Local first responders discuss going into the field in a COVID-19 world

One person taken by ambulance from a crash at the corner of Wiley Canyon Road and Lyons Avenue in Newhall on Friday. Dan Watson / The Signal.
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As the coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions inside, a number of Santa Clarita Valley residents continue to go to work with the public despite the hazardous conditions to them and their families: first responders.

Santa Clarita is home to a number of local first responder departments and stations, from the California Highway Patrol, to the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

All departments are still heading into work each day, but with a number of new parameters and pieces of equipment they have to consider using every time their vehicle lights turn on.

The CHP Newhall office can be a home away from home to 70-80 people at any given time, including uniformed officers and civilian employees.

According to Officer Josh Greengard, a spokesman for the office, they’re not taking any chances in terms of workplace cleanliness.

“Obviously, there’s a lot more sanitation going on in our office building,” said Greengard. “You know, we still have a job to do in providing safety services and security.”

A member of the Los Angeles County Fire Department walks in full PPE gear. Photo courtesy of the L.A. County Fire Department.

Every hour on the hour, Greengard said, door handles, desks, keyboards and any other highly touched, highly trafficked surfaces are being sanitized. Their vehicles are being cleaned by every officer who gets into one.

“The cars are really nothing new, I mean guys would sanitize them every before shift and after shift before all of this started,” said Greengard.

L.A. County Fire Department personnel said their protocols were much of the same.

“After every call, we decontaminate,” said Firefighter Specialist Sean Ferguson. “And that’s something we’ve always done.”

Ferguson said what was different for local firefighters was the new gear and training they’ve received since March. In addition to giving firefighters personal protective equipment, such as masks and gowns (they had already used gloves on scenes), firefighters now approach calls differently.

When a person calls 9-1-1, they’re asked by the operator to give more information that might indicate whether firefighters would be exposed to COVID-19. And generally, now only a single firefighter or paramedic enters a residence or building to begin with in order to limit exposure for the rest of the engine/team.

Another new system, which will soon switch to iPads, Ferguson said, will be the Telemedicine Program. Through an electronic device, responding personnel will be able to teleconference a medical practitioner from the scene of a medical call, and have them evaluate a mildly ill patient.

“It’s really an effort to conserve the finite resources available at the hospital for critically ill patients, while preventing exposure or potential exposure to the virus,” said Ferguson.

CHP officers have also utilized technology, now using electronic handhelds to issue tickets. Greenguard said the electronic version decreases the amount of people in their system who touch the paperwork involved that is sent to the courts, while being able to give a printout to the individual on the scene.

Shirley Miller, spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Valley Sheriff’s Station, said the station is respecting social distancing. Essential office staff are being asked to sit further apart than usual and social distancing in the field is being maintained.

Each deputy is sent out into the field, Miller said, with a mask and hand sanitizer, and before each shift, deputies are given the latest information about COVID-19 safety protocols during a briefing.

Miller said dispatchers are reporting an uptick in family disturbance calls, but that deputies out in the field have not been issuing citations for people congregating in public. Instead, she said, deputies are speaking with people about the importance of “flattening the curve.”

Miller added some SCV Sheriff’s Station deputies had previously been placed under self-isolation due to a call that could have exposed them, but that as of Friday, no SCV deputies had been confirmed as coronavirus positive.

A county Sheriff’s Department detective who spoke on the condition of anonymity said the biggest change for them, outside of the regular use of personal protective equipment, has been the increased amount of law enforcement personnel out on the streets.

Apart from the countywide initiatives, Sheriff Alex Villanueva called on 1,300 personnel who aren’t regularly out on patrol to now get back out into the field in order to keep the peace.

The baseline PPE used by Los Angeles County Fire Department personnel. Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

“We got out on patrol to make sure that everybody is acting nice, do high-visibility checks on the closed businesses, check the lines at supermarkets,” the detective said, “just to be out there for the community.”

The detective also said he’d heard from colleagues who have gone on calls that came with possible COVID-19 exposure. And outside of the detectives facing new challenges in terms of speaking with judges to get search warrants, a new obstacle facing law enforcement in L.A. County is the fear of coming home with the virus.

“Our risk of exposure is definitely higher, and what happens if you’re asymptomatic and then you bring it home to your young children, or your husband or your wife?” said the detective. “That’s definitely on your mind, but that’s what we were hired to do, that’s what we signed up for. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.”

However, both the Fire Department and Sheriff’s Department personnel The Signal spoke with said, in their opinion, since the stay-at-home order had been issued, they’ve seen calls go down and fewer people on the street.

“Everything has been pretty peaceful and everybody’s been really cooperative and cognizant of their neighbor,” the detective said, “and really coming together as a community.”

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