Nearly two months into stay-at-home orders, government officials and public health experts are releasing plans to reopen the economy. Business owners have begun to grapple with the new normal of COVID-19 and the difficult task of keeping workers safe while letting them return to their jobs. But for many first responders, this new normal is already a reality.
According to the International Association of Fire Chiefs, as of May 3 over 13,000 first responders have been exposed to the coronavirus and over 12,000 have been quarantined as a result. And as stay-at-home orders loosen and people across the country return to work, the risks to first responders continue to increase.
Exposures and quarantines have led to shortages of public health and law enforcement workers, keeping resources stretched thin on the frontlines of the pandemic response. Many departments are exploring new tools to get the most out of their limited resources while maintaining social distancing.
Flattening the curve: The key to pandemic resilience
Social distancing, or physical distancing between people in order to minimize risk of transmitting the virus, has become a core component of the fight against COVID-19. Experts argue that by minimizing unnecessary physical contact, we can flatten the curve. This means that we can slow the rate of infection and prevent mass spikes in hospitalizations that surpass the nation’s medical capacity.
First responders play a unique role as both potential vectors of, and necessary checks against, the COVID-19 virus. Whether it’s firefighters responding to a gas leak or a paramedic administering an IV, some amount of physical contact is a necessary part of the job for most first responders. And yet, quick and effective incident response is often the only thing standing between a new crisis and lives saved.
As we enter the next phase of pandemic preparedness for the United States, it is now a necessity that we find new ways to keep first responders safe. Below are some tools and tactics that public safety agencies have implemented to maximize social distancing while providing the most important services for protecting the public.
- Targeted personnel deployment: Each moment of contact between a first responder and a member of the public presents a potential point of transmission; because of this, some departments have explored new incident response procedures to help flatten the curve. According to KSL-TV, the Salt Lake City, Utah Fire Department has altered 911 responses so that, when possible, a single responder will enter a caller’s home while the rest of their team provides support. This, in addition to new screening questions, has allowed for more careful use of limited personal protective equipment while decreasing infection rates throughout the department.
- Flexible officer assignments: First responders have a particularly high risk of exposure from the coronavirus due to the nature of their work, but often still have to deal with limited testing capacity to verify infections. Departments across the Seacoast region in New Hampshire have responded by directing officers to take on more flexible role assignments, according to Seacoast Media Group, with supervising officers doing more public-facing and patrol work. In doing so, these departments have been able to minimize staffing requirements, allowing for greater time off after potential exposures and mitigating the damage of future staff shortages.
- Remote incident reporting for citizens: In addition to altering procedures for first responders, some agencies are asking their local communities to adapt their interactions with responders as well. As Seacoast Media Group reports, the Rochester Police Department launched an online crime reporting website. This, in turn, allowed Rochester to shut down their dispatch site for everyone except for the center’s supervisor and the dispatchers themselves, reducing the risk of contaminating a key piece of the city’s public safety infrastructure.
- Personnel tracking and self-screening: Due to staff and resource shortages, most public safety agencies face difficulty providing medical screenings for on-call first responders. However, understanding the infection status of responders plays an important role in minimizing further exposures. Some departments in Citrus County, Florida have expanded their personnel tracking efforts to account for this. As reported by the Citrus County Chronicle, emergency service personnel are asked to answer a questionnaire of potential symptoms before beginning each shift. Department leaders can use this information to enforce self-isolation and catch potential infections as they arise.
- Cross-agency communication: While individual departments have created new policies to adapt to the coronavirus, some are exploring the potentials of inter-departmental collaboration for maintaining social distancing. In an article for FireRescue1, social worker Katherine Herrian describes how communicating with local EMS and fire departments in her region has allowed her to provide more targeted preventative care and reduce the volume of 911 calls. In fact, Herrian believes the value of collaboration expands beyond flattening the curve: “The community collaboration has been essential and has made me hopeful that post-pandemic we will collectively continue to lean on each other to better serve patients.”
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By Trevor Greenan. Questions? Get in touch at email@example.com.