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Promises Made, Promises Kept: How First Responders Are Serving Us

BY:  Tracy K. Hall

Life has been different for us in many ways over the past weeks. While we might be mindful of our health, safety and service to others, these priorities have become a greater focus as of late. Others have always had these things foremost in their minds. Our first responders are always concentrated on protecting and serving us. It is not a surprise they are deemed essential in our communities. Every shift they come to work with the goal of providing for us to the best of their ability; even if it demands their safety and health is put into jeopardy. In many ways, first responders are just like us; they have families, they live in our neighborhoods, they show up at the same events we enjoy, and they work hard for a paycheck. But they are also a different breed. They have made a promise to be their best for us. If there is one day they don’t follow through on this promise, then the whole community hurts.  It is a load they gracefully carry, but it is a load all the same.

I reached out to the leaders of our first responders. Chief Mark Scott of the Americus Police Department reports COVID-19 has changed they way they do their work but has not changed their goals. They remain dedicated to protecting and serving the citizens of Americus. They are still proactive in preventing crime, they are still available to serve our citizens, they are still willing to do the things we often find too frightening to even consider. In doing these things, however, they must respect what the president calls an “invisible enemy.” They are outfitted with personal protective equipment (PPE) such as N35s, a medical grade mask, and gloves. They are tasked with respecting the social distancing guidelines as set forth by the Center for Disease Control. The Americus Police Department is utilizing technology for non-emergency calls, keeping in touch and filing reports via telephone and computer access. Dispatch workers also play an incredible role in protecting them and others from COVID-19. Dispatch determines if an officer may be exposed to COVID-19 by assessing the caller and/or those in their home for coughs, shortness of breath or fever. First responders are excellent teammates and they rely on each other to do their work. The Americus Police Department is still working as a team on domestic disturbances, crimes in progress and where there is an accident with injuries. However, they are cognizant to preserve the health and safety of our citizens as well as themselves. If they start to develop symptoms related to the virus, they report this immediately to their supervisor. I asked Chief Scott what the community could do for them. He answers like most of the experts, “stay home.” Sumter County has been under a 9:00pm—6:00am curfew. In its initial days officers would offer a verbal warning to those who were not compliant with the curfew. However, there is no longer a grace period and citations will be written in cases of citizens deciding to disregard the curfew.

Chief Roger Bivins of the Americus Fire Department also admits the virus has changed the way they carry out their services. When appropriate, they offer medical assistance outside of the home rather than entering the home. Should they have to enter the home, the goal is for only one worker, rather than a whole team, to go inside. Dispatch workers are also a great ally for the Americus Fire Department. Just as they do for the police, they assess the symptoms of people living in the home for COVID-19 symptomology. While knowing a caller might have symptoms does not change the care the firefighter offers, it does allow them to take extra precautions. The Americus Fire Department does a thorough decontamination or “decon” when the firefighters have been in touch with someone who might be infected. They have a sanitizing station in the firehouses, and they wash their uniform, equipment and vehicles between calls if they feel it might have been exposed to the virus. Currently Chief Bivins reports they are stocked with N95 protective masks, although they keep a close eye on their inventory to insure they are fully and comfortably equipped day by day. In typical days the stations would have training or take breaks with each other. These are not typical days. To practice social distancing when not in the field, they remain in their home station. When asked what the community can do to make their work easier, Chief Bivins joins with Chief Scott and encourages citizens to stay home.

Chief Deputy of the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office, Colonel Eric Bryant reports they are doing extremely well. Col. Bryant reports the Sumter County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) insures the officers are comfortable and well trained with their equipment which also includes N95 masks and gloves. In addition to maintaining social distancing protocols, they are deep cleaning their office often. Since school is not in session, the SCSO has several officers providing additional support. While they are carrying out their regular duties, SCSO is also helping in some community projects such as distributing meals for the school as well as helping in the efforts of distributing food from our local food pantry. Col. Bryant also reports the jails are being kept sanitized and the population is lower than normal allowing for more space to practice social distancing. There is no visitation except for consultations with attorneys.  However, the jail has made it possible for teleconferencing as well as Skype for attorney/client communications. The Civil Division of the office remains at the courthouse to assist both employees and citizens who have governmental business to conduct. However, please be aware the courthouse is closed to the public and the officers are assisting through drop boxes.  Col. Bryant reports the “mental toughness” of his officers is high. They feel confident in their ability to serve Sumter County and in their ability to mitigate the virus’ reach. As for the county-wide curfew, he feels we are at 80% compliance as some citizens have been gathering in park areas. SCSO deputies also respond in teams if there is a domestic dispute, a crime in progress or an accident with injuries, however they follow social distancing protocol to best of their ability for the safety of all concerned. Should an officer become concerned he might be exposed there is a medical staff at the jail which will do an assessment and make a recommendation on further treatment. When asked what the community can do for the Sumter County Sheriff’s Department, Col. Bryant joins his colleagues in answering, “Stay home!”

Chief Mike Tracy of Georgia Southwestern State University’s Public Safety Department is also utilizing his full staff to provide services. Georgia Southwestern (GSW) Public Safety is responsible for protection of the campus and any areas within 500 yards of university owned property. As with other first responders, public safety is also outfitted with N95 masks and gloves. Chief Tracy and his officers are utilizing the social distancing guidelines successfully. To aid in GSW’s monitoring of the campus, the officers have initiated use of a drone purchased by funds raised by the Smarr Smith Foundation. This allows the officers to observe the activity of their jurisdiction in an effective and efficient manner. Chief Tracy encourages the community to “be understanding of the difficulty of the times and help us watch out for those who need our help.” Chief is also quick to add, “And remember the best way to protect everyone right now is to stay at home.”

Chief Jerry Harmon and the first responders of the Sumter County Fire and Rescue Department (SCFRD) are also diligent in their duties on our behalf. Much like the Americus Fire Department, their dispatchers are gathering information regarding the caller’s symptomology prior to their arrival at the home. In most cases, they are also providing aid on the porch or in the yard of the property. They will enter a home, one worker at a time, should there be a threat of COVID-19 exposure or if a resident can’t make it outside. Decontamination is of utmost importance to Chief Harmon and his staff. They use a pick-up truck with 2 firefighters to make calls as it is easier to “decon” after an exposure. Should a firefighter have to enter the home, after they render aid the worker then drives alone back to the station where s/he goes through a thorough cleaning of person and uniform. SCFRD utilizes a decontamination fog machine which sprays a virus killing mist inside the cab of the truck. The process takes about 15 minutes and the drying time takes about 30 minutes, allowing the truck to be back in service quickly. Upon arriving for their shift, dressed in civilian clothes, firefighters can expect an initial temperature reading and then follow up readings through the day. At the end of the shift the firefighter washes his/her uniform and covers at the station and changes back into civilian clothing. Having had their temperature taken, the second shift changes into their uniform and dries the prior shift’s uniform so no uniform must go home with a fire fighter. When asked if he has any fear over the virus, Chief Harmon reports, “I respect it. I know what it does, and I know how it spreads.” Chief Harmon is also aware his workers need an opportunity to process through some of the dangers of the job. The SCFRD makes sure their fighters have access to someone to talk through the stressors which so often come with a first responder’s job.  Before even being asked, Chief Harmon says, “stay home” if you want to be helpful to his team.

Each first responder has a significant and vital job to do. They do not get to cease their duties or even take a break from them. They are required to always be on the ready, even when there is no active call. Not surprisingly, several restaurants around town have made our first responders meals. It offers them a chance to catch their breath between calls. Chief Mark Scott and his team received encouragement in the form of paper hearts taped to their patrol car windows. They are aware they are not alone, just as we are aware they will show up for us when we need them. All of us depend upon each other to be mindful of safety and health. But also, be reminded by these gentlemen who serve us, the best service you can give them in return is to stay home.