First responders face COVID-19 concerns while on the job

Port Orchard police officer, SKFR firefighter-paramedic take precautions to safeguard their families

By Mike De Felice

Special to Kitsap Daily News

PORT ORCHARD — At the end of his shift, Port Orchard police officer Erik Wofford these days goes through a mental checklist before he walks into his house, where he lives with his wife and two children.

“Sanitize my hands. Don’t bring work boots into the house. Make sure the family does not get close to the uniform I wore today.”

It is a new world we live in with the influx of coronavirus. Many people do not go to the office. More and more business is conducted virtually by email, video conferencing or phone.

First responders in Kitsap County, however, do not have the luxury of working from home. Instead, they must hit the streets every day and interact with the public, increasing their chances of being exposed to the coronavirus.

First responders include police officers, paramedics, emergency medical technicians, firefighters and other trained public service employees whose job is to keep residents safe and communities protected.

These days their jobs place them in greater danger of being exposed to the novel coronavirus (officially termed COVID-19).

“We are used to facing the inherent danger of our profession,” Wofford said. “The difference today is the concern that we are exposing our family to danger.

“This is a whole new enemy. If the public is not following the recommendations of the health care professionals or you let your guard is down for a second, you can come into contact with the virus.

“For the majority of our job, we are dealing with good people. We just hope they are following the advice of the medical professionals.”

With the increasing wave of coronavirus cases, officers with the Port Orchard Police Department have had to make some adjustments when performing duties in order to remain safe.

“If a call can be done by phone, we do that,” Wofford explained. “It’s tough because it is always better to deal with people face-to-face.

“We stand a distance from people we are dealing with,” the 50-year-old officer said. “This is an observable change but people understand.”

In the past, if an officer came upon a person who had run out of gas, it was commonplace for the officer to drive the individual to a gas station.

“That is not happening now,” he said. “Instead, I will phone one of their friends for them or AAA to help them out,” he said.

“We have to protect the community, ourselves and our families.”

Given the new health concerns of dealing with the public and the associated risk of coronavirus exposure, the question arises: If he could do it all over again, would officer Wofford still sign up to be in law enforcement?

“I always knew what I wanted to do. I knew there would be tough times like this, but this is where my heart is. I have no second thoughts, no regrets.”

Paramedic on-duty

Brian Dyste has been a South Kitsap Fire and Rescue firefighter and paramedic for 25 years. During a 24-hour shift, three out of four calls for which he responds are medical in nature — and an increasing number of those calls are tied to people concerned that they might have the coronavirus.

Brian Dyste, a 25-year veteran firefighter and paramedic with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, says he is able to discuss his COVID-19 concerns with his wife, who is an emergency-room nurse. (Courtesy photo)

Brian Dyste, a 25-year veteran firefighter and paramedic with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue, says he is able to discuss his COVID-19 concerns with his wife, who is an emergency-room nurse. (Courtesy photo)

“You know you may not go home after a shift because you could end up in isolation after an incident,” said 52-year-old Dyste, who is married to an ER nurse. “You have to make sure your ducks are in a row at home. We need to make sure that the family is ready. We cannot focus on work if we are worried about them.”

At the end of a shift, Dyste showers before he heads home. His uniform and boots stay at work.

“You do not want to drag home whatever got on your uniform,” Dyste said. “We are dedicated to serving the public but our family comes first.”

Dyste says it helps that his wife Barbara is a nurse who also faces exposure at work.

“We can easily communicate at the same level. My wife being in the ER faces greater exposure in terms of the number of patients she sees. We can talk shop and vent our stress easily.”

The couple has three adult children, with two of them at college until those institutions closed. The students have returned home to take their classes online. “Empty-nesters no longer,” he joked.

The current health crisis has impacted how fire and rescue personnel do their jobs.

Perhaps it’s because of the news media highlighting the stress on the medical system, but SKFR calls are down 15 percent, South Kitsap Fire and Rescue Chief Steve Wright said. That results in fewer medical calls in which people are brought to the hospital. Previously, 60 percent of the time, patients would be transported to the hospital. That percentage has dipped to 45 percent, Wright said.

“The public has been outstanding and doing a really good job of sheltering in place,” Dyste said.

“Still, we get calls from people with simple symptoms – fever, cough, sore throat. Understandably, they are scared. We look at their vital signs, temperature and ability to eat and urinate. We guide them through the decision process. Lots of these people are not brought to the hospital where they could actually face an increased chance of exposure.”

Like fellow first responder Port Orchard officer Wofford, Dyste would not want to be doing anything else despite the hazards inherent in the job.

“This is unprecedented, dangerous and different than what we have experienced before,” Dyste said. “Still, no way I would pick another profession. My love has always been for the fire service. Ever since I saw Johnny and Roy (on the ‘70s television program “Emergency”), I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Brian Dyste is a 25-year veteran firefighter and paramedic with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue. (Courtesy photo)

Brian Dyste is a 25-year veteran firefighter and paramedic with South Kitsap Fire and Rescue. (Courtesy photo)