Due to the nature of their jobs, employees of the East Lansing Fire Department (ELFD) and East Lansing Police Department (ELPD) interact with the public every day. But during the pandemic, both have had to create new protocols the conform with health guidelines to keep safe during interactions with the public and in case of exposure to COVID-19.
“We’re in the people business; we have to have contact with people,” ELPD Deputy Chief Steve Gonzalez told ELi. “We have to have police officers fully available and staffed to respond to emergency and non-emergency calls.”
But some anxiety remains for both ELPD and ELFD.
Fire department personnel aren’t too concerned about the virus, according to ELFD’s Safety Training Officer Kirk Easterbrook, but they are certainly looking forward to the vaccine.
“With the job we do, we’ve been through [many] different pathogens that could affect us, so it’s really just part of the job,” Easterbrook said. “But the total unknown about this one, not knowing how long it lasts or what the effects are gonna be, was a little disturbing at the beginning.”
“I think everybody is more comfortable [compared to earlier in the year] now with the fact that the things we’re doing safety wise are protecting them,” Easterbrook said.
While things settled into a routine, the pandemic hit close to home when a DeWitt Township police officer died of Covid-19 last month and most of the police force there was quarantined.
“[The death of the officer] really hit home to all of our officers,” Gonzalez said. “[He’s] been in the community for a long time, has been a police officer for a long time, and a lot of our police officers knew him on a personal level.”
A certain degree of concern among officers, especially within the patrol division, continues, since they have the most contact with the public. The unpredictability of the virus and its effects, combined with the death of the officer in DeWitt, have only added to these concerns.
So what what’re officers doing to keep themselves and the community safe?
Both departments follow basic health and safety procedures, like wearing masks in enclosed spaces or when around others, social distancing, and completing daily health screenings. But they have also created their own department-specific guidelines.
For example, ELPD’s personnel try to do as much work as they can from home. The Records Bureau and Police Administration both can do work remotely, according to Gonzalez. But overall, the amount of work that can done be virtually is limited. Patrol and investigations cannot be done from home, and personnel working with private information may not have the proper security systems on their computer.
When out on patrol, officers carry N95 masks, along with extra masks and rubber gloves. According to Gonzalez, the City got masks for all its employees in the spring, but these are reaching the end of their effectiveness. As a result, the City recently ordered more cloth masks, which will be issued to personnel.
If officers are on patrol, they are supposed to follow standard health and safety guidelines. In addition to this, if officers have to go to a house to take a police report, they are encouraged to try to take it outside. Some reports can also be taken over the phone, although this decision is left to the discretion of the officer and supervisor.
Overall, the guidelines appear to be working as ELPD has only had a few individual staff members test positive and it has not been widespread, according to Gonzalez. He believes that since the cases have been isolated — and not spreading among an entire shift — all the cases are therefore likely from exposure outside of work.
ELFD faces other unique challenges.
The fire department faces different challenges compared to ELPD. ELFD personnel, who are trained firefighters and EMTs, tend to work in crews. As a result, personnel usually just wear a mask and try to leave the windows down if the weather allows.
ELFD has also created safety protocols for interactions with the public. Normally, the full crew would go into the situation immediately, but now, only one person goes in at first. If only a few personnel are needed to do something, then the rest will stay back to limit exposure.
Like the police department, the fire department’s job entails close interaction with the public. The ambulance service still goes whenever someone calls the fire department, and still has to take people to the hospital if they request it, whether or not they are showing symptoms of Covid-19. However, according to Easterbrook, there have been no coronavirus cases through patient-to-worker contact.
Regardless, the work continues.
“I don’t think we can change how we operate,” Gonzalez said. “We have to provide a 24/7 service, we can’t really step back anymore. But as far as having to respond to calls for service, both emergency and non-emergency, that will still happen.”
Should there be a more widespread outbreak within the department, ELPD will separate work groups and have a few people work from home. It has also met with other local departments to create a plan for if any department has to quarantine most of their officers.
Even before the pandemic, ELPD had mutual aid agreements through which one department provides another with manpower and equipment when deemed necessary.
The personnel at ELFD and ELPD will likely be some of the first to receive any vaccine, according to both Easterbrook and the State of Michigan’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan.
Both departments will continue to provide services, and both will continue to operate as they have for the past few months.
“There’s still everything from serious car accidents to noise complaints,” Gonzalez said. “The world continues to go on. We have to adjust our operations to be able to continue responding to those situations, but also try to protect our staff as much as possible.”
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