How first responders have changed what they do in midst of COVID-19

  • Pingree Grove police Lt. Chris Harris runs through the contents of a personal protective equipment kit he and police Chief Shawn Beane put together amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The kit includes the nitrile gloves and protective eyewear he is holding as well as a surgical mask, full body cover-up and other items.

    Pingree Grove police Lt. Chris Harris runs through the contents of a personal protective equipment kit he and police Chief Shawn Beane put together amid the COVID-19 outbreak. The kit includes the nitrile gloves and protective eyewear he is holding as well as a surgical mask, full body cover-up and other items. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Pingree Grove police Lt. Chris Harris holds a surgical mask that's part of a personal protective equipment kit he and police chief Shawn Beane put together for squad cars in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak.

    Pingree Grove police Lt. Chris Harris holds a surgical mask that's part of a personal protective equipment kit he and police chief Shawn Beane put together for squad cars in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Mundelein firefighter/paramedic Brad Sashko demonstrates wearing a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and a mask with face shield.

    Mundelein firefighter/paramedic Brad Sashko demonstrates wearing a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and a mask with face shield. Courtesy of Mundelein Fire Department

  • Mundelein firefighter/paramedic Brad Sashko demonstrates wearing a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and a mask with face shield.

    Mundelein firefighter/paramedic Brad Sashko demonstrates wearing a disposable gown, gloves, eye protection, and a mask with face shield. Courtesy of Mundelein Fire Department

 
 
Updated 3/22/2020 10:59 AM

If you tried to visit your local police or fire station recently, you might have been disconcerted to find a locked front door.

Suburban cops and firefighters are making it clear -- they remain there to serve people and will continue to respond to emergencies during the COVID-19 pandemic. But they are also taking precautions to protect themselves, and the public, from the risk for transmission.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Our focus as fire chiefs and police chiefs is to protect our workforce so we don't lose a significant number of our workforce to have a significant impact on our operations," Lisle-Woodridge Fire Protection District Chief Keith Krestan said.

Arlington Heights Police Chief Nick Pecora echoed that. "That human contact that is unnecessary to our core services is being temporarily suspended, so we can reduce the possibility of transmission to our staff to ensure we have a healthy workforce to deliver services to the community."

Three firefighters in Highland Park and four firefighters in Elgin were placed in isolation in recent days due to exposure to patients who tested positive for the new coronavirus. And on Saturday, Aurora said a member of the police supervisory staff tested positive for COVID-19. The person is improving and expected to make a full recovery.

Fire department triage protocols have changed, with one crew member going in first to assess patients and see if they can walk outside on their own, fire officials said. Otherwise, the rest of the crew will follow, but that means using more protective equipment, which everyone wants to conserve as much as possible.

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Mundelein Fire Deputy Chief Darren Brents said firefighters are taking precautions for all calls, including things like sprained ankles. "We still assess them from a few feet away. If they are coughing or sneezing, we'll put a mask on them to protect the crew," he said.

Precautions also are in place for fire alarm responders, Krestan said. "We are limiting people going into buildings. If we don't have to have people in buildings or people's houses, we are not putting people in that position," he said.

Police departments' precautionary measures include stopping fingerprinting services for the public, taking nonemergency reports via phone or online, and letting people into the building based on urgency of the report -- a crime victim, yes, a person whose bike was stolen, not so much.

911 operators are asking health-related questions to screen people for symptoms of COVID-19, so first responders are prepared to take precautions such as wearing gloves and face masks.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Gurnee police have closed the 911 dispatch center to anyone except communications personnel, Det. Shawn Gaylor said. "The dispatchers, as much as the police officers and first responders from the fire department, they need to be there 24/7 to respond, so that's just as important," she said.

First responders are also practicing social distancing from each other.

In Naperville, police employees are asked to walk to each other's offices for work-related reasons only, and roll call is being done electronically because of the recommendation to avoid gatherings of more than 10 people, Cmdr. Mike Son said.

"In a first responder situation, you have to protect yourself and others, and you also don't want to go home and expose your own family," he said.

Firefighter/paramedics always have had personal protective equipment in ambulances. Now, police squad cars also are being outfitted with things like gloves, face masks and eye protection.

In Pingree Grove, police Lt. Chris Harris and Chief Shawn Beane spent a day assembling kits that also include rags, hand sanitizer, plastic and paper bags, and a disposable container for soiled materials.

Pingree Grove officers now respond to nonemergency calls by parking outside homes and using their cellphones to call residents, to either take a report by phone or initiate contact if necessary, Harris said. The goal is to reassure residents and prevent scammers from trying to take advantage of the coronavirus pandemic by impersonating officers, he said.

Police calls and traffic crashes have decreased in the last week after people started staying home and businesses closed to the public, suburban officials said.

In Arlington Heights, Metra commuter parking spaces had 7.6% occupancy on Wednesday, compared to up to 95% normally, Pecora said. There were 33 calls for service that day, compared to 65 on the same day a year ago.

Call volumes have dropped in Gurnee, too, Gaylor said. "A lot of people are holding back and taking this one day at a time, and dealing with their kids and handling things at home."

Gurnee cops will continue to patrol Gurnee Mills, which closed Thursday like other suburban malls, to make sure no thieves take advantage, Gaylor said.

There's been no increase so far in fire department calls because people are heeding the advice of calling their primary care providers if they have COVID-19 symptoms, fire officials said.

So how are fire responders handling things mentally? "It's stressful but we take it day by day," Harris said.

The psychological effect will increase over time, Brents said. "For the time being, our guys are in good spirits. Everybody is enjoying coming to work and everybody is serious about it."

In the end, it's about doing your job, Pecora said.

"It's kind of cliche, but this is what we signed up for. When something catastrophic happens, when somebody is having the worst day of their lives, they call 911. They call the police or the fire department," he said.

"(The COVID-19 outbreak) is a unique circumstance that requires extraordinary measures, and what's what we are trained to do."

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