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COVID-19: Life Without 911

First Responder is the broad term used to describe people who answer calls to emergencies. Firefighters, police, sheriffs, paramedics, EMTs, 911 dispatchers, ocean lifeguards are all first responders. The heart of first responders’ public safety duty is interacting with the general public, which makes them one of the highest risk groups for exposure to COVID-19.

Police, Fire, and EMS

COVID-19 is already taking a toll on first responders across the country. At the epicenter in New York City, 1,400 officers have tested positive, 3 have died, and 6,000 other officers without positive tests have called in sick. This means that almost 20% of the entire NYPD force is unavailable. In neighboring New Jersey counties, 700 officers have tested positive and are in self-quarantine. The New Jersey state police chief announced that retired officers and the National Guard may be used to fill staffing shortages (who may actually be a higher risk group due to age).

The Chief of the Detroit Police Department tested positive along with 39 other officers just days after the Captain leading the city’s homicide division died from the virus. In Chicago, 21 officers have tested positive; the last 3 to be diagnosed all work in the homicide division. Unlike many other police duties that can be conducted with appropriate social distancing, homicide investigations require face-to-face interaction with suspects and community members in their homes. 20 LAPD officers and 6 LAFD firefighters also tested positive over the weekend.

In Washington, DC, 21 fire and EMS members have tested positive and more than 150 others are in self-quarantine. In San Jose, 14 firefighters tested positive and another 70 reported symptoms. Data compiled by firehouse.com (as of 3/30) shows that across the country:

  • 374 firefighters have tested positive
  • +10,000 have confirmed exposures
  • +4,700 are in mandatory quarantine

In the surfing capital of the world, Hawaii’s lifeguard towers sit empty because PPE is not available for the ocean safety staff. On the opposite end of the spectrum, lifeguards in Long Beach, CA are enforcing beach closures instead of their normal duties to watch the waters.

The situations in these cities provide a tiny snapshot of the crisis playing out in nearly every community across the country. What happens when the number of first responders with COVID-19 or in mandatory quarantine reaches a point where public safety agencies can no longer provide services to the community?

I’m Calling 911 — They’re Not Picking Up…

One of the recommendations from the federal government following 9/11 was to integrate fire, EMS, and police 911 centers into shared facilities that could easily coordinate their responses in tandem during an emergency involving multiple agencies. The result is shared work spaces with all of a jurisdiction’s emergency dispatchers and call takers working in close proximity to each other to facilitate continuous communication.

911 Call Center

These integrated setups with everyone working in the same space are hotbeds of pathogen transmission. This is also work that is not (yet) able to be conducted remotely due to the necessity of secure physical workstations that are hardwired to maintain functionality during power or other service interruptions.

Need to Go to the Hospital? — Drive Yourself

With all the extra time at home during office closures and lockdown, maybe you decide it’s finally a good time to clean the gutters. While leaning off the ladder to reach for a branch, you lose your balance, fall 20 feet, and break your leg. The first thing you scream, after maybe an expletive, is “Call 911!” If you happen to live in Cedar Grove, NJ, it’s already too late to call for help because the town’s volunteer ambulance service is no longer responding to calls. Ambulance services are going to be inundated with COVID-19 related calls that require extended transport time and extensive cleaning of their units after every response. This decontamination bottleneck will beget additional downtime for units in jurisdictions that are also facing staffing shortages. Normally, fire departments support EMS systems by responding to calls when ambulances are delayed, or to provide help carrying patients to the unit. FDNY has announced that firefighters will no longer be responding to EMS calls if there is a possible COVID exposure or flu-like symptoms. New York City is also placing “low priority” medical calls on hold until a unit is available…which could be hours or days.

The reality of the COVID-19 pandemic is that an ambulance may not be available when you call 911. Hopefully, you have some friendly neighbors who can carry you to a vehicle and a drive you to the hospital if you fall off the roof. When your recluse uncle on the other side of town has severe chest pain at 3AM, you may need to drive over and take him to the hospital yourself. We have counted on ambulances to take us to the hospital any time we call for help, and that’s about to change.

Car Crash? — Drive It or Ditch It

The AllState commercial you saw just before leaving your house comes true; mayhem happens, and suddenly you crash your car into another car. Not a big deal — you call 911 and the police come to take a report to determine who’s at fault. EMS crews check out everyone for injuries. The fire department blocks traffic, sweeps up glass,and cleans up leaking gasoline and oil. Other police officers direct traffic around the scene to keep other motorists moving along.

But what happens when you crash your car and 911 doesn’t pick up? You had a green light and the other driver ran a red, but now he’s claiming the accident was your fault. While you argue, other vehicles whiz by at 60 mph in the next lane because there are no emergency lights to slow them down. Your car is banged up but all the wheels are still on it, so you try to figure out if your car is driveable or if you’re going to ditch it in the middle of the highway. If this accident happens in Memphis or Staten Island, you’re already on your own because police officers are no longer responding to vehicle accidents without injuries to reduce the call load on first responders during the outbreak.

Dispute With Your Neighbor? — Better Work It Out

Your neighbor has an oversized SUV and has been parking across the line into your assigned space in your condo parking lot. Because everyone is home from work, all over the overflow parking is full too. When you return from a quick trip to the grocery store, you find your neighbor’s SUV parked halfway into your space, preventing you from parking your car.

Pig Parker

You walk up to his unit, knock on the door, and he answers holding a beer can (he, like many, is drinking all day with nothing else to do). You politely explain the parking situation but he is clearly intoxicated and he tells you to “go f**k yourself”. Now what? During a normal time, you’d probably call the police to help settle this dispute. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police departments aren’t answering calls for civil disputes, property crimes, and other non-criminal complaints. Some departments are even looking for ways to outsource these minor calls to civilian volunteers. None of that helps you find a place to park.

Victim of Petty Crime? — Too Bad

Since you don’t have a place to park your car anymore, you decide to ride your bicycle to the pharmacy to pick up your spouse’s medication. When you come out of the store, you find your bicycle lock cut in half on the sidewalk, and you see a juvenile riding away on your bike. Good luck calling the cops on this one. Even if there was an officer watching, most police departments are not arresting criminals for non-violent crimes to limit contact with officers and keep jail cells empty. So the choices are, 1) try to chase down the thief yourself, 2) buy a new bike, or 3) walk to the store next time.

Let It All Burn

It’s conceivable that if staffing thins enough, there may not be any first responders available when a house catches fire or to canvas a neighborhood after a homicide. Even before COVID-19, Detroit’s fire department faced such a severe staffing shortage that they allow vacant houses to burn. This practice could become the norm across the country. We take for granted how many minor inconveniences, injuries, losses, and disputes we count on someone else to resolve for us when we call 911. A result of this pandemic is that first responders simply won’t be available for most minor and, increasingly, many major emergencies too.

As a society, we need to do everything we can to slow and stop the spread of COVID-19 before we are forced face the reality of being without the public safety services that we depend on.

David Riedman is Ph.D. student in Sociology at the University of Hawai’i and an expert in critical infrastructure protection, homeland security policy, and emergency management. He was a volunteer firefighter for 18 years and is a co-founder of the Center for Homeland Defense and Security’s Advanced Thinking and Experimentation (HSx) Program at the Naval Postgraduate School.

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