First responders on the front lines; How departments are dealing with social interaction and COVID-19

Composite image using background image courtesy of the Cedar City Police Department and overlay images by Prathaan and Fotomay/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — As offices, agencies and business close throughout the state in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s only so much officers and firefighters can do to socially distance themselves from the public, and protecting the community often outweighs their concerns over personal safety.

2019 file photo of Washington City Police responding to a robbery on Red Hills Drive, Washington City, Utah, Feb. 21, 2019 | Photo courtesy of the Washington City Police Department, St. George News

While more than 158 million Americans were told to stay home as businesses and agencies closed shop in an effort to halt the spread of the virus, there are police officers and firefighters working on the front lines providing support to their communities. And as the outbreak grows, so does the danger to Utah’s first responders.

As police officers and firefighters continue in their essential role, it has left fire and police departments scrambling to put measures in place that ensure they can continue to work without getting sick.

Agencies throughout Washington and Iron counties have implemented operational changes that have limited non-emergent services to the public as a way to minimize the risk of exposure for both the public and first responders. Many have closed the front offices and are conducting business by appointment only.

That still leaves officers on patrol and responding to calls, which in turn means they are interacting with the public. As such, departments across Southern Utah are taking steps to keep their officers healthy so they can maintain staffing levels to preserve public safety.

The St. George Police Department is handling citizen reports by telephone when appropriate and are encouraging the public to file police reports online whenever possible. The online form can be accessed here, and instructions to complete the form can be found on the department’s Facebook page.

A St. George Police Vehicle at the scene of an accident on South 200 East in St. George, Utah, Jan. 29, 2020 | Photo by Chris Reed, St. George News

As far as police officers themselves, they are “doing well so far,” St. George Police Officer Tiffany Atkin said, adding they are taking extra steps by using personal protective equipment to stay healthy.

In Washington City, the police department is still being staffed by city personnel who are providing services by appointment only as the front office is closed until conditions change, Washington City Police Chief Jason Williams said.

On the law enforcement side, officers are conducting business as usual and responding to calls as before, but like St. George, have been outfitted with protective gear to reduce the risk of becoming infected.

Williams also said the department has made schedule changes to ensure they have enough officers on a particular squad should multiple officers become infected from the illness if it spreads from one officer to another.

“We have made those changes to ensure we have enough officers to serve the community, even if we are several officers down,” Williams said.

On the personal side, he said, officers have concerns since they are at a higher risk, particularly in light of the fact that social distancing is virtually impossible in certain situations. But they also know they have a job to do and are responding to calls without hesitation.

“Officers are human just like everyone else,” Williams said. “But we still have a job to do, so we will continue responding to calls and protecting the public regardless.”

File photo of a collision between a semitractor and a Jeep near mile marker 48 on northbound Interstate 15, Iron County, Utah, Feb. 10, 2020 | Photo by Jeff Richards, St. George News / Cedar City News

To the north, the Cedar City Police Department has made some changes, including having officers call the reporting parties on non-emergency reports, and is one of the departments conducting business by appointment only, including property pickups and other non-emergent business.

As far as concerns within the ranks, Cedar City Police Sgt. Clint Pollock voiced similar concerns since the officers are not in a position to exercise social distancing in many situations.

“Even with those concerns, they are still ready and willing and are out there doing their jobs,” Pollock said.

In Iron County, administrative offices are still open but some non-emergency services have been suspended, including fingerprinting services and so on. Jail visitations have also been suspended for the time being, Iron County Sheriff Lt. Del Schlosser said.

The agency is working on launching an online reporting process that should be up in a week or so to make it easier for the public to access additional services using their computer.

As for the deputies, he said, “They are committed to serving the public and are still responding to calls.”

He also said, like many others, the main concern for many of the deputies is that they’ll bring it home.

Keeping the more than 120 volunteer and career firefighters serving in St. George safe falls on the shoulders of Fire Chief Robert Stoker, who said that generally, firefighters have a higher risk of exposure to the illness as they respond to emergency calls, many of which require social closeness during rescues or when treating the injured in a car crash, for example.

A battalion of engines, a heavy rescue truck, ambulance and Ladder 21 respond to a residential structure fire off of Mall Drive, St. George, Utah, March 24, 2020 | File photo by Cody Blowers, St. George News

With that in mind, extra precautions have been implemented department-wide, he said, such as sanitizing each fire station at the end of a shift, wearing protective gear and practicing social distancing between one another whenever possible.

“There’s only so much we can do to keep these guys safe, but we are taking whatever precautions are necessary while still responding to emergency calls and so on.”

The St. George Fire Department has also suspended all non-emergent activities as well, like inspections and fire station tours, he said.

A consistent concern among agencies is that emergency personnel will take the virus home to their families. But, regardless, they remain committed to protecting the public and doing their job.

Every agency contacted is also taking extra precautions to protect their officers and firefighters for the time being by following the guidelines specific to first responders as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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