Over the course of the past few months, and as the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus has continued its exponential spread across the country, a primary focus of media coverage has been the shortages of protective equipment and staff that hospitals and their ICUs are continually facing. However, what is often underreported is that, across the country, municipalities and their staff are also experiencing the same shortages, and feeling some of the same stresses and strains, as the healthcare industry.
To better understand how our local government, and in particular, how Door County’s first responders have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic, we spoke with Dan Kane, Director of Emergency Management and Communications for Door County, and with Tim Dietman, Fire Chief for the City of Sturgeon Bay, Town of Sturgeon Bay and the Town of Sevastopol. Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Dan, how has Emergency Management been affected since the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and COVID-19 came into our world last March?
Dan: I’m the only person in the county that deals with emergency management. My role is really to assist and help carry out the mission of Public Health, which is the lead agency at the county level for this pandemic. That work can take many forms, and has over the course of the past nine months—everything from coordination planning to communication, to personal protective equipment (PPE) distribution, to COVID testing and more.
The main goal is to arm the community with the resources it needs to be as successful as possible in fighting the virus, and to make sure that plans are in place to help the county recover from the impact of the virus once the vaccine becomes available. So, for the past nine months, it’s been “all hands on deck” to be able to make sure that, at the county level, we support Public Health and all of the varying partners involved in the pandemic response—from the healthcare workers on up.
How has the 911 Emergency Dispatch Center been affected?
Dan: I also run 911 communications, and where COVID-19 really affects 911-dispatch operations is with personnel. Dispatch is a very unique job with very unique skill sets, and requires people who are trained to be able to do this job. What we’re seeing in dispatch is the same thing we’re seeing in the healthcare field: that there are a select few people available that know what they’re doing, and when you lose some of those people—when staff are out sick and/or need to be quarantined—operations need to change and things get tight really quickly. At times, we’ve needed to drastically alter operations to be able to still function and provide public safety to the community.
Tim, how has the Fire Department been affected by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic?
Tim: Perhaps more than anything, we’ve had to limit access to the station. This has meant not only cutting back on station tours and fire safety training, but also that our firefighters have not been able to work at multiple stations. We have two stations and we have firefighters assigned to each one. For about three months they stayed at their assigned station—there was no switching, no moving back and forth. That created a lot of staffing problems for us, because when people are off on sick leave or vacation (people still need to take time off) we couldn’t move people between stations to cover shifts, instead we had half of the staff to fill in.
On top of that, we had to make the determination, early on, to not bring in our part-time firefighters, which are a huge part of our department, in the hopes that when we had something really big going on, we would have another portion of our staff that we could count on to be healthy.
How has limited staffing affected your departments, and how has it been affecting staff and staff morale?
Dan: So, we had a small outbreak at our dispatch center, and it was scary how quickly the virus spread. We lost almost half of our staff within a matter of days. This is a 24/7, 365-day operation. From an operational perspective, there are no holidays, there is no time off—operations have to continually run. That, in turn, means you have to have trained staff in chairs at all times. When you remove that, whether through a vacancy or a sickness, other people need to pick up that slack, which often comes in the form of a lot of overtime—8-hour shifts become 12-hour shifts, and that really strains operations. We’ve needed to ask employees who are taking time off to come back in and help our dispatch center because of COVID-19, and understand, these are employees who have worked three to four 12-hour shifts a week for the last year-and-a-half. This takes a real physical and mental toll on them.
That we’ve been able to overcome and get through this has been a testament to the good group of people we have in this dispatch center. Everyone has banded together and said, “How can we help?” and “Tag me in coach, I’m ready to go.” That mentality has really kept this center afloat.
Tim: Because we decided to not to allow firefighters to switch between stations, and because we didn’t bring in our part-time firefighters, we’ve had a lot of overtime, and fatigue became something that we were starting to see with our members. Normally, our firemen and our medics work 24-hour shifts on a 9-day rotation. But, we had guys that were working 48-hour shifts, getting 11 hours off, and then coming back for another 48 hours. People say, “Well, you get to sleep at night.” Well, the majority of our calls happen at night when people are home. So, imagine staying up 24 hours at a crack and still having to make logical, life-altering decisions—fatigue can start to cloud judgment, and as a result, we’ve had to look at the consequences of that and start modifying work schedules.
What do you want to tell the community about taking personal responsibility about stopping the spread of COVID-19?
Tim: Well, something I tell my firefighters on a regular basis is, “If you’re sick, or if you’re not feeling well, stay home.” Be smart about what you’re doing—take all recommended precautions. You don’t need to bring the coronavirus into your workplace, or to your friends or family members. It’s not anyone’s wish to have an empty seat at a table during the holidays. So, really think about what the outcome of your actions may be, and do your part to help slow the spread. We all want nothing more than to get back to normal—whatever that may be. I urge everybody to do everything in their power to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
Dan: My number one concern in this fight is that we are only as strong as our weakest link. It takes every individual buying into this and getting behind the collective cause to help prevent future spread of the coronavirus. Without the help of each and every person, we cannot make up the ground that we need to make up. It is important to realize that this cause is bigger than any one person, and we owe it to our fellow citizens to do our part to see this thing through to the end. Now, with the vaccine, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and if we can each do our part to follow safety guidelines and protocols until it gets distributed, we will not only spare our healthcare system and public safety, but also save lives in the process.