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As six Chattanooga firefighters are under self-quarantine or isolation, local first responders say they are preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.
Last week, Hamilton County Emergency Management Services officials said, they received roughly two to three calls from patients reporting symptoms of the coronavirus. This week, that number had climbed to roughly eight or nine per day.
Hamilton County 911 Emergency Communications and the Chattanooga Fire Department, however, reported only slight upticks in calls for possible COVID-19 symptoms.
But testing has been scarce. As of Tuesday, 22 people had been tested in the county, according to the health department.
Hamilton County EMS spokeswoman Amy Maxwell said the agency began informing its employees of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Tennessee Department of Health guidelines in late January. The agency operates 15 ambulances within the county.
"We implemented our full policy late February/ Early March and have updated it several times as data has changed from CDC and [Tennessee Department of Health] and on further guidance of our medical director," she said in an email.
Local first responder agencies began implementing those new protocols late last week or over the weekend, they said.
The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office, for example, has begun taking non-emergency reports over the phone at least until April 1.
Deputies will take phone calls from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., but if a caller would like to speak to a deputy in person, they may request that.
"Rest assured the HCSO will still respond to all critical calls for service involving crimes in progress, instances of violence, and all traffic crashes," spokesman Matt Lea said.
One of the most notable changes has been limiting the types of calls to which police and firefighters respond. Usually, firefighters would accompany EMS personnel on a medical call and police would be called in some cases, but now neither police nor firefighters are responding to medical-only calls unless specifically requested by paramedics.
Emergency dispatchers have been directed to ask a series of questions to determine what kind of symptoms a person is experiencing.
"When somebody does call in for difficulty breathing, it could be any number of different things. They could be having chest pain, they could be having just flu-like symptoms," Chattanooga Fire Department Chief Phillip Hyman said. "We're trying to pin down exactly what their issues are."
"We're just kind of trying to get an idea if anybody might be symptomatic, that way when the first responders go out there, they will know to use precautions," Hamilton County 911 Emergency Communications Executive Director John Stuermer said.
If the person does report having COVID-19 symptoms, only necessary personnel enter the home and attend to the patient. That means police and firefighters either don't respond or stage outside the home in case they are needed.
Firefighters have been issued N95 face masks, medical gloves and eye protection, which isn't a new protocol — those items are included in firefighter gear. Though the department has reached out to vendors to obtain more supplies, they've been put on a wait list "just like everyone else," Hyman said.
If firefighters do come into contact with a symptomatic person, there are isolation protocols to contain any potential spread, he said.
Just over the weekend, the department confirmed three firefighters are in self-quarantine at home and a three-person crew is in isolation after one of the crew members arrived to work with respiratory difficulty.
For the police department, Chief David Roddy said his department has made adjustments in all aspects of operation.
The department has closed its lobby to the public, shared information about how to request police reports online, and any staff members who can work from home are set up to do so. They've suspended all in-service training, any training-related travel and the cadet academy. And for those who can't work from home, they've started to minimize contact with each other.
Lineups have been canceled, Roddy said. Lineups are briefing sessions for officers at the start of their shifts.
"We understand that social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of the virus," Roddy said. "We're having officers respond directly into their districts and having their supervisors get with them, check on them, pass along any important information to each officer individually, so that we can minimize the amount of large group gatherings that we have."
That means front porch lineups — a lineup that takes place in the community rather than the police department — are also canceled. And so are any community or neighborhood meetings.
The department's Older Adult Specialized Services program will continue, Roddy said. Participants in the program are visited by officers every so often to make sure they are safe, healthy and are receiving the services they need.
For now, the program is being carried out via phone calls, but if officers are unable to reach the person, they will check on them in person.
Roddy asked for community understanding as his officers practice social distancing.
"We are working to keep ourselves safe, but also members of the community safe, so that 6-foot distance [ELLIPSIS] it's out of an abundance of caution," he said. "But it's not out of a sense of not caring or not wishing to engage with our community. We just think it's best for all of us to keep a little bit of distance, but understand that that distance does not diminish our ability to serve and protect them."
As for protective gear, Roddy said the department had some on hand but that it wasn't enough to outfit the entire department.
"We are in the same situation that you see across the country. When it comes to first responders, we all develop the same need simultaneously, so we are all working to obtain those critical items," he said.
Late Monday, though, the department and other local first responder agencies received part of a cache of hand sanitizer, antibacterial wipes and face masks that had been picked up in bulk over the past couple of weeks by a pair of Hixson brothers hoping to resell it for a profit on Amazon.
All agencies reported some concern for staffing shortages, but said they have a contingency plan, whether it's tapping neighboring agencies through partnership agreements or bringing in higher-ups to help.
THINGS TO KNOW
— Chattanooga Police Department: 423-698-2525
Call to file a police report over the phone or if you would like to add a friend or family member to the department’s Older Adult Specialized Services list.
— Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office: 423-622-0022
Call to file a police report over the phone.