How first responder agencies are adjusting to the pandemic

Local fire departments and sheriff's offices face challenges finding safety equipment

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As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, area first responder agencies are changing protocols and learning to cope with the new normal. Here's how some local sheriff's offices and fire departments are adjusting.

South Metro Fire Rescue

Covering a vast swath of the southern suburbs, stretching from Parker to south Jefferson County, South Metro is the third-largest fire department in the state.

All crews now wear personal protective equipment (PPE) on all medical calls, said Jon Adams, the district's assistant chief of operations. Specialized crews disinfect ambulances after every run involving someone in respiratory distress.

Among callers who report COVID-like symptoms, crews are assessing who can stay home rather than be transported to a hospital, which comes as a shock to some.

“Normally if you call 911 and you want to go to the hospital, we'll take you there,” Adams said. “But the hospitals are inundated. Many can self-care at home.”

The district had about a dozen firefighters out sick or on self-quarantine on March 31, with four testing positive for COVID-19. If a high number of firefighters were out sick at once, the district could adjust by reducing the number of firefighters on one engine from four to three, Adams said. In a worst-case scenario, with hundreds out, the district could temporarily shut down some firehouses.

Adams said he is confident the district will fare well.

“I sleep well at night knowing our crews will provide the best service in the state,” Adams said.

West Metro Fire Protection District

West Metro covers a diverse swath of Jefferson County, ranging from rural mountain communities to dense urban areas.

Like South Metro, West Metro crews are dressing in full PPE for all medical calls, including Tyvek suits normally reserved for hazardous waste spills, said district spokeswoman Ronda Scholting.

Scholting said the district has “a few” firefighters who have tested positive for COVID-19, but they were nearly recovered as of April 2 and were expected to return to duty soon. All personnel are checked for fevers at the beginning and end of every shift.

The district plans to add two ambulances to its roster in coming days to address the added time spent disinfecting ambulances after medical calls, Scholting said.

If the district fell below minimum staffing requirements, the plan is to reassign firefighters from training and life safety divisions to fire stations.

Denver Fire Department

Denver Fire, the state's largest fire department, also covers Englewood.

In order to reduce exposure to potential sources of infection, firefighters are talking to patients by phone, or through windows and doors when possible, said spokeswoman Kelli Christensen.

Though the department has adequate supplies of gloves, gowns and goggles, supplies of masks aren't as high as the department would like. If firefighters run out, they will switch to responding to medical calls in “turn-out” gear normally used for fires, including self-contained breathing apparatus, providing a 30-minute air supply.

There were 32 personnel who had tested positive for COVID-19 in Denver's Department of Public Safety as of April 3. The department includes Denver Fire, but also Denver Police, Sheriff and 911.

In a worst-case scenario, with high numbers out sick, the department would temporarily suspend its emergency medical responses and focus on fire protection and emergency rescue, leaving medical response to ambulance crews, Christensen said.

Jefferson County Sheriff's Office

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office is working hard to obtain as much PPE as possible, said Sheriff Jeff Shrader.

“There are a lot of situations for viral exposure we might not be aware of,” Shrader said. For example, deputies responded to a car accident in which a victim ended up testing positive for COVID-19.

In anticipation of a potential wave of sickness, Shrader deputized all officers from the county's police departments on April 1.

Shrader said he has worked with the courts to reduce the jail's population through a combination of bonds, home detention and an increased use of summonses instead of arrests by deputies, bringing the inmate count from an average of just under 1,200 to below 750.

The jail had 31 inmates in isolation on April 2, with 11 of them showing COVID-19 symptoms, and the remainder having been in contact with someone who tested positive.

“Normally when we're dealing with a critical incident, we have knowledge of the suspect,” Shrader said. “We can see them. In this regard, this is an invisible enemy.”

Douglas County Sheriff's Office

Sheriff Tony Spurlock said his department has received two shipments of PPE from the federal government, and feels confident the department will be able to obtain more in coming weeks as production ramps up nationwide.

Meanwhile, Spurlock said the county jail population is down to 275, from an average of nearly 400. Like other county jails, Spurlock said his department has worked with the court system to grant early release to some inmates, and releasing others on personal recognizance bonds.

Spurlock also said his deputies are advised to increase the number of summonses they issue instead of arrests to keep the jail from filling back up. The jail has some inmates in the infirmary, Spurlock said, but none were showing COVID-19 symptoms.

About two dozen employees of the department were out sick on April 3, Spurlock said, which was about average. Like Jefferson County's Shrader, Spurlock said he would consider deputizing police officers if staffing levels fell low enough.

“Follow the public health orders, and maintain social distancing,” Spurlock said. “If we have patience, we'll get through this.”

Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office

Rare among metro-area agencies, Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said his office is so well-stocked on PPE that it was able to donate some of its stockpile to other local agencies.

Brown said his deputies are taking as many reports as possible by phone or online to minimize exposure, and working to keep the jail population down. There were no known cases of COVID-19 in the jail, he said.

Like other local law enforcement agencies, Brown said the volume of calls the office is receiving is down.

“I want to remind people that stay-at-home orders are hard, but even a simple drive around town puts first responders at risk if you get in an accident,” Brown said. “It takes resources away from those who need it.”

COVID-19, Colorado

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