While Wisconsinites are working from home, following Gov. Tony Evers’ Safer at Home order, firefighters, police officers and emergency medical technicians all must interact with the public as emergency responders.
Waunakee first responders have implemented several changes to their operations since the COVID-19 pandemic began to show up in Wisconsin to keep workers and volunteers safe.
“We’ve changed significantly in a number of ways,” said Waunakee Police Chief Kevin Plendl.
Police officers are avoiding taking offenders to jail, except for violent crime and some domestic-violence crimes.
Misdemeanor court dates in Waunakee’s Municipal Court have been extended. Police are offering no ride-alongs or fingerprinting.
No more than two officers are to be in the same room, and officers are now cleaning and sanitizing squad cars at the start and finish of every shift.
Ordinarily, police officers provide assistance for EMS calls, but now only respond when the call involves a criminal component or a pulseless non-breather, Plendl said.
“We will respond on standby unless requested by EMS. We would normally go on EMS calls all the time,” Plendl said.
Officers are also not stopping motorists for equipment violations, and when they do make traffic stops, they will not physically take a document but rather have the driver hold a driver’s license up to the window and take down the information, Plendl added.
Officers now have required personal protection equipment such as face masks and gloves. And when officers do respond, only one is typically sent. The idea is to limit contact as much as possible, Plendl said.
Fortunately, the volume of calls has significantly dropped, not only in Waunakee, but in Dane County altogether as most people are hunkering down at home. Plendl said he has never heard the dispatch as silent as it is now.
So far, one person has been brought to jail as a result of a domestic violence incident, but Plendl noted not every domestic incident call results in an arrest.
“There has been an uptick on that,” Plendl said about domestic violence calls. “We’ve been forewarned that mental health calls will go up.”
Waunakee emergency technicians have also changed their practices to limit exposure not only for their own safety but because EMTs who are exposed will be quarantined for 14-18 days.
“Masking up on every call is very important with community spread,” Scott Russell, Waunakee EMS director said.
If procedures involve aerosoling, such as using a nebulizer or CPAP machine, EMTs wear an N95 respirator mask, in accordance with the Centers for Disease Control guidelines.
Only two people now go on calls, with one treating the patient.
“With that, there has been a nice unexpected side to this. By reducing staff of ambulances, we have back-up staff a significant amount of the time,” Russell said.
Asked if the number of emergency calls has declined, Russell said the EMS normally sees peaks and valleys of calls, so he isn’t sure yet.
EMTs have responded to a COVID-19 call, and guidelines are in place for the responders depending on the type of treatment they have provided and level of exposure. EMTs are monitoring themselves every 12 hours.
EMS is also requesting less assistance from the fire and police departments.
“Me, personally, at EMS, we know we’re going to be putting ourselves in harm’s way. If we can find a way to safely prevent the police department and fire from risking themselves, so they can provide expertise to their departments, we’re going to do that,” Russell said.
At the Waunakee Fire Department, only one officer – a lieutenant or chief – will go out on calls with other volunteer firefighters, said Fire Chief Dave Kopp.
If a call related to a gas or carbon monoxide leak comes in, only one truck is sent. When responding to accidents, firefighters are wearing the N95 masks.
Firefighters are taking extra precautions with gloves, masks and gowns, Kopp added.
Many new practices are just common sense, he said, such as sanitizing door handles on trucks after runs.
“It’s a different world. There are different things you have to deal with and apply. This is not something we ever would have imagined,” Kopp said.