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First responders, 911 centers in Hamilton County adapting to combat COVID-19

Immediate 911 changes: More staff, more training
Posted at 5:04 PM, Mar 30, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-30 20:07:35-04

CINCINNATI — First responders and 911 operators are making changes to keep emergency services up and running in Hamilton County and Cincinnati during the COVID-19 crisis, officials announced Monday afternoon.

“Safety will remain paramount, but what that looks like will be different than what people are used to,” said Hamilton County Commissioner Denise Driehaus.

During the county’s daily briefing, officials from emergency management explained what those changes look like.

First, a new “non-transport protocol” has been enacted in Hamilton County. This means that when people call 911 with symptoms or suspicions of COVID-19, they won’t necessarily be taken to a hospital.

Instead, first responders will only transport people who have underlying health conditions or who have abnormal vital signs, said Dr. Bentley Woods Curry, assistant professor of Emergency Medicine at UC Health.

“It is probably safer for you to stay at home,” Curry said. “If you have reassuring vital signs and you’re not in the risk categories that predict that you will do poorly, most people will recover and do better more safely at home.”

People who aren’t taken to a hospital will be given a home-care packet that will give instructions on what to do, including following up with a doctor.

“It's different than what we normally do,” Curry said. “Almost all of our other protocols — if you call 911, you’re always going to be transported to the hospital. So this is a little bit different, but we do think it’s the right thing to do in this situation.”

Reading Assistant Fire Chief Paul Gallow said the change was necessary to keep resources available for emergency workers to respond to things like heart attacks, strokes, falls and other emergencies. (Patients with non-COVID conditions will be evaluated, treated and transported as usual if necessary.)

He also said the goal of the new protocol was to decrease strain on hospitals so they can care for the sickest people. People with minor symptoms would risk being exposed to even more dangerous conditions if they were taken to a hospital treating large numbers of COVID-19 patients.

Gallow said the new protocol doesn’t mean first responders won’t take patients to the hospital if they need to be there.

“It does not mean that you can’t call 911 back and have us come back,” he said. “Especially if you develop shortness of breath, symptoms get worse. Yes, we will come back, and yes, we'll transport you to the hospital.”

The other big changes are happening in and around 911 call centers.

Driehaus said the county commission authorized $100,000 for the Hamilton County 911 center to purchase equipment to make it possible for operators to work remotely.

“We’d like to be able to separate our workforce so that we don’t have all of our personnel within the same confines," said Hamilton County 911 communications director Andy Knapp. “We’re looking to try to find creative ways of continuing the 911 operations as best we can under these conditions.”

Knapp said the center saw a decrease in 911 call volume in March. He said he believes this is due to social distancing, including people staying off the roads and not going to work.

But he said he’s afraid it may just be the lull before the storm.

“As the curve starts to increase, we want to make sure that we’re as responsive as possible to both our citizens and our first responders,” Knapp said.

Another thing that may be different when you call 911, Knapp said, is that you may get some additional questions from 911 operators.

Since mid-January, operators have been asking callers if they've had contact with someone with coronavirus, have traveled, or are in a household with a person who may have COVID-19.

Knapp said it’s best to meet first responders outside of your house when possible, even if you think you don't have the virus, so firefighters, EMS workers and police officers don’t have to risk exposure in close quarters.

He said the goal is to keep as many emergency responders on the front lines as possible.

“Keeping in mind that most communities have a very limited amount of resources specifically when you talk about fire and EMS,” Knapp said. “So when we have one EMS crew that encounters a patient that has some type of symptom, you actually may be jeopardizing a large percentage of responders for that entire community.”

Also, first responders may be wearing personal protective equipment that may not look normal. Don't be worried if you see it.

“Even if you do not have the virus, we’re still going to respond in that manner and we’re going to be in the equipment, so be prepared for that,” Knapp said.

Knapp said with all the changes, he wanted to make sure the public knows that they are prepared.

“The men and the women who work at the county communications center take their jobs very seriously, and certainly it’s times like this, to say we’ve trained for this and we know what we’re doing,” Knapp said.