‘Hands on’ is hands off for Pitkin County first-responders during coronavirus
The job of a police officer, firefighter or paramedic is, by definition, hands on.
But with “hands on” off limits as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to unfold across the United States, Colorado and Pitkin County, those emergency first responders are having to tweak the traditional ways they go about doing their jobs in favor of an arm’s-length approach that feels foreign for local agencies more attuned to a touchier-feelier style of customer service.
“We pride ourselves on the fact that if you call us, we show up at your door,” Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan said. “That has changed.”
Pitkin County deputies and Aspen police officers — who both tend to view their roles as predominantly community helpers rather than law enforcers — essentially are following the same coronavirus playbook. As many calls for assistance as possible are handled by phone or email, said Ryan and Aspen Assistant Police Chief Linda Consuegra.
“We’re just trying to really minimize those contacts (with the public),” Consuegra said. “It’s been a big shift for our staff.”
Calls that require hands-on assistance, including those where public safety is at risk or an incident requires investigation, still are answered, though officers and deputies are being advised to limit contact as much as possible in those situations, they said.
“If someone needs any help and it’s a life safety issue, we’re going,” Aspen Police Officer Ryan Turner said. “If we get sneezed on, … it’s a risk we’re willing to take.”
Fortunately, Aspen and Pitkin County law enforcement agencies have seen a significant reduction in calls for service since public health orders closed ski mountains, bars and restaurants and most businesses, beginning in mid-March, and confining most residents to their homes. For example, Aspen police received 1,131 total calls for service in the last two weeks of March 2019 versus just 494 calls in the last two weeks of last month, according to APD statistics.
“We’ve had a quite a bit of a reduction in calls for service,” Consuegra said. “That has helped. People are staying home.”
Turner, who was on duty one evening last week, confirmed that Aspen is indeed quiet. Officers would normally be responding to a steady stream of late-season issues involving ski thefts, DUI stops or policing the bar scene, but Wednesday was calmer than even most offseasons.
“It’s dead,” Turner said. “I did an entire patrol in the West End and I didn’t see one other citizen.”
The calls the department has received have tended to fall into the welfare-check category, Consuegra said, and officers have not seen an uptick in domestic violence incidents that forced close-quarter situations might provoke.
The main issue, Turner said, is one with which many residents can likely relate: isolation.
“I’m sitting in a remote area of the police department,” he said, noting that police administrators have spread officers throughout the building and encouraged others who live in Aspen to respond from home. “I like to call it my bat cave.”
He said he’d taken one complaint about a possible fraud in the previous hour.
Police officers in Snowmass Village have split into teams of two, who regularly check in with each other but otherwise have no personal contact, even during a shift while working together, Chief Brian Olson said.
“We monitor each other’s well-being on our days off,” he said. “We are responsible for each other.”
Area firefighters also are taking precautions, including locking down fire stations to all but the most essential personnel, closely monitoring firefighters’ health and establishing stringent guidelines for paramedics, fire and ambulance officials said.
“My main job is to keep this disease out of our fire stations at all costs,” Aspen Fire Chief Rick Balentine said.
Paramedics likely have the toughest time remaining hands-off, said Aspen Ambulance Director Gabe Muething.
“No way can we perform our functions by ourselves,” Muething said.
Paramedics observe social distancing as much as possible when in the ambulance building, which is restricted to employees only. They also are checked at the door for COVID-19 symptoms and turned around immediately if any are detected, Muething said.
Procedures have changed out in the field as well, he said.
First, paramedics are not nearly as quick to jump in with a physical diagnosis of a patient as they were a couple months ago. They will first conduct a verbal assessment at a safe distance before doing anything, Muething said.
Any interaction with a patient will require gloves and a surgical mask at minimum. If paramedics believe an infectious disease might be present, they will wear gloves plus eye protection, a N95 mask and a gown over their clothes, Muething said.
Another significant difference is the number of people involved in ambulance-related scenes, which in the past might have included two paramedics, a police officer or sheriff’s deputy or two and maybe a firefighter, he said.
“Now we evaluate what is the minimum number we need to accomplish the task,” Muething said.
Sheriff’s deputies still accompany ambulance calls, though they stage themselves down the road and will respond if needed, Undersheriff Ryan said.
The main idea, emergency response officials agree, is to keep their employees as healthy as possible for as long as possible because they are not easily replaced in a county with less than 18,000 residents. That said, area public safety officials said while their staffs have weathered a few employees being out with virus symptoms over the past few weeks, none reported being hard-hit yet.
That situation more or less mirrors the general situation in Pitkin County, where two deaths have occurred so far, and one person was reported to be hospitalized at AVH with COVID-19 as of Saturday.
“We haven’t seen the surge,” said Scott Thompson, chief of the Snowmass Village and Basalt-based Roaring Fork Fire and Rescue. “But we’re certainly expecting to see a surge. That’s why we’re trying to keep people out of the hospital.”
The state as a whole, meanwhile, reported more than 4,900 COVID-19 cases through Saturday, with 924 hospitalized and 140 deaths. State data show Pitkin County with 38 reported cases since the onset with two deaths, according to Sunday’s update.
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