HOPE FOR THE BEST, PLAN FOR THE WORST Part of the job description for a first responder is to always think about what could go wrong, and have a plan for dealing with it.
The Mt. Lebanon Fire Department in 2003 compiled a Continuity of Operations plan, which maps out how the department will continue to deliver service in the wake of major incidents that impact routine operations. Five years later, following the H1N1 pandemic, the department tweaked its plan to respond to a similar outbreak.
“We started stockpiling masks and PPE (personal protective equipment) back in 2009,” says Deputy Chief Chris Buttlar, Mt. Lebanon’s emergency management coordinator.
The Mt. Lebanon Fire Department’s emergency response team began monitoring the COVID-19 situation in January.
“We started paying attention to what was happening in China back in January, and started supplementing our PPE supply.” Buttlar says the department increased its inventory of masks and gloves by 25 percent. “Having a plan really paid off, as those supplies are hard to come by these days.”
The department continued to monitor the situation through the month of February, and on March 1, the municipality formed a task force, composed of municipal departments, the school district, Medical Rescue Team South Authority, St. Clair Hospital and other community partners.
“That first meeting really paid dividends,” Buttlar says. “We set up a communications network, and by the next day we had a multilevel response plan for dealing with the pandemic.”
The first few response levels were graded by proximity of COVID cases to Mt. Lebanon. Level 1 was initiated when the first cases hit the state; additional levels came into play as cases were found in western Pennsylvania, Allegheny County; cases in the South Hills and Mt. Lebanon triggered Level 4. The remaining two levels are widespread local cases and the highest level is for when public safety begins to be affected by high levels of first-responder absenteeism.
“Establishing those levels was a great planning tool,” Buttlar says. “We’re able to operate one level ahead of where we actually are.”
The first thing the fire department did was increase its level of disinfection in the public safety center. In addition to regular daily cleaning by contractors, the building is now being cleaned and disinfected twice a day by fire department personnel.
When the plan reached Level 3, and the safety center, library, recreation center and municipal building were closed to the public, the department changed the way it responded to fire alarms at assisted living facilities and St. Clair Hospital, and EMS assistance to Medical Rescue. A high percentage of fire alarms are triggered by accident, and in the interest of conserving resources, while still dispatching a crew to a fire alarm, firefighters will call while en route or upon arrival to determine whether the alarm is genuine. The department still responds immediately to alarms in residences and apartment buildings. Similarly, instead of automatically providing an emergency medical services backup during the height of the outbreak, Mt. Lebanon firefighters conferred with Medical Rescue personnel to assess the seriousness of the call before dispatching a crew.
For high-risk groups, like nursing homes and medical facilities, the department saw the need to protect at an even greater extent, meaning firefighters would not enter the facilities unless a dangerous or life-threatening situation needed immediate resolution. Otherwise, the vehicles will stage in the parking lot and make contact through radio channels or cell phones, allowing the crew leader to gauge the situation and determine the appropriate response prior to entry.
When we reached Level 4, the department extended the altered response to all non-emergency calls, first assessing the problem with a phone call, and adjusting the response to provide the service with minimal personnel needed to safely accomplish the task.
Buttlar described a recent call from a resident, when a smoke alarm started making noise.
“We called, and said, ‘First, is there smoke?’ No smoke, but it’s making noise. ‘What kind of noise? Is it beeping? Chirping?’ Turned out it was just a low battery, so we walked them through how to change it and nobody left the station,” he says.
When the firefighters arrive at a call, the on-scene responses change as well. In the past, the response crew, a minimum of three firefighters, would enter the building and begin assessing the situation.
“We still want to provide the same level of service, but if things can be solved while social distancing, that’s what we’ll do,” Buttlar says. “So we show up, one person gets out and contacts the resident on a cell phone, maybe asks them to step outside and describe the problem, then one person goes in and does a quick recon of the situation before getting everyone involved.”
Of course, when conditions begin to normalize, the department will resume its previous levels of service, but as of right now, Buttlar says call volumes have dropped precipitously.
“People are trying to make us less busy, but we will always respond in full to life-threatening emergencies—fires, crashes, gas leaks. We may be wearing masks and gloves, but we’re definitely coming.”
FLATTENING THE CURVE BY MINIMIZING EXPOSURE As is everyone else, the Mt. Lebanon Police Department is making some adjustments in its daily operations in reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nothing has changed in emergency response—call 911 in cases where safety or property are in immediate danger and officers will respond.
Also, continue to call 911 for reports of crimes or suspicious behavior not immediately occurring, and the dispatcher will pass the report along to an officer, who will evaluate the details and determine a response. Some of the issues may be resolved with a phone call.
As the Mt. Lebanon Public Safety Center has been closed to the public, the police are strongly discouraging walk-in complaints, but if walk-ins are necessary, instructions are posted at the building’s rear entrance.
Fingerprinting services, child safety seat installations and building tours are suspended until further notice. To request a copy of a police report, call 412-343-4143, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., and a report will be mailed, faxed or emailed to you.
If a police officer has issued you a traffic warning notice, such as for a broken taillight or an expired inspection sticker, and you need to show proof that the item was corrected, pull into the safety center parking lot and call 911 with your information. Remain in the lot and an officer will meet you.
“The focus of these efforts has been to do our part in flattening the curve by minimizing exposure for the benefit of both the community and our officers,” says Police Chief Aaron Lauth.
The department has implemented a change in scheduling to ensure that a reserve contingent of healthy officers is readily available should illness spread through the ranks. Officers have been placed into teams, which are working rotating 12-hour shifts.
Lauth says officers are attempting to educate residents about social distancing by proactively patrolling areas that are now closed for use, such as the athletic fields, sport courts and
Lauth is grateful for the widespread community support that has sprung up in the wake of the pandemic. A call on social media yielded hundreds of homemade masks, which enabled police, fire and EMS responders to conserve the use of their N95 respirators required for close contact.
Also, several residents and business owners have purchased lunches and dinners for officers, as well as dropping off snacks to enjoy.
“Not only do we (and our stomachs!) greatly appreciate these meals, but it also supports our local businesses during these difficult times,” Lauth says.
As the situation progresses, you can keep up with changes at www.mtlebanon.org/corona.