Mansfield police fire COVID-19

Five front-line members of the Mansfield police and fire departments gathered together this week to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the work they do every day. From left are patrol officer Josh Eckert, firefighter/paramedic Pete Champer, firefighter/paramedic Kyle Hedrick, patrol K-9 officer Josh Frech and patrol officer Thayne Telequist. 

MANSFIELD -- Firefighter/paramedic Pete Champer spoke in a calm, measured tone Tuesday when asked how COVID-19 has changed the way first responders do their jobs.

But his words echoed among the more than 160 police officers and firefighters serving the city's 46,000 residents today during the pandemic that has altered the world in which these men and women operate.

"I think every day is different right now," said Champer, a seven-year department veteran at age 32.

Support Our Journalism

Facts over fear:

That's been our guiding light as we navigate the uncharted waters of this pandemic. If you think we've been good stewards, consider a membership today. 100% of your support goes to our reporting efforts. Above all, thank you for taking this journey with us. Stay safe, stay healthy.

"Before when you came to work, you showed up and you got on the the truck. That's no longer the case. Now you show up, you get your temperature checked. Then you get a daily briefing. We get an incident command rundown on daily operations.

Pete Champer

City of Mansfield firefighter/paramedic Pete Champer.

"It's not how it used to be. Unfortunately, this is our new normal," said Champer, a Shelby High School graduate and the MFD's 2019 Firefighter of the Year.

HEADLINE NEWS: Around the country, newspaper headlines this week share the alarming news:

-- In New York City, more than 1,000 police officers and almost 300 fire department employees have tested positive for coronavirus. More than 6,100 uniformed officers, about 17 percent of the department, called off work sick Tuesday.

-- In Philadelphia, three dozen police and firefighters have tested positive.

-- In Seattle, a dozen cops and firefighters have COVID-19.

-- In Buffalo, 33 officers and firefighters have the virus.

Champer and five other firefighters and patrol officers met with Richland Source in the Central Fire Station lobby on Tuesday afternoon. Social distancing was observed and the reporter had his temperature checked before the interview began.

"Our normal is forever different," Champer said. "We have got to wrap our heads around the fact normal has changed. This is our new reality for the foreseeable future. Even after the curve flattens, our heightened sense of awareness with how we interact is going to be different."

Patrol officer Thayne Telequist, 30, a five-year member of the MPD, said officers are trying to handle more calls over the phone and issue more summons to suspected offenders, rather than make arrests.

"We try to give people court dates instead of arrest. But if we have to arrest we will and then we have go to through (a different safety protocol) at the Richland County Jail."

In addition to the guns and all of the equipment they wear around their waist, the material now in the back of the cruiser could also save police lives, including masks, gowns, gloves and large bottles of hand sanitizer.

"You put more gloves on. You wash your hands more. We go through a lot more hand sanitizer now.  We carry the big bottles with us now since we are having to refill because the demand is so high," Telequist said.

COMMUNICATION IS KEY:  The city's dispatch center, which handles both police and fire calls, is working harder to get more information for the emergency forces they are sending into the homes and streets.

"They do a good job of telling us," Telequist said, "asking if anyone has flu-like symptoms. Before we go on calls, they will give us an alert. For example, if we get sent to a domestic (dispute), they will try to sneak in a question like does anyone there have a fever? We have masks and will put them on in an as-needed basis."

Firefighter/paramedic Kyle Hedrick, 30, has worked for MFD for seven years and was honored in 2017 for heroic actions at a fire scene. He said dispatchers are helping to make a difference.

"They go through a list of questions (with callers). Occasionally, they will check the boxes that say it could potentially be a COVID-19 related patient, if they have fever or fatigue or the other common symptoms that come along with it. They will send that to us (while enoute) and say it's a possible COVID-19."

If it is, only one firefighter will enter the residence or business initially. They will check the patient's temperature and do a quick assessment.

"If there is potential (for COVID-19), we're going to try to limit the number of people who come in contact with him," Hedrick said.

The fire department's protocol for interacting with the public has changed dramatically, and is reassessed daily.

"We no longer immediately go into the houses and talk to people because of the potential risk," Champer said.

"We now wear an N-95 mask, goggles, a surgical mask over top of that and our squad coats over top of everything else for decontamination reasons. That way we can clean everything at the end of the call and end of the day.

"That way, we don't get access to the patient if they are infected and we also don't bring it back to the station. It's kind of protection for both things. So that really changes how we go about our day-to-day operations," Champer said.

911 calls: COVID-19 has also changed the emergency transport procedures.

"It depends on the severity of the call," Champer said. "Whoever initiates contact with a patient stays with that patient throughout transport. If it's not a patient requires multiple people to be in the back of the ambulance, then that one person who initiates contact will stay with that person all the way through and transfer at the hospital to the nursing staff."

Some cities are seeing record numbers of 911 calls for assistance. That has not been a significant issue thus far in Mansfield.

"The media has been pretty good at educating the public," Champer said. "If you have flu-like symptoms, that doesn't mean you have go to the hospital. Stay at home and weather those flu symptoms. If it becomes a level where you need emergency medical treatment, then you call 911.

"Just because you don't feel good doesn't mean you have go to the hospital and be tested," he said.

Mansfield Safety-services Director Lori Cope, a former police officer, said the city's first responders are dealing with "unprecedented times and are trying to make sense of it all."

"We are abiding by the rules of social distancing as we face the challenges (COVID-19) brings. Rest assured, our safety forces will continue to work diligently to protect and serve the citizens of our resilient city. “

She said police officers and firefighters get temperatures checked daily. Those who show any symptoms are immediately sent for testing.

K-9 patrol officer Josh Frech, 31, a five-year veteran, copes by trying to keep his distance from the daily bad news being reported.

"There is so much stuff going on that I just stopped watching the news. If it's important enough, I will hear about it from a supervisor. It will come down from high up in the city building. You just kinda do what you're told and see how it all shakes out when it's done.

"I think there will be a post-COVID mentality for a long time," Frech said.

Even the newest officers recognize some things have changed, even if the job of protecting the community has not.

"It's still the same job. I am relatively new," said patrol officer John Eckert, 44, who joined the department in November. "You take the extra precautions you need to take and you just do your job."

City editor. 30-year plus journalist. Husband. Father of 3 grown sons and also a proud grandpa. Prior military journalist in U.S. Navy, Ohio Air National Guard. -- Favorite quote: "Where were you when the page was blank?"