MAHOPAC, N.Y. - First responders in Mahopac say protocols are in place that will allow them to continue to do their jobs well and keep them safe during the coronavirus crisis.
As of Thursday, March 26, every town in Putnam County has at least one case of coronavirus, with more than 90 reported countywide.
Officers from both the Mahopac and Mahopac Falls fire departments have been taking part in daily conference calls with the county’s Department of Health and the Bureau of Emergency Services to keep abreast of a rapidly changing situation and implement procedures to minimize the chances of spreading the infection.
“It’s been business as usual with some modifications,” said Jim Stasiak, chief of the Mahopac Volunteer Fire Department. “We are coordinating with the county, and they have been keeping us up to date every day.”
Stasiak said one modification has been with 911 phone call protocols. Callers are now asked a series of questions before emergency-service vehicles are dispatched.
“They will ask you things like, ‘Have you been traveling?’ or, ‘Do you have a fever?’ or, ‘Are they having difficulty breathing?” he explained. “If they hit on some key things, they will flag the response.”
The dispatchers will then notify the first responders whether they need to be on guard and perhaps use additional protection like the N95 respirator mask.
Stasiak said that on most calls, the county-paid service, EMStar, is the first on the scene and will enter the premises. If they determine it’s safe, the Mahopac first responders will join them.
“We normally follow right in, but we are not doing that right now,” Stasiak said. “We are in contact with them via radio, rather than have four or five of my guys go in there. If [EMStar] finds out it’s the flu or COPD or something [other than coronavirus] we will [get involved] if they need assistance.”
But if COVID-19 is suspected, the Mahopac first responders will step down and let EMStar handle it.
“If they are already exposed, we don’t want to dirty two buses,” Stasiak said. “If they really suspect it, we will let them transport [to the hospital]. They’ve already had contact.”
Stasiak said that’s only happened once since the outbreak began.
If fact, both Stasiak and Mahopac Falls FD Assistant Chief Dan Leary said emergency calls have been way down since January. Stasiak said Mahopac usually averages about 100 calls a month, but since January, it’s been around 65 to 70.
Leary said he didn’t have statistics for Mahopac Falls, but said, “People are being more mindful of what they are calling 911 for.”
He said that most people know emergency services are busy but added that many are trying to avoid going to the hospital these days if they don’t absolutely have to.
Leary said he, too, has been in on the daily conference calls with county health and emergency services officials.
“We discuss what we need to be doing, so we are all on the same page,” he said. “At the firehouse, we make sure all members are aware of the signs [of COVID-19] in order to protect ourselves and make it out on calls.”
He said department members are going above and beyond to make sure the buildings and the apparatus are clean and sanitized.
“We’ve been working to get cleaning supplies to disinfect our rigs and firehouses so as not to spread it among ourselves,” Leary said. “We are pitching in to keep ourselves healthy.”
Leary said the department continues to drill, but not in large numbers.
“We are mindful of how many people congregate,” he said. “We still drill but not as one big group, just four or five at a time.”
Leary said they haven’t had any “red flag” calls from 911 yet but are prepared should it happen.
“Our EMS captain goes over updates from the CDC, so we are staying informed,” he said. “We are calm and know what is expected.”
Carmel Police Chief Mike Cazzari said he’s trying to limit his officers’ and staff’s contact with the public, which, considering the nature of the job, is challenging.
“We posted signs on the entrance [to police headquarters] that we are asking everyone to do non-emergency police work over the phone,” he said. “We don’t want them coming to the building. We can email documents and there is a link for accident reports on the town website.”
But if they are needed for a crime in progress, they’ll be there.
“But we are trying to limit the officers’ exposure,” he said. “Because if someone gets infected here, then we are crippled.”
He said that when responding to a call, Carmel PD officers will ask questions similar to the 911 dispatcher.
“We are trying not to go into houses or confined spaces; we try to talk to them outside,” the chief said. “It’s the same in Westchester, our sheriff’s department and all the police departments around Putnam. We are trying not to get them exposed, or we’ll lose the capacity to respond to critical situations. We are just getting back to 34 [cops on staff]; we barely have enough to manage public safety in this town. So, we can’t afford to lose an entire shift and have them be quarantined for 14 days. But it’s foolish to think we won’t get exposed.”
Cazzari said, though, for the most part, there have been no major issues except some unwarranted hysteria. A crime victim was recently brought to Danbury Hospital for treatment, he recounted. The victim had asthma and was wheezing and having trouble breathing.
“That caused hysteria,” he said. “It set off a chain reaction— ‘You’ve all been exposed!’”
The chief did say he is concerned that some people still don’t get it and are ignoring the pleas for social distancing.
“There are fewer cars on the road, less traffic,” he said, “but there’s an uptick of people on the bike path and at the athletic fields at the high school. That’s a problem when you shouldn’t be in groups of 10 or more.
“It’s frightening—young people are not thinking about the unintended consequences,” he continued. “If they catch it, maybe they’ll be fine, but they could pass it on to someone more vulnerable. Delay gratification for a little bit and think about someone besides yourself. It’s selfish.”
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