Allamakee County emergency response agencies taking extra measures to keep residents, and themselves, as safe as possible when called to duty

by Lissa Blake

When emergency personnel respond to a 911 call, their primary concern is always to take care of the needs of the patients or victims who are the focus of the emergency call.

But during a pandemic such as what the entire world is currently facing with the COVID-19 outbreak, those responding now need to coordinate even greater measures to take care of themselves as well.

STAYING HEALTHY
Allamakee County Sheriff Clark Mellick explained how important it is to keep people who are first on the scene of an emergency response healthy.

“COVID-19 has really changed how we respond. We need to get the people the services they need, but we also don’t want to deplete our resources (by exposing emergency personnel),” said Mellick.

Mellick said when law enforcement is called to the scene of an incident, they are donning PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), including an N-95 mask and safety glasses.

“We also have a disposable gown and latex gloves,” he said.

Mellick said his team is prepared for situations where close contact is required.

“We are fully staffed right now. We don’t want anyone to be exposed. Obviously, we want everyone to be healthy so we can continue to offer emergency services,” he said.

CHANGE IN OPERATIONS
Mellick said for non-emergency situations, his office at the Allamakee County Public Safety Center is trying to facilitate additional ways to eliminate personal contact.

“We have changed our operations and are doing more things electronically. People can mail things in rather than dropping them off. But we are still open for business,” he said of the Public Safety Center.

AMBULANCE CONCERNS
Cheryl Livingston, a paramedic with the Veterans Memorial Hospital Ambulance Service and active member within the countywide Allamakee County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) organization, said that all area ambulance crews are working diligently to keep residents and EMS personnel as safe as possible.

“When a 911 call comes in, dispatch has a list of questions they are able to ask to ascertain whether or not someone has been exposed to the Coronavirus or is exhibiting symptoms,” Livingston said.

“The County Dispatch Center is doing a great job screening and getting relevant information out to us,” echoed Lansing Emergency Medical Services Assistant Director Steph Hill, who is also an active member of Allamakee County EMS. “It is definitely a time of uncertainty and unchartered waters. I think we’re all bracing for the possibility for it to really ‘hit’ our area.”

Livingston said preparing to go into a home can take more time, leading to slightly longer response times.

“It’s so important that people who call in really share as much information as possible, so we can make sure we’re bringing the proper equipment with us,” said Livingston.

In addition to suiting up in a variety of PPE, Livingston said in cases where it sounds likely someone could be infected, VMH Ambulance has a dedicated truck and a respirator that is used for these types of calls. The same truck is used for hospital-to-hospital transfers.

“A phone screening is not the same as seeing someone in person. We just have to assume that every call brings with it the possibility of an infected person,” she said.

BEST PRACTICES
Livingston said she believes county EMS, law enforcement and fire department personnel are taking the best precautions available to them.

“It’s a small community, so you have a lot of crossover of emergency personnel. We need to take as many precautions as possible. If these people get sick, we could be jeopardizing all of the county’s emergency services,” she said.

Livingston added there are other, simple things they usually take for granted, such as getting together to exchange ideas.

“We can’t meet in a group right now, so we’re having to think outside the box in order to honor social distancing,” she said.

DOING THE RIGHT THING
Both Mellick and Livingston noted that currently, emergency calls to dispatch are fewer than normal.

“People in our area are doing what they should be doing. They’re social distancing,” said Mellick.

Livingston said she believes before people call for emergency help, they are seriously weighing their risk vs. benefits.

“With everything going on, people are trying to decide if it’s more of a risk to go to the hospital or to stay home, they’re asking themselves, ‘Am I sick enough?’” said Livingston.

PPE
Livingston addressed media coverage of emergency personnel having to repeatedly re-use PPE. “Yes, we are re-using PPE in situations where it would traditionally be discarded. But we’re disinfecting everything, and anything someone is re-using is something that was theirs to begin with. No one is using someone else’s PPE,” she explained.

“Our greatest challenges have been ensuring that our services have enough proper PPE equipment to protect ourselves, and enough supplies and procedures in place to clean the ambulances after a  transport,” Hill further shared.

PHYSICALLY DRAINING
Livingston added the additional steps emergency personnel are required to take right now can be “physically draining.”

“There are so many more steps. We get our temperatures taken at the beginning and end of every shift. We bring extra clothes to work so we don’t risk carrying anything home to our families,” she said.

DON’T BE AFRAID
Livingston added the public should not be concerned if they see an emergency responder wearing a facemask or other PPE. “We’re just trying to be proactive. We just have to operate as if everyone is infected,” she said. “From a patient’s perspective, it can probably be intimidating seeing someone show up in a ‘moon suit’.”

Livingston said she and her crew have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of thanks and support they have received during this difficult time.

“Hopefully, as a community, we will weather the storm well, without anything terribly tragic happening,” Livingston said.

Hill said the cohesiveness of all local agencies who are working together to try and best address the current pandemic situation is a big boost to weathering that storm. “We have a good support system in place amongst all of our groups with the County EMS organization, Allamakee County Emergency Management, the County Dispatch Center and with the County Public Health Department,” she shared.
 

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