Firefighter Edward Moult closes the door to Ambulance 5-8 while inspecting the vehicle Thursday at the Waterville Fire Department. The coronavirus pandemic requires city rescue workers to decontaminate emergency medical services equipment and vehicles after they have been used on calls.

WATERVILLE — The Emergency Operations Center set up at the Waterville Fire Department to respond to the coronavirus pandemic has decreased its hours but remains in place and ready to increase activity if needed.

“As of last week, we cut down the hours of operation to Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” police Chief Joseph Massey said Thursday. “We felt that we were at a point where we could do that, and we would reactivate the EOC on a full-time basis if we needed to.”

Massey, the center’s incident commander, said center officials met Tuesday and Thursday of this week but may meet more infrequently going forward. They work in close proximity in the city and can work from their regular offices, but return to the operations center at a moment’s notice, according to Massey.

“We will determine probably Monday if we cut back on operations even further,” he said. “I think we’re at a point where we have prepared the operations and have worked with all the partners at the local, state and federal level, and we are in sort of a holding mode.”

If they decide to cut hours further, they will still meet to discuss and evaluate the situation and do what is needed, according to Massey. He said the coronavirus pandemic is unlike any disaster or emergency that officials have faced in the past.

“This is something that is just unprecedented,” Massey said, “and it’s difficult to anticipate what’s going to happen. Is it going to get worse? Are we going to start seeing it flattening out?”

Massey confirmed that operations center officials are in good health. Fire Chief Shawn Esler, the assistant incident commander, said Fire Department employees also are fine.

“All of our employees are healthy and ready to respond to meet the needs of the community,” Esler said Thursday.

The operations center is on the second-floor classroom at the old fire station, which is connected to the newer station. Along with Massey and Esler, center officials include Deputy police Chief Bill Bonney; city Finance Director Aaron Berls; police Sgt. Jennifer Weaver, who supervises the police communications department; fire Capt. John Gromek; and Joel Waye of the city’s information technology, or IT, department.

Last month, the City Council authorized City Manager Michael Roy to spend $150,000 for operations center needs. About 75% of that is expected to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

So far, $58,068 of the $150,000 has been spent on personnel, equipment, food and other needs, leaving a balance of $91,931. Massey said $46,261 has been used for personnel, $6,026 for food and $5,780 for equipment.

The personnel expenses were for additional police and fire staff since the center opened March 16.

“We wanted to make sure we had adequate staff,” Massey said. “I put on additional officers and a dispatcher. As of yesterday, we are no longer scheduling an additional officer. However, we are continuing with additional coverage in dispatch.”

Esler said Thursday that when the operations center opened, officials assumed they would see an increased call volume due to the coronavirus.

Firefighter Edward Moult inspects a cardiac monitor while running checks on Ambulance 5-8 at Waterville Fire Department in Waterville Thursday. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

“We have not seen a significant increase of call volume as a result of COVID-19, but we had a significant increase in workload — planning, preparing and training — to handle potential COVID patients,” Esler said.

He said he requested the equivalent of an additional firefighter added to the workload in terms of hours, and current firefighters worked those hours.

“I lost seven employees when Colby College closed their doors,” Esler said, “so seven is really a third of my call force. That extra position was trying to help make up for our workload plus shortfalls in our call staff.

“As of yesterday, because we haven’t seen the surge of patients that was predicted, we have stopped the OT because we want to be fiscally responsible city leaders, and if we want it back, we want to be able to go back to the City Council to say we need an additional firefighter.”

The Colby students who are firefighters also are EMTs.

The additional work related to the COVID-19 pandemic includes decontaminating emergency medical services equipment and vehicles after they are used on calls.

The equipment costs were for gloves, masks, gowns and cleaning and disinfecting materials. The food costs were for the operations center, when people were working long hours, and for first responders.

Esler said he and Berls, the operation center’s finance section chief,  plan to submit the first round of FEMA reimbursement requests next week.

Berl’s responsibilities at the operations center include making sure expenses are tracked, the city is running smoothly and funds are available to pay expenses.

Waye ensures equipment is running, meetings are put online when needed and so forth.

Weaver, the planning section chief, reaches out to businesses, nursing homes, group homes and hospitals, developing resource and contact lists and ensuring resources are available.

Gromek, the logistics section chief, places orders and ensures medical supplies, personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and other items are available and distributed as needed.

The center follows the model of the FEMA’s National Incident Management System, specifically designed for such emergencies. The system includes bringing together key players from city departments to handle logistics, planning and other operations to ensure resources are used in the most efficient way possible.

They access information from each city department as needed and keep city officials apprised of what is happening, what programs are being put into place and passing information onto them and the public.

The center also works with health care professionals, the private sector, grocery stores, some nonprofit organizations, the Mid-Maine Homeless Shelter and some banks and pharmacies.

Esler said the biggest message he wants to get out to the community is that the center stands ready to respond.

“Your Fire and Police departments have never worked so well together to deliver high-quality services to our community,” he said. “We’re all in this together and we want to just let people know if they need anything, to reach out to police and fire and we’ll try to do the best we can and we’re here to support them.”

Esler said that when the pandemic hit, front line emergency medical responders were anxious to get to work, and he is proud of the men and women in the Police and Fire departments.

“They really care about this community,” Esler said, “and they have been ready to take this fight to the front line.”

More information on the Emergency Operations Center are available at [email protected]

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