Police Officials Emphasize Social Distancing to Keep Officers Healthy
Tuesday, March 31, 2020 | Comments
Law enforcement officials from around the country emphasized the importance of strong social distancing policies in keeping law enforcement officers healthy and on duty amid the COVID-19 pandemic, during a March 27 webinar hosted by the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) and FirstNet, built with AT&T.

To ensure there are enough available troopers, New Jersey State Police officials took the available workforce and split it in half, said New Jersey State Police Col. Patrick Callahan. One half of that force will work over a 14-day period, while the other half is now on standby at home in case on-duty troopers are exposed to coronavirus and must go into quarantine.

This approach is critical to ensure the state has the adequate number of troopers to maintain normal operations should a station or multiple troopers be exposed to the virus, said Callahan. “Anyone off duty is on standby so troopers know they need to be available. This isn’t the time to go hunting or fishing in Virginia. We’ve made it very clear that they know they need to be available.”

For those troopers on duty, the state police implemented a series of social distancing policies aimed at preventing a staff member exposed to the virus from spreading it to other personnel, Callahan said. These policies include single trooper patrols, not allowing troopers to eat lunch together, and allowing troopers to take their uniforms home and not requiring them to dress at work.

The Orange County Sheriff’s Office in California has also moved into a strict platoon model for its workforce in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus among staff, said Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes. No officer is allowed to operate outside of his or her platoon, and overtime hours are limited so they don’t overlap with other platoons to prevent cross contamination.

The Seattle Police Department, which was at the epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. in early February, is also emphasizing social distancing among staff to keep as many staff healthy and in service to the public as possible, said Police Chief Carmen Best. “The fact is, if they’re not healthy, they can’t provide service to anyone.”

To facilitate this, the department asked anyone that could work from home while maintaining Criminal Justice Information Service (CJIS) requirements to do so. Best also split her command staff in half and has one-half in building at one time and the other half working from home to ensure that at least some command staff are available.

Having staff work from home provides a variety of challenges and questions that agencies must address, said Todd Early, assistant chief, infrastructure operations, Texas Department of Public Safety.

For example, an agency’s network must be able to handle the number of virtual private connections being made, and staff will need the ability to answer telephones remotely, he said.

Additionally, staff working from home may run into issues with congestion on regular commercial networks. To help address this issue, the Texas Department of Public Safety moved most of its connections to FirstNet to take advantage of the priority offered by the network. So far, there haven’t been issues with staff having trouble working from home over those connections, Early said.

In addition to effective staff management, agencies need to ensure they have planned sufficiently should a facility be compromised by the virus and not be usable for any amount of time for cleaning procedures, he said. For example, agencies with call centers and dispatchers should know where call traffic will be rerouted if a facility becomes unavailable.

When the coronavirus outbreak began moving around the world, the Texas Department of Safety preplanned and determined how it would shift traffic to other facilities for each of the 22 facilities it staffs to maintain as continuous of operations as possible should a facility be impacted.

A key early struggle for the Seattle Police Department was testing potentially exposed officers, which was complicated by a lack of test kits and delays of up to eight days in getting tests back.

To help, several officers received approval and training from the department of health to perform the tests in house. The police department then used part of one of its facilities to create a drive-through testing site that police staff and other public-safety personnel in the area could use to get tested and get results back quickly.

Prior to testing, officers use a REDCap system that asks them several questions, and then a medical professional makes a determination if isolation, further testing and/or quarantine are necessary. There is a medical professional on call 24 hours a day to ensure that potentially exposed officers can be tested as quickly as possible.

Once an officer is told to get tested, they go to the testing site, and once testing is finished, they receive a QR code, which they use to get their results online. The testing site specifically for public safety has greatly helped the police department more efficiently and effectively determine whether staff are infected, Best said. The police department and its public-safety partners are working on setting up more public safety specific testing sites in different parts of King County, where Seattle is located, to further expedite the testing process.

Throughout the entire response, it’s critical to constantly overshare information, Best said. The coronavirus is a new threat, and it’s key to keep everyone in an agency fully informed on the latest updates to help keep morale high and service to the community effective.

“Communicate, communicate, communicate,” she said. “You cannot overshare this information, and it’s okay to repeat it because sometimes people forget it.”

Callahan emphasized that the coronavirus is unlike any emergency he has experienced in his career, making it essential that law enforcement provides a strong, calm presence similar to other disasters, such as a large accident.

“We are the ones who need to have a calm, measured approach to this,” he said. “Everyone at that accident scene is looking at you to bring order and calm, and this is no different.”

Fire officials also offered their experience of and advice for fighting the COVID-19 epidemic in another webinar hosted by FirstNet and FirstNet, built with AT&T. Read what they said here

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