First responders around Jefferson County say the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic has made their already challenging jobs more difficult, but they’ve made a variety of changes, like wearing more personal protective equipment (PPE), to try to keep themselves and others safe during the crisis.
For first responders like Mike Moormann, the pandemic has brought a constant nagging worry.
“It’s business as usual, as far as calls,” said Moormann, 37, a paramedic with the Rock Township Ambulance District. “But you have to treat each one as a possible COVID-19 case. It’s extra stress on the job, more than I’ve ever encountered before.
“You’re treating patients the way you always have, giving the best care possible – but the potential for exposure is always there in the back of your mind.”
Moormann has been a paramedic for 10 years and was an EMT for several years before that. He has been with Rock Township Ambulance for almost five years.
He said ambulance call volume has been holding at normal levels.
“People are still having heart attacks, having strokes, drug overdoses,” he said. “But this just adds another layer. You get a call for someone with a severe headache, and when you get there, they say they also have a fever, or someone else in the house has a cough.
“Our dispatch has done a great job, and they’re doing their best to screen – but we just don’t know what we’ll find when we go out.”
Moormann and his wife, Stephanie, live in Crestwood with their blended family of three children.
“I am on a schedule that’s 24 hours on, 24 off; 24 on, 24 off; 24 on, then 96 hours off,” he said. “It’s been rough. The two older kids have been a huge help, but it’s always a long 24 hours for her.”
He and his wife spent a full day making modifications to their home just in case.
“There’s an area in my basement that I set up before all this happened, getting it prepped and stocked,” he said. “I’m lucky enough to have a basement entrance, and we sectioned off that area with tarps, got appliances in place. So, if I need to be quarantined, I can do it here, but I can’t imagine not being able to see my family, hold my baby, for 14 days.”
Moormann said paramedics are adding some procedures and changed others to try to stay safe during the pandemic.
“We have always worn gloves when we treat patients, but masks weren’t usual,” he said. “We are using more PPE as far as masks and gowns than we were before. We are using different procedures for cleaning, disinfecting and storage.
“The biggest difference is in the way we are handling respiratory cases. We know that one of the big risks is aerosolization of virus particles, and that happens with things like nebulizers and breathing treatments. So we are trying not to use those things. We are having people use their inhalers, which are effective and a lot safer for everyone.”
Moormann said staff members are working with outside agencies to help minimize exposure risk for everyone while taking the best care possible of patients.
“We’re working to get people the help they need, advice on how they can stay healthy at home and not have to go to the ER.
“(The virus) is definitely a cause for worry for me and all the other paramedics. We all take extra precautions, because that’s number one in our minds – not wanting to bring it back to our families.”
Adam Lambrich said he and other Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office deputies have to remember to follow new personal safety procedures when answering calls throughout the county.
“It has been a learning curve,” said Lambrich, 35, of Hillsboro. “When a call comes out, you want to get there as soon as possible and be there to help. You have to say, ‘I want to help others, but I have to first protect myself.’ You have to remind yourself to protect yourself to protect other people.”
Lambrich said deputies travel with sanitizer to keep both their hands and their vehicles clean. He said deputies also now wear masks and gloves when they have to answer calls in person.
To minimize contact with people during the pandemic, deputies try to handle more reports by phone.
“If we believe we will need to go inside on a call, we put our mask on,” Lambrich said. “We have rubber gloves, and we got sized for an additional glove that is machine washable to create an extra barrier in case the rubber glove breaks.”
Deputies also are limiting their response to non-life-threatening medical calls, letting EMTs and paramedics handle those in an effort to minimize the number of people who might be exposed to someone with coronavirus.
“It is difficult not to go running in, but you sit back and think, ‘If I go in, can I bring something back to my kids and family?’” said Lambrich, who is married and has four children. “Granted, we signed up for this, and I will run into whatever house is necessary.
“We are emergency responders. That comes first. The priority is always civilians before us.”
If precautions can safely be taken to limit exposure, though, that’s what first responders are trying to do, Lambrich said.
Even with precautions in place, however, it’s inevitable some first responders will be exposed to the virus.
Three deputies recently were self-quarantined because of possible exposure to the virus, though none of them showed symptoms and all of them have returned to work, Sheriff Dave Marshak said.
Two of the deputies believed they could have been exposed to the coronavirus while performing their law enforcement duties, and one thought he could have been exposed during a trip to Mexico, Marshak said.
The Sheriff’s Office has about 180 deputies, Marshak said.
“We expect more as we move forward,” he said of deputies possibly encountering the virus.
A Rock Community Fire District firefighter tested positive for the coronavirus on April 1. The firefighter is in his 30s and lives in Jefferson County, and it is not known if he was exposed to the virus while on the job, Chief Jeff Broombaugh said.
Rock Fire Deputy Chief Kevin Grimshaw said Monday the firefighter never had to be hospitalized and is nearly recovered, so he is expected to soon return to duty.
“He has a minor cough, and once he is cough-free for three days, he can return to work,” Grimshaw said.
He said Rock Fire will attempt to have the firefighter tested for the virus before he returns to duty to assure he no longer carries it. However, Grimshaw said it could be difficult to get the firefighter tested.
“It can be a problem to have someone tested after they have recovered,” Grimshaw said.
Broombaugh said anyone who had been in contact with the firefighter before his diagnosis was notified by Rock Fire personnel.
Rock Fire, which has 60 firefighters, had another firefighter who previously quarantined himself after returning from an overseas trip. The chief said the firefighter didn’t exhibit symptoms of the illness and was able to return to work after 14 days.
The fire district is making sure all its firefighters are symptom-free before reporting for duty at any of the district’s five houses.
“When reporting for duty, each firefighter is screened before they are allowed to enter the station,” said Capt. Matt Mayer Jr., 37, of Arnold. “We are asked a series of symptom-related questions, and our temperature is taken to ensure we are fever-free.”
Broombaugh said the most significant procedural change for the district is when a crew responds to a call, one member enters the scene first to assess if he can handle the call himself or if the entire crew is needed.
Rock firefighters are now wearing more PPE when responding to medical calls.
“As COVID-19 prevention efforts began to ramp up, wearing more PPE, including a gown, a face shield and an N95 mask, on medical calls became the new standard,” Mayer said.
Mayer said firefighters are required to shower and clean their clothes before leaving a station at the end of their shifts. He said he also takes extra steps when he gets home to try to prevent the virus from entering his house.
“I still enter through the garage, leaving my boots and uniform outside,” Mayer said. “My boots and belt and anything else that hasn’t been laundered is then cleaned and left in the garage until I return to duty.”
Rock Fire serves 38 square miles in northeast Jefferson County, covering Arnold, Kimmswick and parts of Imperial and Barnhart.
“The men and women of Rock Community are a driven and resilient group of people,” Mayer said. “We took an oath to protect our community and we will continue to be there for you even if that means risking everything.”
De Soto Police
De Soto Police Chief Jeff McCreary said his officers are prepared if they come in contact with someone who has the virus.
McCreary said all 16 police officers have PPE in their cars and a decontamination kit at the garage.
He said the department, which has 25 employees, has officers divided into shifts, and the different shifts make sure to not be in the station at the same time.
“You don’t want to have that risk (of all your employees getting the illness),” McCreary said.
He said the police officers respond to all the department’s calls, but they make sure to practice social distancing.
Sgt. Dirk Helms, who has been with the department since 2013, said he has been using PPE more than ever.
“We are definitely gloving it up on every call where we used to not do that,” he said.
Helms, who has been in law enforcement since 2001 and served in the Army as a military police officer, said he has never before experienced anything like the pandemic.
He said when he gets home at night, he goes to his back porch to clean up, trying not to bring the virus into his house.
Helms said he has two children, aged 13 and 14, and since school buildings have been closed, his children have been staying with their mother, who is a nurse.
“We’re not exchanging the kids back and forth,” Helms said. “We’re doing a lot of FaceTime just so I don’t expose them.
“It’s a little harder on my son because he loves to hang out with me, but he’s understanding.”
Helms said most police officers, including himself, will most likely continue using more precautions in the future.
“It’s something I’ve picked up as a habit actually. As soon as I get the call, the gloves go on,” he said. “So, I’ll probably continue that just because of knowing what I know.”
Arnold Police Lt. Clinton Wooldridge said the department’s administration made sure its 55 officers had equipment to keep them and the public safe during the pandemic.
“We have hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, all of that stuff,” Wooldridge said. “We were able to get it ordered and on hand right away. The administration acted quickly.”
Along with being equipped with PPE, Wooldridge said the department has stopped holding a roll call at the Police Department at the beginning of shifts. Instead, officers reporting for duty get into their vehicles and receive their assignments by radio.
Like the Sheriff’s Office, Arnold Police officers are trying to handle more reports by phone, instead of responding to a home or other building.
Arnold Police encourage residents to call the department’s non-emergency phone number, 636-296-3204, when they want to speak with an officer regarding reports where there is no immediate concern for personal safety.
Arnold Police also ask residents to call the Police Department before coming to its lobby at 2101 Jeffco Blvd. In addition, services like background checks, job-related fingerprinting and the release of reports and records have been modified to limit contact during the pandemic.
“Nothing has changed regarding our response to emergency services,” the Police Department reported.
“We are doing our job,” said Wooldridge, 39. “That is the main thing. We do all we can to keep ourselves healthy, and we will continue to do our jobs.”
Festus Police Chief Tim Lewis said “it’s a little unnerving” for police officers and other first responders being on the front lines during the pandemic.
“This is a danger I don’t think anybody’s encountered since the flu epidemic of 1918.”
However, Festus Police officers are out on the streets every day serving the public, so the department’s 29 officers have made some changes in an effort to stem the spread of the virus, Lewis said.
“We are working a different schedule to allow some time off and still maintain a presence on the street,” Lewis said. “We’ve gone to 12-hour shifts from eight-hour shifts, which means I have two shifts a day instead of three. We’re trying to give this city building (Festus City Hall/Police Station) a rest. We’re trying to leave sections of the building empty for three days at a time.”
Officers also are wearing more protective equipment.
“We have gloves, masks and goggles,” Lewis said. “We have a minimal amount of them. We’re going through hand sanitizer by the gallon.”
He said the Police Department also has changed its response to calls for now.
“We’ve cut back on some calls. We now handle some things by telephone, like minor accidents or minor stealing calls.”
Joachim-Plattin Ambulance District Administrator Curtis Stueve said it has been difficult to stay on top of changes needed to keep staff members and the public safe during the pandemic.
“Protocols seem to change daily and we have to keep up,” he said
JPAD, which covers 181 square miles in southeast Jefferson County, has 43 employees, Stueve said.
So far none of the staff members has had to take off work because of the coronavirus, but one employee was tested for the disease and, fortunately, did not have it, Stueve said.
“All employees get their temperatures checked when they come into work,” he said. “Those who’ve encountered potential coronavirus patients have their temperatures checked twice a day.”
All the ambulance district’s patients are asked a number of questions in an effort to screen them for the virus, too, Stueve said.
“Do you have a fever? Have you traveled anywhere where coronavirus is prevalent? If they’re not in severe stress, we do the interviewing from a distance,” he said. “If they answer ‘yes’ to anything, we put on protective equipment. Anyone we suspect may have it is transported to medical care and we decontaminate all the equipment when we get back. We use ultraviolet light that is supposed to kill coronavirus in 28 seconds. We’ve had these lights a while (prior to the pandemic). They kill most of the viruses out there.”
Stueve said his staff has come in contact with some people suspected of having the coronavirus.
“We have transported a couple people who had it, potentially,” Stueve said. “One came back positive.”
He said the employees who dealt with those patients were protected as much as they could be.
“Our people had protective equipment on,” he said. “They’ve kept working (and did not get tested or quarantined).”
Surprisingly, Stueve said the ambulance district’s call volume has been lower than usual.
“We had been working 26 to 27 calls per day. Now (during the pandemic), it’s 20 to 21 calls a day,” he said.
High Ridge Fire
High Ridge Fire Protection District Engineer John Barton said the district is running low on PPE for employees, but is making due.
“We don’t have the supplies that we’d like to have,” he said. “We’re not out of anything, but we’re taking steps to conserve PPE as much as possible.”
Barton said the PPE for a firefighter includes an N95 mask, gloves and eye protection. He said if a patient has been experiencing flu-like symptoms, firefighters wear a gown.
He said all patients also are given a mask to wear.
Barton said the district is now using a new UV light to clean masks.
In addition, crew members now take their temperature when they arrive for duty, at 3 p.m. and before they go home, Barton said.
He said the precautions may seem excessive to some people but are needed in this uncertain time.
“You know, the numbers of people who have been confirmed to have coronavirus, we don’t think reflect the number of people who really have it,” Barton said. “So we’ve just changed our way of thinking and we sort of treat every encounter that we have in the public as if we might be dealing with somebody who has it.”
If crew members are exposed to a person who has tested positive for COVID-19, the firefighters would be quarantined for at least two weeks, he said.
Barton said he remembers when a lot of the same sort of measures were put in place to protect first responders from Ebola.
“Obviously Ebola wasn’t nearly as contagious and didn’t spread like this one is, so it’s definitely something new that we’re having to adapt to,” he said.
Barton said High Ridge Fire covers about 96 square miles in High Ridge, House Springs, Byrnes Mill and Fenton. He said the district has 30 full-time firefighters.
He said anyone who wants to donate PPE may contact the Jefferson County Office of Emergency Management.
“They’re the ones that are receiving supplies from the state and federal stockpiles, and they send them out to the Jefferson County agencies as they need them,” Barton said.
Byrnes Mill Police
Byrnes Mill Police Chief Frank T. Selvaggio said his department also is taking precautions to try to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus.
“I am concerned for the safety of my officers and my citizens,” Selvaggio said. “I just feel a lot of pressure right now to make sure everybody is safe and it’s kind of a difficult thing to do with so many unknowns out there.”
He said officers have to take their temperature when they arrive for duty, and any officer who has a temperature over 100 or is coughing has to go home. So far, he said no officer has had symptoms for the coronavirus.
Selvaggio said the department has three virus safety kits, which are kept in the on-duty officers’ vehicles. He said the kit includes PPE like masks, gloves, gowns, hand sanitizer and boot covers.
In addition, Selvaggio said the station is now being cleaned daily and all officers have been practicing social distancing.
He said his police officers also are now taking non-emergency calls over the phone.
“I have been doing this job for 39 years, and I never thought that I would be telling one of my officers not to respond to a call for service,” Selvaggio said
He said officers are still making traffic stops, though.
Police Officer Aimee Stockard, who has been with the department for seven months, said she is more aware of her surroundings now because of the pandemic.
“You have to ask different questions than what you usually ask; you have to take precautions in a different way,” she said. “We’re constantly washing our hands, making sure everything is sanitized, everything secure. We want to make sure we have the best interest of our community, that there’s no contamination.”
Stockard said she is a little worried about taking the virus home to her family members, so she makes sure to take off her uniform before having contact with her family after duty.
She said if she were to come in contact with a positive case while working she would be able to clean up and get a new uniform.
“We actually have lockers here at our Police Department and we have an extra uniform inside of our lockers at all times,” she said. “So, if we do become contaminated, or possibly come into contact with somebody who is sick, then we are able to access that firehouse shower and change our uniforms.”
Stockard said working during the pandemic will probably change her work habits forever.
“I don’t believe that everything is just going to go back to normal overnight,” she said. “I always have to look at the positives and everything happens for a reason. So, it has opened our eyes to be more aware of our situations and our surroundings.”
Selvaggio said he has started to communicate more with the community through Facebook during the pandemic and has begun posting a list of people who can help with odd jobs or shopping.
For example, Selvaggio said he was able to find someone to help an elderly widow with shopping.
“It’s pretty neat to see this work with people, that they’re helping each other,” Selvaggio said.
Like other police departments, the 13 Pevely Police employees are taking extra care to avoid contact with anyone who may have the coronavirus, Capt. Larry Miller said.
“What we’ve done is modified how we respond to some of the calls,” Miller said. “We’re not doing extra, specialized patrols. We don’t go in a house on all sick cases. If we need to go in, we will.
“We do not allow people into the Police Department (other than the lobby).”
Miller said the Police Department is notified if anyone who lives in the city tests positive for the virus.
“We are working with the Emergency Operations Center run by the Jefferson County Health Department,” he said.
Miller said the officers are starting to get more PPE – masks, gloves, goggles.
If one of his officers would come in contact with a person with the coronavirus, the department has specific procedures that would be followed, Miller said.
“With a small police department like ours, one officer being exposed could literally take us all out.”
De Soto Rural Fire
De Soto Rural Fire Protection Chief Tom Fitzgerald said his 62 employees, like other first responders, are doing their best during stressful conditions.
“I think our staff members are doing OK,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s obviously a tense time.”
Firefighters at the De Soto Rural district, which covers about 174 square miles in the southwestern portion of the county outside the city of De Soto, also are taking extra precautions to try to prevent the spread of the disease, Fitzgerald said.
“We’re asking the questions,” he said. “It has to be that way for everybody in emergency service. It’s a standard procedure.”
The firefighters are wearing extra equipment and taking extra care to clean equipment, Fitzgerald said.
“Everything has to be decontaminated and sanitized,” he said.
Jefferson County 911 Dispatch handles the dispatching services for all the county’s police, fire and ambulance departments and districts, except the Festus and Pevely police departments.
Like other first responders, 911 has put new precautions in place to protect its 42 employees, including 36 dispatchers, from the coronavirus, Chief Travis Williams said.
“We are working separately,” he said. “They’ve got at least 6 feet between them. We’re using our backup facility (in Cedar Hill) and our headquarters (in Otto).
“We had a biohazard company at our facilities (on April 6), and they decontaminated, pre-treated.”
He said the staff has received a lot of calls about the coronavirus.
“We probably have had hundreds of calls concerning COVID-19. I don’t know how many we’ve had,” he said April 7. “Every call we get is screened with a set of questions regarding COVID-19. Not just medical calls, but police and fire, as well, so they (first responders) know what the situation is they’re responding to. We started that about two weeks ago.”