When it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, a concern for area police and fire departments is what happens if their personnel get hit, a possibility that at least one department has had a taste of.
"Unfortunately, we do have one firefighter off who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus," said Stow Fire Chief Mark Stone on Tuesday. "The firefighter was sent home after arriving at work and had an elevated temperature."
Stone said the firefighter went to Cleveland Clinic Akron General Medical Center for testing on March 28. The firefighter will be remain off duty until he meets the department’s return to work policy requirements, which follows Centers for Disease Control guidelines and includes approval from the department’s medical director.
"He is doing pretty good and is anxious to get back to work," said Stone. "He did say that the first week was rough with the fever, but now his symptoms are greatly reduced and he is on the mend."
Other area fire and police departments questioned for this story say they have not had anyone test positive for the virus, although Cuyahoga Falls Assistant Fire Chief Chris Martin said a firefighter was tested, but it came back negative.
Martin said it could be a matter of time before someone has to quarantine, but that the department is ready for it.
"It’s probably unavoidable, but we’re cautiously optimistic that we stand as good a chance as anybody to keep our guys from getting it."
Many departments say they are doing what they can to prevent an epidemic within their own ranks. Besides regularly checking employees’ temperatures, steps typically include washing hands and using hand sanitizers and thoroughly cleaning facilities and vehicles on a regular basis. They are also trying to maintain social distancing with the public and even amongst their own personnel. A common practice that police departments have reported is taking as many reports as they can over the phone and police and fire departments say they try to keep their uniformed personnel separate from administrative staff.
Police officers and EMS personnel also use personal protective equipment as much as possible, though chronic shortages are a concern and various departments have put out appeals for donations. Stow dispatchers came through recently on this front by making dozens of masks for city first responders.
"We are diligently working to increase our PPE supplies to adequately protect our first responders," said Stow Police Chief Jeff Film. "We have established protocols for avoiding contamination and decontamination, and we are following the recommendations of the CDC and Summit County Public Health Department. "
But many departments are still thinking about contingencies in case an epidemic should sneak into their ranks. For example, a group of police departments on the fringes of Akron have agreed to share personnel amongst themselves if necessary.
"We have plans," said Munroe Falls Police Chief Jerry Hughes, who also serves as president of the Summit County Chiefs of Police Association. "If we were to get hit, we’ll be cooperating and working together on this. If I were to lose some guys, I would get help from Cuyahoga Falls and Stow and I could help them. We’ve had conference calls on this. The cooperation among agencies in our area — Cuyahoga Falls, Stow, Silver Lake, Tallmadge and us — is just outstanding. All I have to do is pick up the phone and call and that’s the same with the other chiefs if any of us needs something. So it’s really a great working relationship."
Tallmadge Police Chief Ron Williams said this group of departments, basically in communities served by either the Cuyahoga Falls or Stow dispatch centers, also includes Mogadore.
"For example, if officers in Cuyahoga Falls get sick, we’ll assist them and the same the other way," he said.
Cuyahoga Falls Police Chief Jack Davis said this kind of cooperation is the kind of thing that police departments do anyway.
"We will cooperate with our dispatch centers and help each other out based on the areas we border and serve," said Davis. "The local departments have always worked together to provide resources to each other so this is just another example of that. Ohio law allows for mutual aid upon request so it is not too difficult to implement if needed."
Fire departments are also thinking about the issue. For example, departments with multiple stations, such as Stow, Tallmadge and Cuyahoga Falls, have said they strive to keep personnel at each station separate from those at other stations as much as possible to limit any breakouts.
Martin, the Cuyahoga Falls assistant chief, said the department has worked out a way to respond if a large enough number of firefighters cannot work. He said all five fire stations would stay open under that plan.
‘We’re ready if it happens," he said. "We have staffing models to respond. The surge is supposedly coming, but one way or another we're ready for it."
If things get worse, he said there are contingency plans for each situation that they are ready to implement.
Stone said Stow is also thinking ahead.
"Since we have only had one firefighter with COVID-19 to date, it hasn’t affected our operations too much," he said. "We are hoping to keep our personnel safe by using best practices both here at work as well as home. Should we have a larger outbreak affecting a station or shift, we’ll have to regroup and use alternate staffing plans as necessary."
Williams said safety forces have no choice but to be prepared because they cannot just shut down.
"We’re not immune," he said. "Actually, we’re on the front lines, our people are at risk, and we have to have continuity if our folks get sick."
Editor’s note: Reporter Sean McDonnell contributed to this story.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org