Two AMR ambulances parked outside Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital.
Two AMR ambulances parked outside Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital. The county Board of Supervisors will decide on Tuesday whether to award an exclusive ambulance-services contract to American Medical Response.

Coronavirus presents a new challenge for Santa Barbara County’s first responders, but it’s one they seem to be taking in stride.

Many people have options for isolating themselves to protect against the disease, but that’s not possible for firefighters, law enforcement officers, and paramedics.

The flow of emergency calls — for fires, traffic accidents, illnesses and criminal activities — doesn’t stop while threats such as the coronavirus are likely present in the community.

Frontline emergency personnel must still respond, and they do so knowing that now there is a chance they will come in close contact with someone with novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19.

As of Monday, only one case of COVID-19 had been reported in the county, according to the Public Health Department.

Several dozen people have been tested and found not to be infected, but public health officials say they fully expect more cases will show up locally.

Santa Barbara City Fire Chief Eric Nickel told Noozhawk that his department has not made any major changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, “but we have developed contingency plans for if this ramps up locally.”

Eric Nickel

Eric Nickel

The reality is that the risk presented by coronavirus is nothing new to first-responders, and they have long taken steps to protect themselves from communicable diseases such as influenza, HIV, and hepatitis.

They are issued personal protective equipment including gloves, masks, eyewear and gowns, and have protocols to keep them safe while doing their jobs.

Some agencies are beefing up their procedures and providing additional training — including for emergency dispatchers, County Fire Chief Mark Hartwig said. 

“At the initial screening at dispatch for ill people, dispatchers are now asking about fever and travel and associations, and whether they have a cough or other symptoms associated with the virus,” Hartwig said.

That information is then relayed to responding firefighters and paramedics so they can take the appropriate precautions.

Hartwig also has directed his crews responding to calls “to expose as few people as possible in order to provide the right care.”

Mark Hartwig

Mark Hartwig

The department’s in-person public education programs have been suspended, and other routine fire department business has been curtailed.

Within the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, deputies already respond automatically to “Code Blue” medical calls, in which the patient has stopped breathing or lacks a pulse.

“We have added suspected coronavirus to the automatic response for deputies to medical calls,” said Raquel Zick, the department’s public information officer.

For Coroner’s Bureau cases, deputies will now wear protective gear, including masks and gloves, she added.

The department suspended visitors to inmates at the County Jail, and inmates at booking are screened according to protocols established by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Zick said.

“We have plans in place for people who appear to be sick,” she noted.

Because it contains alcohol, hand sanitizer cannot be given to inmates, Zick said, adding that the department is searching for alcohol-free alternatives.

In the meantime, “they can wash their hands as much as they want,” she said.

Jason Sorrick, a spokesman for American Medical Response, which provides most ambulance service in the county, said his crews are well prepared.

“Our emergency medical responders are trained and equipped to respond to infectious diseases,” he said, “and we continue to follow extensive CDC guidelines and direction from our national medical team to ensure proper utilization of personal protective equipment and screening of transports to identify potentially infected patients.”

If any of AMR’s personnel are exposed to COVID-19 while providing medical transport, the company will follow county and CDC protocols and guidelines, he said.

If quarantined, employees would be placed on paid leave and monitored by medical personnel.

AMR also has established an incident command system in case it is required to move large numbers of suspected COVID-19 patients, he said.

Both Hartwig and Nickel told Noozhawk that their staff members understand the risks of COVID-19 and are prepared to face the challenges, but understandably have some trepidation.

“We’re prepared, but obviously we are very concerned,” Nickel said.

Hartwig said the biggest concern among his crews is for their families.

“These folks know this is what they signed up for,” Hartwig said. “What I hear from them is they want to know how to protect their families. We’re trying to make sure they have all the equipment and training necessary for them to stay safe and not spread this disease back to their families.”

Click here for information from the Santa Barbara County Public Works Department.

Clich here to go to Noozhawk’s Coronavirus Crisis section.

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Tom Bolton, Noozhawk Executive Editor

Noozhawk executive editor Tom Bolton can be reached at