Safety priority for first responders

COVID-19 pandemic brings new challenges

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By Maria Maxham

Police officers and firefighters, who deal with the public on a daily basis, have changed the way they interact in order to keep themselves and the public safe.

Forest Park Chief of Police Tom Aftanas said one of the biggest changes for his department has involved minimizing in-person contact for smaller offenses.

Aftanas said that WESCOM, the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center, has been getting phone numbers of people who call in with minor situations, such as a package theft or a stolen bicycle.

"Officers will call them back and get the relevant information over the phone," Aftanas said. Unless there's evidence that needs to be collected or a serious crime being committed, the department is avoiding as much in-person contact as possible.

Although Forest Park's village hall is closed, people needing police assistance can ring the bell and be allowed into the lobby, where they can speak to a police representative through a glass separator.

Obviously, said Aftanas, if there's a visible injury or evidence or photos that need to be collected or taken, an officer will come out to the lobby. But minimizing unnecessary contact is a goal in keeping the department safe.

Aftanas said his officers haven't seen too much in terms of large gatherings of people, but if they see a child on playground equipment at a park, they'll "give a friendly reminder" to the parent that children aren't allowed on the playground at this time.

Aftanas said the parks themselves are exempt from the shelter at home order – it's okay for people, maintaining social distance, to walk or run at the parks. But the playgrounds and playground equipment are not exempt. Neither are the outdoor workout equipment or any of the outdoor park facilities.

When the nicer weather starts in earnest, Aftanas said he thinks the challenge of keeping people distant while outdoors might be more of an issue, but for now he's seen a lot of people taking the shelter in place guidelines seriously.

"People can still go out and take a walk," said Aftanas. "But you need to keep in mind how serious this can be. You may not be hit hard, but it can definitely hit somebody else hard. People need to be careful."

He's making sure his officers are out and visible in the neighborhoods like they always are, driving around and ensuring safety.

A challenge for him – and all local police departments – is the cancelation of officer training, such as DUI class, report writing, and other courses that provide continuing education for officers. And the police academy is on hold, meaning two recruits who were currently attending and would have graduated in May and been out on the Forest Park streets by September are in limbo.

In terms of protective equipment for his department, Aftanas said they're fortunate that he and Fire Chief Bob McDermott reached out to Cook County early, anticipating the issue to become as serious as it has. They received a good number of masks from the county and, at least for now, have enough on hand with more hopefully on the way.

McDermott said the fire department is following all the precautions and recommendations that are being handed down from the CDC and the Illinois Department of Health.

"When our firefighters and paramedics respond to a call, they are wearing masks," said McDermott. "We also will put a mask on the patients. Anyone being transported to the hospital has to be wearing a mask."

McDermott said that the fire department has temporarily suspended car seat inspections, station tours, CPR classes and blood pressure testing.

But he expressed confidence in the fire department to handle this developing situation.

"Right now the morale of the fire department members is good," said McDermott. "We are ready for whatever comes our way."

Both Aftanas and McDermott said they've been stunned by how many people have reached out to the police department with donations and offers to help.

"We have received so much support from residents and businesses," said Aftanas, mentioning organizations and people that have stepped up with donations of masks, hand sanitizer, and lunches for the department.  "The generosity has been astounding."

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