When a 911 call came in last week, Andover EMTs piled into the town ambulance as usual and headed for the address communicated by the dispatcher.
As they neared the location, they were told over the radio that the patient potentially had coronavirus, or COVID-19, the highly contagious, flu-like disease that has no cure and is sweeping across the globe.
As part of a protocol initiated in the last few weeks, EMTs then put on protective glasses, masks, gloves and gowns — the maximum amount of protection possible, according to fire Chief Michael Mansfield.
The patient tested negative, but the precautions are positively necessary.
Fire and police officials across the Merrimack Valley and southern New Hampshire — and around the globe for that matter — are on heightened alert as coronavirus continues to spread.
The virus is being passed along quickly and expected to get much more prevalent in the coming days and months.
“We have transported several patients who have been sick ... with flu-like symptoms,” Mansfield said, adding none tested positive for coronavirus. “We are using an increased level of precaution and changing how we are responding.”
In Haverhill, police and fire officials are also being proactive about limiting contact with potential carriers.
In addition to having masks, safety glasses and gloves, police officers are also directed to use disinfectant wipes to clean cruisers at the beginning and end of each shift and have Purell hand sanitizer available to clean their hands after every call, spokesman Stephen Doherty said.
“Due to the elevated risk of potential exposure, police officers will only be responding to life-threatening medical calls and psychiatric emergencies,” he said.
“Officers are being encouraged to maintain a social distance of 6 feet whenever possible,” he added. “When calling the Police Department, callers may be requested to meet officers outside when appropriate to limit interactions inside households.”
Haverhill fire Chief William Laliberty said the city’s dispatch center is doing the same thing that is happening in Andover and elsewhere: screening 911 callers for signs of coronavirus. If a caller meets the criteria, the dispatcher calls the ambulance and lets them know they should put on protective gear.
“We dispatch Trinity (emergency service provider) and then Haverhill fire goes and stands by in case Trinity needs support,” Laliberty said.
“We don’t interfere if it comes up with the COVID-19 criteria,” he said. “I teach my guys that if a person doesn’t look well, you may have to put a mask on them and then back out and then put on your mask, gown and goggles to protect yourself.”
North Andover fire Chief William McCarthy said his department recently went through a workshop with the Massachusetts Board of Health.
“For the last few weeks, we’ve been meeting regularly,” he said. “I’ve met with all our shifts and we give them as much information as possible.”
He said everyone in the department has been fit with the N95 mask, which filters out airborne particulates that may contain the virus.
Firefighter Jeffrey Deschenes, emergency medical services coordinator, said all dispatch officers have been trained to ask a series of “triage” questions.
“It starts at the dispatch center,” he said. “They have all been trained on how to triage the call.”
They ask about whether the person has a fever or respiratory illness, has traveled outside the country or has been around someone who tested positive.
“Then they enact the protocol to make sure our responders are prepared,” he said.
The Pelham Police Department hasn’t had any suspicious cases yet, according to Chief Joseph Roark, but they, too, are proceeding with caution.
“Effective immediately, when feasible we are limiting face-to-face interactions with the public,” he said in a press release. “As the COVID-19 continues to spread in this area, our goal is to protect the health and well-being of the public and your first responders.”
He urged people to call the station for non-emergencies before walking in to file a report.
“Officers have been instructed to take reports that are less serious in nature over the phone,” he said. “We will utilize our email system for written statements and photographs of minor property damage.”
Serious or in-progress crimes will be investigated in person immediately, he said, and all emergency calls will be responded to immediately.
“When appropriate, officers will keep approximately 6 feet away from people if they have to investigate a crime in person,” he added. “The station is not providing fingerprint services or car seat installations and we will not be responding to assist with VIN verifications until further notice.”
Mansfield, of Andover, said his Fire Department is working closely with nursing homes, assisted care facilities and walk-in clinics “to make sure they are giving us the correct initial information to minimize” contact with the virus.
Despite the measures of caution, firefighters “are concerned” about what’s going on, he said.
“We are keeping them informed on all information,” he said. “They are concerned. There are unknowns with this. But we are in the business of dealing with unknowns. All we can do is provide them with all the tools they need to protect themselves in event something happens. Their safety is paramount.”
Reporter Allison Corneau contributed to this story.