Firefighters, EMTs and law enforcement personnel have the same message these days: Stay at home. Wash your hands. Use social distancing if you must go out.
First responders have the same responsibilities they had before the executive orders were issued, but with the increased need to protect themselves from contact with the coronavirus.
The Bluffton Police Department initiated some new practices after doing a lot of research and speaking with other agencies, police chiefs and police institutions.
“We have encouraged our officers to handle non-emergency calls via phone when practical,” said Capt. Joe Babkiewicz, operations commander. “In emergency situations, officers will still handle calls as they normally should by responding out to the scene. However, they can utilize Personal Protective Equipment if a person in the household is displaying symptoms of COVID-19.”
One of the new situations both the police department and the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office have had to handle is social distancing. When groups of more than three people have been spotted, officers have to address it.
“Our officers have met with people and educated or reminded them on the social distancing. This has occurred in various areas throughout the town,” Babkiewicz said. “Our community has been very responsive to our officers and have listened.”
Group gatherings have also occurred within the county with similar responses.
“We’ve received overwhelming cooperation from Beaufort County residents, and strongly encourage that they continue social distancing and to limit their travels,” said Maj. Bob Bromage, Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office public information officer We appreciate what our residents have done. They’re working hard at practicing social distancing and staying home.”
The Bluffton Township Fire District continues to respond as usual to life-threatening emergencies without changes, said Chief John Thompson.
“In less severe medical incidents, we are working with our dispatch and emergency medical services partners to limit the number of firefighters, EMTs and paramedics encountering COVID-19 patients while still providing high-quality medical care to our citizens in need,” Thompson explained. “This process will hopefully keep our firefighting and emergency medical service forces healthy and ready to respond.”
One of the biggest concerns with first responders everywhere is the availability of personal protective equipment, or PPE. Thompson said that the district’s supplies are sufficient.
“We have received supplies from our vendors, South Carolina and Beaufort County Emergency Management, and through generous local donations from local businesses,” he said. “We are constantly monitoring our stock, and communicate daily with our local and state partners to ensure our supplies are being maintained.”
PPEs have become an integral part of responding to medical calls. Battalion Chief Tom Bouthillet, of the Emergency Medical Services Division for Hilton Head Island Fire Rescue, said for the most part, protocols for responding to calls are the same.
“We’re asking our EMTs and paramedics to slow down, make sure they are wearing the correct PPE, and we are limiting the number of rescuers that we commit to each emergency call,” Bouthillet said.
When EMTs respond to a call, they consider any respiratory or flu-like complaint to be a possible COVID-19 patient. They have already treated and transported several COVID-19 patients, Bouthillet said.
Bouthillet said Hilton Head’s clean-up protocols have changed in this current environment. “Even before we return to the fire station, we have extensive decontamination procedures that take place at the hospital,” he said. “We even have a shower trailer so that our staff can doff their uniform after a high-risk call, shower, and put on a new uniform right at the hospital.”
Dispatchers are screening questions for everybody that calls, Bromage said.
“They ask whether (callers) have symptoms, if they’ve recently traveled, that kind of thing. With our first responders EMS, fire and law enforcement, there could be a potential elevated risk,” said Bromage. “When we respond to a place where there is a COVID-19 patient, clearly more caution would be in place.”
Executive Order 2020-21 issued April 6 by Gov. Henry McMaster should make it safer for first responders, most of whom have their own families to protect as well as their community. Going out is now limited to commuting for work, visiting family, and obtaining essential goods or services. Outdoor recreation is allowed where permitted (not on public beaches or parks, for example) and only where social distancing can be maintained.
“We would encourage everyone to stay home unless you have a reason to be out. If you do have to go out, it is very important to adhere to the social distancing rule to keep yourself and everyone around you safe,” said Babkiewicz.
He also suggested everyone take part in the Do the Five initiative, which includes: 1. Hands: Wash them often. 2. Elbow: Cough into it. 3. Face: Don’t touch it. 4. Space: Keep 6-foot distance. 5. Home: Stay there.
Thompson said to remember to wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after you have been in a public place, or after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing. Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces daily.
“If you’re sick, stay at home. If you are caring for someone who is sick, stay at home. Place them in a separate bedroom and have them use a separate bathroom if possible,” said Bouthillet.
Use telehealth for mild to moderate symptoms. Understand that you might not qualify for a test.
Don’t contact 911 unless you have life-threatening symptoms, such as difficulty breathing, unconsciousness, heart attack, stroke, seizure, uncontrolled bleeding, or severe injuries.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.