First-responders adapt to new landscape


LOVELL — As COVID-19 spreads throughout Wyoming, the role of first responders is both more important and more dangerous than it has ever been. 

As meetings and trainings move online and supplies become further taxed, the virus scare has done nothing to stop first responders from responding to the scene they are needed.

Scott Murphey, ambulance director for North Big Horn Hospital, said in a sense, the job of his crew is the same as it ever was. 

“When a hospital gets a 911 page, we never have an idea of what we’re walking into,” Murphey said.

But responding to a scene takes more care and caution now. Supplies will likely remain a concern until the crisis subsides. Murphey said N-95 masks remain the supply most needed for his crew. He has enough to protect his staff, especially if the staff can take the care needed to preserve the masks for multiple calls, but the masks remain in short supply. 

What has helped is donations from the community. Protective eyewear and gowns donated to the hospital have proven to be crucial for his team, Murphey said. A new ventilator has also been secured for the ambulance, which his staff is working hard to learn how to operate.

For respiratory calls, protocol has changed, Murphey said. 

Crews still respond in groups of three, but only one member now enters the house initially, and then when the patient’s state is determined, the rest of the crew makes entry, limiting exposure.

Still, for much of his crew, working as an EMT is a part-time job, and Murphey said his staff has expressed worry about the impact doing it might have on the well-being of themselves and their family.

“I get asked, ‘how do we keep this from my family?” Murphey said. “If I get sick doing my part-time job, and I can’t do my full-time job, how do I pay my bills?”

Not one crew member has left yet, Murphey said, but it remains a concern. He needs every hand he can get. They aren’t easily replaceable.

“My staff is some of the best in our country. I’d put them up against anyone,” Murphey said. “It would be a big blow if anyone from my staff left.”

Concerns are similar for Big Horn County Search and Rescue, which operates entirely with volunteers, coordinator Wes Mangus said.

The team has only been called out for one rescue since the crisis started. For a nighttime call, usually Mangus said he can count on 12 to 15 volunteers showing up. That night, only six of 30 volunteers assisted.

“Some guys were on quarantine,” Mangus said. “Some guys weren’t comfortable. It put a huge hamper on our efforts, which is a big deal.”

The other obstacle search and rescue faces, Wes said, is continuing to train. 

The team prides itself on being one of the best trained in the state, but training is just less effective when done through a computer screen. 

“You can’t show everything to the full potential as you do in the classroom,” Mangus said. “It’s not possible to show the same effective level of training over the computer.” 

Mangus said the county has provided the team with the supplies they need. It helps that they only average one or two calls a month, limiting the use of equipment by the organization. 

“As of now, we’re in fairly good shape,” Mangus said. 

That may change, though, if there’s an outbreak in the county. Mangus said the team would make themselves available to assist in efforts in whatever function they are needed. 

“If it’s a matter of life and death, if lives are in the balance, the sheriff is going to call us to help,” Mangus said. “We are at his disposal.” 

Bob Mangus, the assistant fire chief for the Lovell Fire Department said his crew has been fortunate. They’ve had ample weed fires, but those don’t often put his crew members in direct contact with others. 

But his crew also responds to emergency calls. Extricating a victim from a car wreck, for example, would require much more care. 

The department has supplies for a few such crashes, but supplies would quickly dwindle, Mangus said. 

“N95 masks, we don’t have a lot of those,” Mangus said. “It would just be the guys doing the extrication who is wearing them. We could also put on the nomex hoods, those are the hoods we put on in a fire, we can put them over our mouth and face, so they can help. We can bring those back so they can get washed…but we don’t have enough masks.” 

The department also doesn’t have sanitizer, making it more difficult for them to clean their vehicles and equipment. 

The Fire Hall currently stands locked to the public and as everyone else, the fire department is meeting virtually. 

But the crew is still riding in a truck together, crammed next to everybody else, when called upon. 

“We’re a big family that needs to be together if we’re called,” Mangus said.

Deaver/Frannie fire chief Nick Loftus said his department started the crisis unprepared, without the masks or gloves needed to safely respond. Three weeks ago, the crew was tested, responding to five fire calls and five medical calls in the same week, still struggling to locate equipment. 

“We’ve never had to deal with anything like this before,” Loftus said. “It’s new for all of us.” 

Since then, equipment such as masks and gloves have been donated by multiple sources, including Lovell Ambulance. For his crew, equipment now in hand, it’s back to business as usual, Loftus said. 

“We have little concern,” Loftus said. “We have to look for the signs and if those signs are present, we gear up and do what we do.”

Police Chief Dan Laffin said his dispatchers have been taking extra steps to ensure first responders remain safe. 

Every emergency call is now asked a series of screening questions, written by medical experts, to determine the risk first responders face when responding to a scene. It instantly allows first responders to know what precautions to take. 

As for the Lovell Police Department, Laffin said his officers are well-stocked. All have the equipment needed to gear up every day with gloves and masks, if needed, for two weeks, and Laffin has a pipeline set up to secure more materials if needed.

Big Horn County Sheriff Ken Blackburn could not comment on COVID-19 but said day-to-day operations have changed significantly for his deputies. Blackburn said equipment isn’t well stocked for many local first responders. On the contrary, the supplies available for first responders are thin.

“We’re finding the supplies we have are fairly inadequate,” Blackburn said. “We have enough to get by… we do not have enough to get comfortable.” 

This is nothing new for his deputies though, Blackburn said. 

The county is making every effort to provide equipment to every agency in need. If in need, all they have to do is ask. This balancing act is one they’re used to, Blackburn said. 

“We’re a very financially strapped county. Our poverty level is quite high,” Blackburn said. “We have always done law enforcement on a strapped budget. I have guys who have always done a lot with a little.” 

And right now, his deputies are doing more than ever. The crisis has seen an increase in property crimes and an increase in domestic cases. His deputies are always running errands for the elderly, who can’t risk exposure, leaving groceries on their doorsteps, often spending their own money.

“We’re used to being on the front lines, we’re used to being exposed. But we’re also used to fighting an enemy we can see,” Blackburn said. “If anybody thinks for a second we’re going to stop doing our jobs, if they think we’ve gone on holiday, they are sorely mistaken. 

“I am proud of every single law enforcement officer, ambulance provider, search and rescue and firefighter,” he said. “I have seen people do phenomenal work.”

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