Working from home isn’t possible for firefighters, paramedics, dispatchers or patrol officers.
And despite their best efforts to avoid COVID-19, the virus has forced many of them to stay home in recent weeks.
Jackson Hole Fire/EMS was hit so hard that it had to do what Fire Chief Brady Hansen called a “mercy hire,” bringing on volunteers as full-time paid staffers just to fill shifts.
“That had never happened before,” Hansen said, “but we found ourselves struggling to keep up with our staffing.”
The six-week mercy-hire period, approved by Teton County Human Resources, is coming to an end, and Hansen was happy to say most of his people are improving and returning to work.
Most importantly, the agency was still able to respond to every 911 call.
“Other businesses might decide to close for a week, and there are businesses all over town who have closed their doors for a few days,” Hansen said. “But we can’t, and we could never be in that position. The mercy hire helped us bridge a gap.”
Hansen said his quarantined employees were a mix of positive COVID-19 cases and others who had quarantine orders because of an exposure.
The virus has also crippled the Teton County Sheriff’s Office and Jackson Police Department.
After a member of his immediate family tested positive, Sheriff Matt Carr had to quarantine in his Teton Village house.
He said because so many of his days are made up of conference calls and Zoom meetings, it wasn’t a whole lot different than being at the office.
But he also had three patrol deputies out last week because of positive tests or exposures. And before that his office had several jailers out. Luckily, no inmates tested positive, he said.
When the first person went home sick in early November, the Teton County Jail, sheriff’s office and 911 dispatch separated in order to avoid a massive outbreak.
“There doesn’t seem to be transmission within the organization,” Carr said.
Some of his admin and IT staff can work from home, and otherwise he’s ordered patrol officers, detectives, dispatchers and jailers to wear masks and keep to themselves as much as possible.
“We feel like at this point we have moved beyond our initial exposures and quarantines,” Carr said. “But we will see what the future holds. This is what we are living with now. It’s our new normal, and it will be until we have a successful deployment of a vaccination.”
Carr’s biggest worry is his dispatchers, who so far haven’t been significantly affected by quarantine orders. But that office would be in trouble if even a few of them were forced to stay home. That’s when it becomes a public safety issue.
So Carr has sought alternative solutions just in case.
“We submitted CARES funding for some remote dispatching equipment,” Carr said in an interview Tuesday. “It’s very expensive, but it’s software that would allow dispatching from home.”
Dispatchers also have the ability to work from the Emergency Operations Center south of town, which is bigger and less crowded than the small dispatch office in the Teton County Jail.
The Jackson Police Department has had two patrol officers test positive recently, but Interim Chief of Police Michelle Weber said her agency is still able to cover its shifts.
“Everyone who had worked closely with those two have tested negative,” Weber said. “And we have some testing twice per week.”
Weber said she ordered enough tests a few weeks ago for everyone in the department, which came in handy. But she wishes rapid testing was more available.
She said her employees who caught the virus are “on the mend.”
Her officers are also taking their temperatures every morning before work. And they’ve kept strict cleaning protocols at their Town Hall offices.
“I feel really lucky that we have stayed on top of it,” she said.
Officers and deputies are required to wear masks when interacting with members of the public.
Jackson police Sgt. Russ Ruschill, who was on essential worker quarantine due to a possible exposure when he spoke with the News&Guide on Monday, said he’s relieved personal protective equipment is more readily available than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.
“We have a good supply of PPE,” he said. “We are trying to do the best we can with what we have also while continuing to do our public safety jobs.”