MOUNT VERNON — In light of the COVID-19 state of emergency, Mount Vernon City Safety Services Director Rick Dzik has authorized temporary changes to the Mount Vernon Fire Department and police department upon the chiefs’ requests.
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MVFD will increase the minimum number of firefighters on each shift from eight to nine. MVPD will decrease the minimum number of officers per shift from four to three. Each chief independently made the request March 16 and Dzik said he approved them both the same day.
The fire department currently has 13 responders assigned to each shift with different days off and vacation schedules, according to Dzik. Before the minimum requirement increase, five responders can theoretically be on leave at a time. With the nine-person requirement, no more than four responders on the same shift will be on leave at the same time.
Fire Chief Chad Christopher explained that the change is to best prepare for the worst-case scenario and to continue to provide coverage for the city at a high level.
Under the pandemic, there are extra steps to the standard preparation and decontamination process for responders coming in and out of the station. These precautionary measures mean that getting ready could take longer. Christopher said that he hopes the additional manpower can help speed up the process.
When responding to potential COVID-19 calls, responders are equipped with additional protective gear such as N-95 masks, safety goggles and gloves. A medical protective gown will be added if the squad is called to a confirmed case, Christopher said.
After the call, responders also go through a more thorough decontamination process, including sanitizing equipment, showering and washing uniforms after returning to the station.
Christopher noted that first responders are taking every standard precaution to prevent transmission and self-monitoring by taking temperature twice a day.
The department has responded to a couple of suspected COVID-19 calls before the Knox County Health Department set up their COVID-19 call line, 740-399-8014, according to Christopher. He wants the public to know that unless an individual is experiencing serious respiratory symptoms or chest pain, they do not need to call the EMS for suspected COVID-19. Instead, he urges people to contact their primary provider first or utilize the health department call line for guidance.
“They’re a great resource,” Christopher said.
When asked about the department’s resources, Christopher responded that “right now we’re doing good on supplies.” He nonetheless expresses an appreciation for people and businesses that have been donating equipment through the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.
As the fire department gears up for more calls, the MVPD has seen a decrease in call volume. Chief Kit Morgan said people are staying at home and are not requesting as many services.
The police department responded to approximately 17,000 calls in 2019, averaging 46 calls per day. Morgan estimated that they currently receive 25-30 calls a day under the pandemic.
Dzik said the reduction of police officers also has the purpose of protecting city employees’ health by distancing the workforce, requiring fewer officers to be around each other at a time.
Morgan said the decision was to follow the health and safety directions and limit the number of people at work. He also noted that this temporary reduction will eliminate some overtime.
Three officers per shift are sufficient to handle the current call volume and still have officers visible in the community, Morgan said. However, he said the department is evaluating the need on a day-to-day basis and can always go back to four if needed.
“It is temporary,” Morgan emphasized.
Dzik noted that the current emergency is of medical and public health concerns, to which the fire department is better suited to respond. If it were a civic or public order emergency, the police department might be on the front line instead.