ELKHART — Police officers are urging residents to help keep an eye out for suspicious activity, while other agencies have first responders in quarantine and firefighters are taking precautions to protect themselves from the coronavirus.
But otherwise, duty on the front lines of emergency response is business as usual, local officials say.
“Right now our EMTs, paramedics, police officers, corrections officers and health care professionals are all still in the business of working with people and providing medical care and anything we can do to help reduce the spread of this virus to help keep everyone safe,” said Cpt. Michael Culp, public information officer at the Elkhart County Sheriff’s Office.
Officers are conducting their regular day-to-day duties, but with extra safety precautions, he said.
“Our patrol officers, corrections officers, detectives and even our staff all deal with a lot of people face-to-face every day,” Culp said. “So, we’re trying to follow some safety guidelines by eliminating close contact with people and inquiring about how their health is just so we can help keep them and us safe at the same time and still get things accomplished.”
Since the governor issued a stay-at-home order closing all non-essential businesses, he said, the department has seen a decrease in the amount of traffic. He said police aren’t patrolling or pulling over people specifically for the order.
“The stay-at-home order is a recommendation by the governor, which everyone is encouraged to do to stop the spread of COVID-19, but there’s no enforcement linked to that on our end,” Culp said. “We’re still responding to the same things we usually do like crashes, calls for service for theft and other normal business.”
Culp urges residents to keep an eye on their neighborhood during the pandemic and report any suspicious activity.
“It’s important for people to look out for their neighbors,” he said. “Just because more people are home doesn’t mean there aren’t people out committing various crimes during the day.”
Stay vigilantBecause of travel restrictions in Elkhart County, Cleveland Township Fire Department is urging its volunteer contingent to stay home.
That’s left all first responder and firefighter duties up to the full-time staff members, Chief Richard Newman said. The department, which covers the area northwest of Elkhart, has about a dozen volunteers and 16 staff members.
He said the remaining staff sometimes have to work overtime while staying vigilant to avoid exposure to the coronavirus while out on call.
“I’m trying to keep them very upbeat about it, just to stay vigilant. For the most part, a lot of us are just tired. We’re getting to the point where, yes, we are exhausted mentally as well,” he said. “They’re handling it pretty good.”
Elkhart Mayor Rod Roberson on Sunday said six city first responders were in quarantine to help ensure the virus is kept in check.
Newman said his crews are monitoring their own health frequently and questioning the people they come in contact with about their symptoms and those of whoever they live with. He said some of the firefighters are being looked at more closely, based on suspicious circumstances, but no one has had to be quarantined.
“We’re checking our temperatures and (taking a) questionnaire every day, going on shift, coming off shift, so we’ve been basically monitoring ourselves,” he said. “Some of it’s just mentally trying to stay up on the ballgame of the right questions, making sure we’re properly protected with (personal protective equipment) on the calls.”
Newman said they recently received delivery of personal protection equipment items that they didn’t have. He said they have some eye protection on hand but are a little low on other things, and find themselves trying to make masks stretch a little further.
“The N95 masks, we use them basically through a tour of duty unless we end up having somebody who has a high suspicion of the disease, and then we toss it and get a new one,” he said.
No more briefingAt the Elkhart Police Department, briefings that would normally mark the beginning of a shift have been canceled, allowing officers to not come together in one room every day.
Elkhart officers would already do most of their work away from their station in their squad cars, and since the police department has one officer per vehicle, keeping distance from each other is relatively easy.
“That is an advantage for us. We don’t have that person sitting right next to you all day,” Chief Chris Snyder said.
Civilians can normally request a ride-along, but that is not allowed during the outbreak.
“The big thing for us is making sure that we’re protecting our officers as well as our community,” Snyder said.
That also means using more personal protection equipment, including Tyvek suits, masks, gloves and glasses. When officers respond to a call, dispatchers first ask if anyone at the location is sick so the officers know if they should take extra precautions.
Snyder said officers have had to inform some businesses who did not follow the governor’s coronavirus-related executive orders – including the ban on dining at restaurants – of what the rules are.
“That was before we knew that the State Police were going to take care of it,” Snyder said. “We used it an as education, and I don’t believe we had any, or very many, repeat offenders on that.”
One Elkhart police officer has self-quarantined, he said. Others have been ordered to stay home after they or family members showed symptoms.
“The last thing we want to do is contaminate our officers,” he said.
As chief, Snyder has prioritized community engagement, which is a challenge when events are canceled and everyone keeps their distance. But it is not impossible.
An Elkhart boy who turned 4 on Monday could not have the birthday party he had hoped for, so four Elkhart police officers drove by his window with their lights and sirens on, wishing him a happy birthday. According to the boy’s reaction, the display was a great hit, the chief said.
“That’s a big part, for us still trying to be involved in the community,” Snyder said. “We have to remind everybody about the social distancing, but we still want to be out there. We’re still part of the community.”