Police officers and firefighters on the frontline of the novel coronavirus pandemic face an increased workload, increased incident hazards and a potential reduction in force if COVID-19 takes hold in their ranks, and leaders of East County law enforcement and firefighting agencies are working to stay one step ahead of these challenges.
“Our main focus is keeping our first responders healthy,” said Brentwood Police Chief Tom Hansen. “Second is keeping our communities calm and making sure that they’re being serviced and being protected. We have reprioritized calls for service to make sure that people don’t come to our town to jump on an opportunity to commit crime in our city. We’re not going to allow that.”
The risk to first responders was underscored when the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District (ConFire) reported Wednesday, March 25, that four firefighters tested positive for the virus. Another 12 were tested after they displayed symptoms associated with COVID-19, but their results were negative. ConFire is still waiting on the results for two remaining tests. Steve Hill, ConFire public information officer, said that it will likely never be known with certainty where the four contracted the virus. However, he believes that, given the safety protocols followed while on duty, the infections probably occurred off duty.
“Our No. 1 goal is to not get any of our members exposed and keep our workforce whole,” said East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD) Fire Chief Brian Helmick. “The way that we’ve adjusted in 10 business days, the way that we do our administrative practices, our operational practices ... now we’re at a point where that is set. It’s now a matter of holding that line, ensuring the appropriate amount of personal protective equipment (PPE) and not getting complacent in those controls.”
Ensuring that ECCFPD firefighters have a sufficient supply of PPE may be more difficult as the pandemic continues. A shortage of PPE in the county became evident this week when Contra Costa Health Service established donation centers where members of the public are encouraged to drop off unused eye protection, surgical masks, disinfectant wipes and medical gowns for use by county health agencies.
“Right now we have the PPE we need,” Helmick said. “We’re low in some areas, but we also have internal controls where we work with the state and county health to get stuff in. As for today, we have what we need, but our reserves are very low. We’re running on a very thin line right now.”
Last week six Bay Area counties, including Contra Costa, issued a shelter-place order requiring residents to stay home unless performing a critical task like food shopping, doctor visits or veterinary visits. Residents employed by an essential business were encouraged by the order to continue to perform that work while taking appropriate precautions, including frequent hand washing and staying more than six feet away from others whenever possible. That was followed two days later by an order from Gov. Gavin Newsom that required all residents of the state to adhere to similar restrictions. While the county order had a tentative end date of April 7, the governor’s order does not specify an end date.
To date, 86 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed in Contra Costa County. The county’s first fatality was reported March 19, though county health officials expect the number of cases and related deaths to rise.
“I am really convinced that we are doing this so that we don’t overwhelm the hospitals,” Hansen said. “We can concentrate on those that truly need medical help. If we don’t do that, we will overwhelm them. That’s why it’s so important that people take this seriously and stay at home.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases grows, Hansen is confident in the department’s ability to keep officers on the street. School resource officers and traffic control officers have been reassigned to patrol, and if need be, he said management staff can do the same.
“Right now I’m not overly concerned with staffing the streets, as it stands right now,” Hansen said. “But in the event we get hit really hard — 50% or 60% of my department goes down — I’ll have to start pulling people from the investigations unit and putting them on the street. Worst-case scenario, I get together with Chief Brooks, Chief Addington and Chief Christensen and ask for mutual aid.”
In Antioch, Chief of Police Tammany Brooks has a similar outlook.
“We have contingency plans and an alternative emergency schedule we could implement if staffing fell to a critical level,” he explained. “Keep in mind, just six and a half years ago, we had 30 fewer officers than we have today. It wasn’t optimal then, and it wouldn’t be optimal now. But our officers are dedicated and will continue to provide the highest level of service possible under any condition.”
Helmick trusts that the safety protocols will keep ECCFPD firefighters safe from exposure to COVID-19 but worries about his staff becoming infected while operating public spaces.
“There’s always a risk to our members,’’ Helmick said. “But if we use all the preventative measures that we have, (a firefighter) contracting something on a call where they’re using the appropriate PPE, there’s still risk, but the risk is low. Our concern is what about all the other times. It’s the nonemergency events where you come more in contact with people and the social distancing gets compromised. Or, what happens when they’re off duty? There’s all of these other things that are equally concerning.”
Large groups of people congregating in parks and on beaches in the Bay Area has been widely reported. Locally, residents ignoring the restrictions of the stay-at-home order has been a minor issue according to both Hansen and Brooks. Both departments are opting to take an educational approach to achieve voluntary compliance but recognize that enforcement could be necessary if circumstances change.
“As far as what residents can do to reduce the strain on our resources, my No. 1 request is to follow the shelter-at-home order as much as possible,” Brooks said. “The sooner we can flatten the curve and see a decrease in the number of people infected, the sooner our lives will begin to return to normal.”