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Upper Valley first responders are learning on the move in pandemic

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/28/2020 9:43:56 PM
Modified: 5/28/2020 9:43:49 PM

LEBANON — When the rapid outbreak of the new coronavirus caused lockdowns throughout the Upper Valley in March, first responders had to act quickly to help stop the spread.

Now, as businesses and restaurants begin to cautiously reopen, fire and police departments are looking back on the past three months as they prepare for the future.

“We’re still trying to stockpile N95 masks for the potential surge (of the virus) ... if it comes back hard and heavy,” Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Christopoulos said.

His department was one of many around the Upper Valley that have had to implement changes over the past few months since the first COVID-19 cases emerged in the Upper Valley at the end of February. Christopoulos said his department started gathering protective equipment, including N95 masks, face shields and disposable gowns, at the beginning of the year but were still shocked by how quickly the virus spread through the Twin States, and how much protective gear they needed.

“It was a little bit eye-opening,” Christopoulos said.

As the outbreak grew, the department had to adapt quickly. It became mandatory for all EMS personnel to wear N95 face masks for medical calls. Additionally, the department has had to order more hand sanitizer and disinfectant — which have both been hard to come by — and a second “disinfectant machine.” The machine sprays a solution that can clean an entire ambulance after transporting a potential COVID-19 patient, Christopoulos said.

Looking forward, Christopoulos said his biggest concern lies with whether there will be another outbreak after businesses reopen, and how his employees can be prepared.

He’s speaking with the city’s public health planner to discuss setting up vaccination clinics if a vaccine becomes readily available, stockpiling protective gear and urging all patients who need an ambulance to wear face masks.

The police department in Lebanon has had to implement many of the same preventive measures over the past few months, according to Police Chief Richard Mello. He said officers now wear protective gear like face masks for the majority of their time working on the road, and they make sure to stay physically distant from each other in the station. Their experience so far may help the department if there’s another surge of cases down the road, he added.

“There are definitely things we’ll be better prepared for,” Mello said. “I don’t think anybody saw a virus of this magnitude or this impact coming our way.”

But Mello also raised another concern when looking at the department’s future: finances.

“There’s a cost. ... We’ve had to purchase additional amounts of equipment,” he said.

On top of that, the department has seen recent budget cuts due to a loss of revenue coming into the city. He doesn’t anticipate cutting back officers’ hours, but Mello said he hopes the department can recoup some of its losses through grant money or additional funding.

“Every community is in the same boat,” he said.

That’s certainly true for other departments such as Hartford, which has implemented several policy changes, including stopping almost all public education activities and requiring all firefighters to answer screening questions and get their temperatures taken ahead of their shifts, Fire Chief Scott Cooney said.

As he looks at how to handle future outbreaks, Cooney said he has made sure the department is well-stocked in protective gear and that he’s keeping track of how many N95 face masks the department has. He is also on a waiting list to receive one of the coveted disinfectant machines, Cooney said.

And, like Mello, he is looking at combating the financial burden that the department has suffered as a result of the new coronavirus.

“We did overspend on some budget line items and held back purchases in other areas,” Cooney said, adding that he doesn’t anticipate any layoffs or strain on employees. However, the department has had to cut down on some training activities to save overtime costs, and it hasn’t filled the fire marshal position to save on salary costs, Cooney said.

In Claremont, Fire Chief Bryan Burr has faced some similar issues in responding to the pandemic, but he said the changes his department has had to make have all been relatively “light.”

He said the department has had to cut back on fire prevention inspections, which it used to do regularly, in an effort to reduce exposure to the public. In addition, secretaries and other employees who don’t need to work from the station are working from home.

Burr is not sure what the future holds in terms of financial burdens, but he said he’s hopeful, especially since Sullivan County has been one of the least-impacted by the virus in New Hampshire.

“Right now, there’s no talk of layoffs or anything like that, so I count that as a positive,” he said.

Anna Merriman can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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