AUGUSTA — To deal with the spreading coronavirus, central Maine officials are using declarations of a state of emergency to act more quickly than the typical wheels of government move.

In the city of Augusta, where Mayor David Rollins declared a state of emergency, the city has opened up a second public safety dispatch center, within Augusta City Center, while continuing to run the regular dispatch center at the Augusta Police Department. It is also reopening its Western Avenue fire station so an ambulance crew can be based there.

The goals of both of those, and other measures, is to help isolate vital public safety workers from contact with others, so if the coronavirus or other illness should strike them, the virus won’t spread amongst other workers.

“We’re trying to make sure our staff is spread out as much as possible,” said Roger Audette, the city’s fire chief and emergency management director. “Obviously, we’re high risk here at the fire station. If one (public safety worker) becomes sick, we don’t want to potentially contaminate our whole workforce. We’re being as safe as we possibly can.”

The backup dispatch center — which City Manager William Bridgeo said was built with federal Homeland Security funds years ago, to be used should something happen to the police station where the full dispatch center is located — is in use as part of the city’s emergency management plan.

The city’s fire stations, like city hall and most other city buildings, are closed to the public, although obviously firefighters and paramedics are still responding to emergencies.

Audette said city officials met about two weeks ago to discuss ways the city could separate its staff so not all employees, especially public safety employees, are in the same place and potentially subject to be exposed to the same things.

Deputy Chief David Groder and an administrative assistant have been moved out of Hartford Station, where Audette’s offices are, to vacant office space at city hall to reduce contact between them and the chief.

At Monday’s emergency Gardiner City Council meeting, Fire Chief Al Nelson, who is also the city’s emergency management head, said the city’s comprehensive emergency response plan is outdated.

“We discovered we have no coverage for pandemics,” he said.

Even so, public safety officials are now planning for how to respond safely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Nelson said his staff is likely the first to be affected. All of Gardiner’s firefighters are either paramedics or emergency medical technicians that staff the Gardiner Ambulance Service. It serves residents in Gardiner and seven neighboring towns.

Among the first changes in practice to be put in place is cleaning and sanitizing the rescue trucks before they leave the hospital.

That way, Nelson said, if they get another ambulance call, they will be immediately ready to respond.

For personal protection, they have gowns, gloves, goggles and masks on each of the ambulances they will use if a patient has a respiratory infection. There will also be masks for patients.

Nelson said on-duty shifts have started taking their temperature twice a day. Anyone with a temperature will be sent home.

Shifts currently run 24 hours on, 48 hours off. If firefighters are infected, that may change to 36 hours on and 36 hours off.

“We’re following the path other communities are following, and we’re doing OK,” Nelson said. “It will come to Gardiner. Don’t panic.”

In Hallowell, City Manager Nate Rudy declared a state of emergency on Tuesday. Hallowell’s public buildings are also closed to the public, except the City Hall, which is open only by appointment.

The city’s Emergency Management Ordinance said that an appointed emergency management director, fire Chief Jim Owens, “shall coordinate the activities of all City departments, organizations and agencies for civil emergency preparedness.” The city manager also has specific duties during an emergency, including prohibiting or restricting the movement of vehicles or people and moving people from hazardous areas of the city.

Rudy said he and Owens will draft an Emergency Operations Plan “to protect life and property in Hallowell and submit it to (City) Council for approval.” He said that plan will be implemented and revised when necessary. The emergency management plan was revisited in 2019 by city staff, Rudy said.

As part of the plan, Rudy will be the city’s public spokesperson, answering questions and providing regular updates, while the City Council oversees emergency management.

Owens said his job at this point is to protect city emergency responders and employees. He said he has ordered more personal protective equipment in the case that police and firefighters need it. Right now, he said, he is monitoring the situation.

“We’re following the guidance that’s coming down from (state) emergency management and the (Center for Disease Control),”  Owens said. “There’s isn’t a whole lot we can do. We have the people in place if it does get worse. The problem is we don’t know what worse is.”

Owens said he didn’t exactly know what he was allowed to do as the director, adding that most guidance will have to come from state agencies.

“There’s a lot we can’t do at the local level,” he said. “We can’t ride around telling people to get people back in their house; it’s not martial law.”

Rudy said the city was as prepared for the outbreak as possible and he had full confidence in Owens’ ability as director.

“Chief Owens has had a career in emergency services for over 46 years, and has been a fire chief for over seven years,” Rudy said.

In Winthrop, Town Manager Jeffrey Kobrock also declared a state of emergency Monday, in consultation with Sarah Fuller, chairwoman of the town council. The proclamation gives the city manager broad authority, Kobrock said, to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent the loss of life or property in town.

“We declared it really in a proactive mode, to put us in a position to deal with the situation as it unfolds, there was nothing of an emergency nature that caused us to declare it,” Kobrock said. “It just gives us a lot more latitude as far as making decisions and implementing them in a timely, effective way. We don’t want to have a situation face us and go, ‘Oh my goodness, we don’t have the tools to deal with this.'”

Town hall and the public library are closed in Winthrop, while the transfer station remained open.

City hall in Augusta is closed to the public though most workers are still coming in to work.

The Public Works Department, where a single-sort recycling bin is usually available to residents, is closed to the public. Recycling is available to residents at Hatch Hill landfill, though the facility is closed on Saturdays and is only taking credit cards, not cash. Buker Community Center programs are closed, including the city’s child care program.

Public works employees in Augusta have been split into two crews, with one working for a week while the other stays home, rotating in the next week, to reduce the proximity of workers to each other and prevent the spread of illness.

Audette said when people call 911 with an emergency, dispatchers will be asking them additional questions over the phone, to try to determine how paramedics should be equipped and dressed for the call, as if there is a chance of coronavirus, they will don additional safety gear, as recommended by Maine EMS.

Augusta has also established an information sources for residents seeking information about coronavirus and the city response to it, reachable by phone at 207-620-8001 or by email at [email protected]

Kennebec Journal reporter Sam Shepherd contributed to this report.

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