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West Hartford Police and Fire Departments Adopt Measures to Ensure Safety Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

Both the West Hartford Police Department and West Hartford Fire Department have made some modifications to their delivery of service due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

By Ronni Newton

Both the West Hartford police and fire departments will continue to respond to 9-1-1 calls as quickly as ever, but both organizations are taking extra measures to ensure the safety of responders as well as the community during the COVID-19 pandemic that is now gripping our nation.

West Hartford Police Capt. Michael Perruccio said that officers have been directed “whenever and wherever practical to maintain at least 6 feet of distance” from each other and from members of the public with whom they interact, to prevent spread of the coronavirus.

That’s not possible when administering CPR, or putting handcuffs on someone, however, and he said that all officers have been provided kits that include masks and disposable gowns, to be used if there is reasonable belief that someone may have COVID-19.

“On medical calls we are sending in a minimum number of people while making sure the patient has adequate response from us,” Perruccio said. “We’re not going to send a bunch of people into the room,” and those who do respond keep the 6-foot distance if possible.

There’s also a mantra being echoed through the hallways of police headquarters, Perruccio said: “Wash your hands, don’t touch your face.”

There are certain temporary changes that have been made at the West Hartford Police Department headquarters at 103 Raymond Rd. that will remain in effect until further notice, including that the records department is closed to the public and fingerprinting is suspended.

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the community is asked not to come to the station unless it’s an emergency.

“As much as we love to see you face-to-face, don’t come in unless it’s absolutely necessary,” Perruccio said.

The day shift has also added a telephone response unit. “Officers and supervisors will assess calls and determine if a phone call will be sufficient to get the information we need and start an investigation,” Perruccio said. If it’s needed, an officer will still be sent out, he said, but many times the calls for service are not considered an emergency.

While it’s contrary to the West Hartford Police Department’s usual community policing approach, right now “we’re trying to limit the amount of contact officers have with people. It’s not safe for us and it’s not safe for the public,” he said.

“Please continue to call 860-523-5203 for any routine, non-emergency matters and we will make an assessment regarding our response,” Perruccio said.

Police and/or fire department personnel will continue to always respond in person to 9-1-1 calls, Perruccio said, and the two departments are working closely together to ensure the proper response from the appropriate personnel, as part of the town’s virtual Emergency Operations Center where collaborative plans have been put into place.

Operations have also changed at the West Hartford Fire Department, said Chief Greg Priest, who also heads the town’s Office of Emergency Management.

Changes also apply to the administrators, who now call each other rather than speaking face-to-face even if they are in their adjacent offices.

“Inside the fire houses there are changes,” Priest said, with as much social distancing as a crew-based organization can have.

All members of the fire department are being screened before they come to work to ensure that they are not sick, and are being asked about their personal situations, to ensure that none of their family members are ill. Both are concerns.

“I care deeply about this,” Priest said. Department members are used to dealing with people who have infectious diseases when the respond to medical calls, but those are usually one-offs, and COVID-19 is highly contagious.

“We knew when we took this job that we would subject ourselves to personal risk, but with a fire we’re not asking our families to come into the fire with us,” Priest said. The concern is not only preventing personnel from getting the coronavirus themselves, but also from spreading it to – or from – their families.

As of Tuesday afternoon, West Hartford had six people test positive for COVID-19, and statewide there were 618. Priest said that number itself doesn’t really impact what the fire department does, because the virus is definitely in the community.

When responding to medical calls where there is a chance the patient has coronavirus, he said, “Every person who has displayed the symptoms is being treated as such.”

“It’s challenging, it’s totally unprecedented,” Priest said.

Priest said there is currently an adequate supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) at the fire department. “There are supplies. We have been planning for this,” he said. “We have a group of folks in administration working really hard, and we started planning at the appropriate time.”

The fire department is waiting for the expected increase in medical calls, Priest said. As of Tuesday the call volume was level, and they have been able to screen out what may be calls from those with COVID-19.

Perruccio said that while the total number of calls to the police department has not decreased, there seems to be reduced activity. Although it’s too earlier to produce meaningful analytics, very raw data indicates that the number of records closed with arrests is much lower for the two-week period of March 9-23, 2020 as compared to the same period in 2019. Records include all calls for service, Perruccio said, which include requests to Animal Control and burglar alarms being triggered, but the number was 53 for that period in 2019 and just 16 in 2020.

Many factors could contribute, including a decrease in business activity and people on the street in general.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, Perruccio said he hopes there won’t be a spike in domestic cases due to a high level of stress – both emotional and financial – combined with family members being cooped up together for a long period of time. “I hope cool heads will prevail,” he said.

Officers are aware that many stores and other businesses may be temporarily unoccupied. “We are keeping an extra eye out for those businesses,” Perruccio said.

“We would encourage businesses to do the best they can to make the business the least attractive as possible,” Perruccio said, much like the department asks residents not to leave valuables visible in their cars. Jewelry stores, for example, typically clear items out of their display windows.

A tempting visual clue might inadvertently encourage those who otherwise might not violate the law.

While more residents are staying in their homes to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, “they’re our eyes and ears,” Perruccio said.

West Hartford Center and Blue Back Square (which officially closed as a shopping area this week, although some restaurants remain open for take-out or delivery and some retailers may be doing curbside drop-off) look like ghost towns, and Perruccio said while “it’s strange to drive down Farmington Avenue at 10 a.m. on a weekday and not see what we’re used to,” it’s a good sign that people are adhering to the #stayhomestaysafe recommendation, and he said he hopes people continue to stay inside.

Perruccio also had another reminder to the community: “Please try not to hoard anything.” He urged residents to keep their neighbors and friends in mind.

The police department will continue to enforce any new measures put into place during the pandemic and is ready and able to deal with whatever situations may arise, Perruccio said. “Whatever directives come out … there’s a reason the government puts out the rules. We know this puts stress on our citizens, but we’re all in this together.”

Priest also shared a strong message for the community. “I really urge people to understand what the implications of social distancing are. … We have to take on the social responsibility of not passing [COVID-19] along to others.”

“We would like to thank everyone for their cooperation and understanding during this challenging time,” Perruccio said.

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