Santa Barbara has practically seen it all in the past few years.
Whether it be fast-moving wildfires, devastating floods, significant oil spills or plane crashes, local first responders have been there to answer the call.
As the world deals with the COVID-19 outbreak, firefighters and police officers for the city of Santa Barbara have enacted protocols and procedures to slow the spread of the novel virus, both within their respective departments and for the public at-large.
Emergency personnel will be arriving with a different appearance and inquiring more about health status as they continue to respond to calls for service, but the goal remains the same.
“It’s really important that everybody knows that it’s really important that our police officers and firefighters are here for the people — nothing has changed,” said Battalion Chief Chris Mailes, chief safety officer for infectious diseases for the city of Santa Barbara.
Battalion Chief Mailes has been working for the past month on various safety etiquette practices for roughly 250 to 275 city employees, inclduding fire, police and harbor patrol personnel. His first goal when he assumed his new role was to come up with an exposure control plan, which would go into effect if or when a city employee had a medium or high-risk exposure to COVID-19.
“You may have heard the analogy of a wildfire with this thing,” he said. “This thing is spreading like a wildfire, so we’re trying to keep it small but in the back of our mind, we’re planning that it’s going to get pretty big.”
While speaking to the News-Press by phone, Battalion Chief Mailes explained the “culture of collaboration” that exists within the city.
“I think we have some very, very talented people — from not only our policy makers and city council, to our City Administrator Paul Casey and to all of the department heads — with one goal in mind and that is to keep the city safe,” he said.
As residents dial 9-1-1 for emergency services, they are now greeted by emergency dispatchers who ask questions regarding possible exposure as they evaluate the nature of the call. Questions regarding international travel are no longer relevant, though callers are asked whether they are experiencing shortness of breath or a fever, or if they have been in close contact with anyone who has tested positive for the virus.
Fire personnel are required to wear safety glasses, an N-95 mask and protective gloves while responding to any calls for service. They receive notification during the response whether the patient is displaying symptoms or may have been exposed, and if so they wear Tyvek suits or gowns.
Once on scene, fire crews may request the patient exit their home if they are able. Crews are also being cognizant of how many personnel enter the residence prior to assessing them using proper social distancing.
“We’re going to make access and provide the care that we normally do. But we’re just going to do a quick triage at the door. If the patient seems stable, we’re going to send one or two rescuers in,” Battalion Chief Mailes said. “Instead of just deluging the house with five personnel right away, we’re going to hold a few people back.
“(The public) may notice that they were dressed a little different and they asked a couple of questions… but they got right down to business. There’s going to be no delay in patient care, there’s going to be no compromise to patient care… we’re just doing our due diligence.”
Police officers are also being equipped with the same PPE and the department has altered its response to handle things over the phone or virtually, if possible. In-progress and high-priority calls are still being handled as they always have been.
Battalion Chief Mailes noted that the fire department has been able to fulfill its orders internally for additional PPE, though the department has already had an equipment order get hijacked due to the high demand. The department has the ability to put in a scarce-resource request for additional equipment, which goes to the county, and then the public health department, which goes through the state.
“We’re holding onto a good supply right now, but we’re also fearful that at any point we could be running low when our call volume goes up,” he said.
Because of the limited supply, fire personnel are reusing their PPE as long as they don’t suspect it has been exposed to the novel virus, Battalion Chief Mailes said.
Police employees are required to do a self-screening exam upon arrival to the headquarters, while fire stations conduct self-screening at 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.
“We’re making sure that we’re healthy for when the time comes to take care of the public,” Battalion Chief Mailes said. “A lot of stuff going on behind the scenes that the public may not realize, but it’s all in an effort to keep us safe and have a strong workforce that’s able to deal with the demands that may be placed upon us in the near future. We’re hoping not, but if it comes we’re ready.”
No city firefighters have reported exposure or been tested for coronavirus as of Saturday. One Santa Barbara police officer has tested positive for COVID-19 and two others were tested. The officer who tested positive was last at work March 12 and was actually on vacation when they began showing symptoms.
“We got a little lucky in the fact that he had been away from the building for so long,” Battalion Chief Mailes said. “Again, if he worked on Monday and went home and felt terrible and got tested and came back positive on Wednesday, we’d have a very different situation. We’d have a police department and a large amount of personnel and likely the public that had come into contact with him.
“But that’s the planning that we’re doing. We are planning for our firefighters and police officers to be out sick. We’re planning on them being COVID positive.”
First responders are considered Tier 1 for testing and are able to receive the testing and get the results back as quickly as possible, he added.
Officials are aiming to avoid a situation that occurred in San Jose, in which 13 firefighters tested positive for the virus and 75 firefighters were quarantined.
“We could have had a nightmare scenario with that first officer, but to say we dodged a bullet a bit is not to diminish the officer being sick, but to diminish the communicable nature of this illness,” said Battalion Chief Mailes.
While measures like self-screening are in place, authorities are also aware that carriers can also be asymptomatic, which Battalion Chief Mailes described as “the worst-case scenario.”
The novel virus is only four months old and many questions still remain unanswered as to how it is going to act in the coming weeks and months. Battalion Chief Mailes said the next 10 to 14 days will be “very critical” to slow the spread, but added that he is planning out well in advance.
“I think we’re going to be looking at this until May and June,” he said. “Personally, my concern is that this virus is going to come back in the fall and it’s going to hit next cold and flu season. I’m actually planning out much farther than a few weeks away. I’m trying to figure out how I can keep our (first responders) safe for the next year.
“I’m living in the moment right now, with sevend-day-a-week phone calls and texts, but I’m also looking all the way forward to 2021 to see how our day-to-day operations in the fire and police deparments are going to change.”
Battalion Chief Mailes said this pandemic is unlike anything he has gone up against in his 27 years of service, but feel as if they training the department has had over the years is applicable. He also said the county’s Incident Management Team — consisting of members from every fire department in the county — has an enourmous amount of experience with large-scale emergencies.
“Our team — it doesn’t matter the color of our patches, it doesn’t matter what department we came from, it doesn’t matter whether we’re law enforcement or fire — we are incredibly experienced with leaders on that team that are really second to none,” he said. “We’re so fortunate to live here and all of the horrible things that have happened in this community have been learning experiences for this entire team. None of us have seen it all and we always have that element of humility, but we have an incredible collaborative workforce that goes across all departments in this county.
“I would put it up against any county in the state and any state in the nation. We have seen way more than our share of what a county our size should see. We’re plugging away and we’re going to make sure that everybody is well taken care of.
“At the end of the day, that’s our goal and we’re going to make sure that happens for people.”