WINCHESTER – Safety and service have been challenged by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they remain the basic and perpetual goals of the Winchester Police and Fire Departments, which are meeting the challenges while performing their duties as first responders.
It may not be policing as usual these days, but for Police Chief Peter MacDonnell the mission is still the same, to protect the safety of the public and his officers. And Fire Chief Rick Tustin says that service is still the byword for his department.
What has changed most is the need to proceed with extra caution.
During the epidemic a stream of recommendations have been issued by the state, the Attorney General’s Office, Chiefs of Police Association, and others.
“The focus for me as police chief,” MacDonnell said, “is to provide adequate and proper services.” As for new policies and procedures, “You have to put into practice what you can and what’s important.”
Both departments have new, additional protective gear. Although they have always been careful, Tustin said his personnel have ramped up precautions. Whereas a medical response for a sprained ankle, for example, formerly might not have called for a face mask, now an N95 face mask, face shield, and gown are required for every medical call.
Further, they use protective masks for all calls, not just the medical ones.
Every police officer has been issued multiple sets of masks, gloves, face shields, and gowns. The gear is kept in the cruiser to be at hand for use when necessary, specifically when social distancing is not possible. According to MacDonnell, so far the officers have had ample opportunity to don the protection before making an arrest.
Both chiefs have expressed appreciation for donated gear from the Chinese American Network of Winchester. Also, Body Armor Outlet and the Data Ed Company of Salem, NH, donated masks, and Tustin acknowledged face shields from MIT and other goods like hand sanitizer and food from citizens.
Another major change MacDonnell noted is a new emphasis on safeguarding the health of his own staff. Where possible police officers must maintain social distancing from one another as well as the public. This has included not having roll call as usual, communicating by texting, altering the schedule to avoid overlapping shifts, and driving singly (as is usual). All officers have instructions for what to do if they cannot maintain distance.
Since fire personnel work as teams and cannot maintain distances among themselves, Tustin said they are relying on measures as advocated by the CDC for cleanliness and hygiene.
After every medical call, Fire Department apparatus is sanitized and the vehicles are also disinfected daily. With assistance from the DPW and Fire Department, all the police cruisers are sanitized at the beginning and end of every shift.
Fire and police have not been called to interact professionally with known COVID-19 victims. Tustin’s sense is that the citizenry is well informed about the proper channels to pursue for medical testing, consultation, and treatment.
To honor those who are in the front line of the pandemic, Tustin initiated the suggestion of a “heroes saluting heroes” drive by the hospital. With the help and support of officer Daniel Perenick and Chief MacDonnell, as well as the hospital’s security officer Ron Knight, a drive-by of combined public safety vehicles from Winchester, Woburn, Stoneham, Medford, Arlington, Lexington, Burlington, Wilmington, and Reading was successfully arranged for Thursday (see https://youtu.be/6JBKUUimi1c).
Fortunately, no staff at the Fire Department have contracted the virus. They are, however, watchful and have instituted a practice of taking temperatures and doing a health check with a questionnaire.
At the officers’ request, almost half the Police Department has been tested for the virus. One symptomatic and one asymptomatic officer were diagnosed, one of whom has already recovered.
Changes in policing
Tustin reported that his department is generally doing business as usual. Other than a higher level of precautionary measures, the only real impact he noted is the anxiety impact.
But there have been some changes in policing. Though the department remains very busy and even has some additional responsibilities, according to MacDonnell callouts are down about 50 percent with the primary calls being for medical aid, well-being checks, and alarms. With more people sheltering, there have been fewer motor vehicle accidents and no recent break-ins.
Although some media in other areas of the country have reported an increase in domestic violence cases, MacDonnell said there has not been an increase in Winchester, nor, according to his conversations with other chiefs, in nearby towns.
So far, he said, they have rarely been called upon to police the new epidemic restrictions, the exceptions being some calls about youth congregating at town parks and fields. Another problem area has been around the Fells which has been experiencing a large volume of visitors, leading to incidents of parking in prohibited areas.
Though call volume may be down, there has actually been an increase in the responsibilities placed on the department due to the closing of the courts. For example, restraining orders are issued now by the police rather than the courts.
Since arraignments have to be done remotely, if the police do take a prisoner they have to hold them longer than usual. Officers have been instructed, where it is not a public safety risk, to focus on summonsing rather than bringing law-breakers to the station.
A few services for both departments have been altered or suspended. The Fire Department has had to defer inspections of real estate and is temporarily not interacting with groups for public education.
Over at the Police Station, since the records department is closed to the public, residents are asked to call to request copies of reports, which will either be held at the front desk or e-mailed. Applicants for firearm licenses are instructed to mail in their new or renewal applications according to instructions posted on their web page.
Due to the closing of schools and the shutdown of many businesses which has drastically lessened downtown parking, the Police Department is now operating without parking wardens and crossing guards. Since everyone at the Fire Department is deemed critical, that staff remains at its full strength.
While some procedures have changed and new practices put into place, much in the Public Safety business is not new and has not altered.
As Tustin said, “We are in the business of responding to emergency and hazardous situations.”