrest, particularly of an unruly or violent suspect, or disburse a crowd.

Being on the front lines, O’Neill said, means putting oneself in harm’s way.

“We’re like nurses,” he said. “We’re out there.”

One change police in Jackson Township have implemented was to stop sending officers on routine ambulance calls.

“We now run on ambulance calls if it’s life-threatening and we can be of use,” said Jackson Township Police Chief Terry Seilhamer. “If it’s non-life threatening, we don’t respond unless we’re requested by ambulance personnel on scene.”

The change, he said, is an effort to reduce the possibly of exposure to both citizens and officers.

It’s also business as usual for state police, in the wake of COVID-19.

“At this point, there has been no change to (state police) field operations,” said Trooper Jim Long, a public information officer at Troop D Butler.

But, he acknowledged, that could change, particularly if the virus spreads. Plans are in place to shift resources as necessary to meet operational needs.

“This may involve shifting manpower from other stations and/or troops to support a station experiencing a staffing shortage due to illness, temporarily re-assigning members in specialty positions to meet staffing needs and/or changing the way we respond to certain non-emergency calls,” Long said.

For now, state police, like their brothers and sisters in other departments, are following state Department of Health and CDC guidelines as well as possible.

“We are reminding our members to follow the same types of best practices as the general public: Wash their hands, keep work spaces clean and stay home if they feel ill,” Long said.

The health department and CDC guidelines are sort of like the Bible to ambulance staff.

“We’re trying to observe all their recommendations,” said Doreen Taggart, who oversees the ambulance service as medical officer of the Slippery Rock Volunteer Fire Company and Rescue Team.

She characterized the guidelines as “heightened” precautions.

“I tell my people they need to get factual information from two venues — the CDC and the Department of Health,” said Doug Dick, paramedic and EMS chief for the Mercer County-based Superior Ambulance Service, which provides service to 30 municipalities in parts of Butler, Mercer, Lawrence and Venango counties.

He also gives them one other piece of advice: “Turn off CNN. Stop listening to the news.”

Among the health department and CDC recommendations for law enforcement:

If possible, maintain a distance of at least 6 feet.

Practice proper hand hygiene. Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water are not readily available and illicit drugs are not suspected to be present, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.

Do not touch your face with unwashed hands.

Have a trained emergency medical service/emergency medical technician assess and transport anyone you think might have COVID-19 to a health care facility.

Ensure only trained personnel wearing appropriate personal protective equipment have contact with individuals who have or may have COVID-19.

In the event police officers must make contact with individuals confirmed or suspected to have COVID-19, the CDC urges they follow its Interim Guidance for EMS. That guidance also applies to other first-responders, including fire services, emergency medical services and emergency management.

Recommended personal protective equipment follows:

A single pair of disposable examination gloves.

Disposable isolation gown or single-use/disposable coveralls.

A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-approved particulate respirator.

Eye protection (goggles or disposable face shield that fully covers the front and sides of the face).

The guidelines also provide instructions for containing and laundering clothes, and cleaning equipment.

“If everybody does what they’re trained to do and they follow these guidelines,” Dick said, “they’ll be fine.”

Another added level of protection for first-responders is coming from a new protocol established at the county’s 911 center. Dispatchers are ramping up their screenings of callers to identify potential cases of COVID-19.

That change was explained in a March 13 email sent by Rob McLafferty, county 911 coordinator, to fire, police and ambulance officials.

“In order for us to keep the public safe,” McLafferty said, “we have to keep our providers safe.”

The new screenings kick in when a 911 call comes in for someone with conditions of generalized sickness or respiratory distress.

“That prompts additional questions,” McLafferty said. As part of the added vetting, dispatchers inquire if anyone involved recently traveled out of the country and has flu-like symptoms such as cough, fever or respiratory trouble.

The information is relayed to EMS as a possible COVID-19 case, giving first-responders a heads up about what they could be walking into.

A “suspected coronavirus code,” McLafferty said, will automatically be sent to fire and EMS via text or 911-style messages and to police via mobile data terminals.

“In the interest of not causing public panic,” the March 13 email said, “any suspected case will not be given over the air, but instead be given to responders via phone.”

While there has been no confirmed case of COVID-19 in Butler County as of Tuesday, all the first-responders who participated in this story said they’re ready for whatever comes their way, based on their training and experience and the support of colleagues and other agencies.

And they’re not panicked or worried.

“If you’re going to be scared,” Seilhamer said, “you shouldn’t be in this business.”

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