Researched and Written By Karen Rieser
(Featured Photo by Untappedcities.com)
First Responders: Fire, Police, in addition to EMS workers, are our first line of protection against the COVID-19 virus. As with 9-11, while others were running out of the Trade Towers, the first responders were running in. While most of us are hunkering down at home, first responders are out attending to emergencies, enforcing old and new laws, and getting persons medical attention. They are also protecting those who are essential to our survival, such as doctors, nurses, hospital personnel, shopkeepers, mail delivery systems, and the facilities supporting these services.
COVID-19 has introduced an entirely new work environment for law enforcement. In the past, the danger was visually identifiable, predictable, and a plan of action well known. C0VID-19, however, is an invisible suspect that is unpredictable and one with which we have little experience. I think that fighting against this invisible assassin must be very frustrating for those whose purpose in life is community safety.
Most Michigan communities have made it a practice to prepare for a variety of disasters, anything from school shootings to natural disasters, with planned and exercised response scenarios. These protocols for a response have been developed through studying and evaluating past experiences. COVID-19, however, is a novel or brand new virus. We have some experience gained from the 1918 Spanish flu and other pandemics, but we are confronted with a new beast with new rules. Also, ideologies, technological capabilities, and the moral climate of our communities have changed. The community, law enforcement is currently protecting, will not react to this crisis in the same way as they did in the recent or distant past. Challenges for law enforcement are massive and multiplying by the day.
The civilian population of today is very different from that of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. American citizens of the early nineteen hundreds were used to sacrifice. Quarantine, closures, food shortages, and reduction of services had been experiences of war. This population had experienced large-scale death tolls due to multiple diseases and feared them. Compared to today, there were very few luxuries to occupy downtime. For the most part, people trusted their government and followed directives. One of the biggest challenges to law enforcement during the 1918 pandemic was to enforce the law requiring people to wear face masks.
Today the American population is very different. We are not self-reliant in the same way our forefathers were. We depend on essential services to feed us, cure us, and protect us. We are accustomed to questioning our government and demanding our civil rights. We have a great many comforts: Phones in our pockets, computers, cars, grocery stores on every corner, high-level health care, and social media, to name a few. The challenge for first responders: How is this population going to react and be policed?
The nature of policing a community, providing fire protection, as well as EMS services requires close physical contact. The confines of an EMS truck are not as controlled as in a medical facility. Police, fire, and EMS personnel are often required to be in very close physical contact during rescue or apprehension and transportation of citizens.
How will officers and other first responders protect themselves and others?
One example, as reported by Genevieve Grippo for Newschannel 3 on April 5th, can be seen in the way the Kalamazoo Department of Public Safety (KDPS) has taken on this challenge. The city of Kalamazoo is located in southwest Michigan fifty miles south of Grand Rapids. The two-hundred plus sworn officers are trained in police, fire, and EMS, hence the name Public Safety. To protect their officers and the Kalamazoo community, KDPS, along with Bronson Methodist Hospital, have worked together to create a proactive plan. Prior to reporting to work, an officer must take an online survey answering questions, put together by Bronson Methodist Hospital, such as do you have a fever, cough, shortness of breath, or other symptoms consistent with having the virus. Based on responses to these questions, the officer will receive a green, red, or yellow tab. Green, you are cleared for work. If yellow, the officer must call one of the department health and safety officers. A red tab tells you to stay home and contact your shift lieutenant and the health and safety officer for instruction. Larger departments are using screening processes such as this; smaller departments may use a more personal method.
How will first responders protect themselves and the public from COVID-19?
First, it is required that all first responders are trained in dealing with bloodborne pathogens, communicable diseases, and biohazard exposure. Secondly, under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), Personal Health Information (PHI) may be given to all law enforcement officers, paramedics, public health authorities, and other first responders regarding any person exposed to or infected with COVID-19 without the patient’s permission. The next requirement for personnel is a Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) Kit. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) requires the kit contain a minimum of disposable examination gloves to create a barrier between the hands and any surface, gowns, and coveralls, N95 or higher respirators, and eye protection that covers the front and sides of the eyes. Gloves are to be worn once, removed in a way that the outer surface is enclosed inside the glove, disposed of properly, and soap or hand sanitizer used after glove removal.
Officers are asked not to have direct physical contact with people. Such as using a drive-thru for coffee or food, a wave is as good as a verbal greeting and handling non-emergency and not-in-progress calls by phone. Medical personnel and EMS workers are asked to triage all patients. If the officer is asked to assist, they must follow disinfecting procedures.
When a first responder has to confront a citizen, they must control the distance, if possible, staying at least six feet apart. If they are blood-splattered, coughed, spit, or sneezed on, their uniform must immediately be removed without shaking and then washed. Most likely, they will not be wearing a gown or overalls as these confine the duty belt, therefore wipe down the belt with a wipe or spray. If they are transporting, they should create as many barriers between themselves and the individual. It is crucial to open outside air vents and windows to keep air moving out of the car. After releasing the passenger, they must disinfect the vehicle using a wipe or spray.
Personal hygiene is also crucial. General Rules include: Avoid touching the face; however, if this occurs, wash the hands, then the face. Clean the skin using soap and water washing the hands for twenty seconds. Use 60% or higher alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Do not use hand sanitizer, if any illicit drugs have been handled, to avoid dangerous drug reactions.
These procedures require a great deal of time to implement, time that was available for other tasks in the past. With time and experience, these procedures will be refined and enhanced.
What is asked of our public safety personnel at this time?
Anger and resistance often accompany change, and first responders often receive the brunt of it. Law enforcement’s first duty, as we have discussed, is balancing public safety with community health. During this crisis, our governor has signed executive orders adjusting our behavior and responsibilities in order to halt the spread of COVID-19. Law enforcement is in place to make sure all citizens understand and are adhering to these new orders, and if not, to enforce adherence. Officers may have to forcefully close stores, parks, playgrounds, and disperse crowds. Officers have also been given the responsibility of deciding whether to make an arrest or give out citations and verbal warnings. It is also business, as usual, providing protection from and solving crime.
How may crime change during the COVID-19 crisis?
With COVID-19 controlling our lives, people are scared, scared of the unknown. Will there be a lockdown, a food crisis, policing, fire protection, health care? The list goes on and on. In response to this fear, gun sales throughout the country have escalated. During March 2020, the FBI completed 3.7 million background checks. Philip Sheridan, owner of Sheridan Arms in Saginaw, Michigan, reports that several weeks before the Stay-At-Home order, the demand for guns at his store was extremely high. At that time, half his business was selling firearms and ammunition to first-time gun owners. Most of the guns sold were handguns being less expensive, simple to handle, and easy to operate. Currently, guns and ammunition are in short supply. Will the presence of more guns in the hands of an inexperienced public have an effect on crime? Only time will tell. Law enforcement is keenly aware of the increase in firearms sold to the public and is watchfully concerned.
Is crime up or down?
It seems to be a matter of opinion that only time can answer. For now, due to the quarantine, street crimes such as robbery, aggravated assault, bar fights, and home burglaries are down as well as traffic violations, accidents, and drunk driving. Conversely, quarantine has sadly increased an occurrence of domestic violence, child abuse, commercial break-ins, and reckless driving. The FBI predicts an increase in hate crimes against Asians. Others are seeing an increase in cybercrime, fraud, counterfeit, sales of substandard goods, thefts involving commercial and medical facilities, impersonation of officials, and vandalism.
Sadly, when we are ripe with fear and anxiety, there is someone out there who will take advantage of our sensitivities. Fortunately, we can depend on our first responders to keep us safe. However, we must also look after one another. Stay in touch with family, elderly neighbors, and friends. Keep an eye on your neighborhood and report anything of significance. It is good to remember that these individuals are also stressed. When crossing the paths with first responders, say THANK YOU. They are simple words, but they carry a lot of weight.
You might also like this historic look at another pandemic in Michigan – https://gathermichigan.com/pandemic-lessons-from-the-past-traverse-city-versus-leelanau-county/