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Emergency responders ready for duty during pandemic

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The Big Sky Fire Department is refreshing COVID-19 in-house prevention and emergency response protocol in accordance with the Center for Disease Control and the Gallatin County Health Department. PHOTO COURTESY OF BIG SKY FIRE DEPARTMENT

By Bella Butler EBS EDITORIAL ASSISTANT

BIG SKY—Among the slew of public services altered by the novel COVID-19 virus, the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Big Sky Fire Department are reacting and adjusting to adhere to recommended guidelines of the ever-changing global pandemic.

Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin and Big Sky Fire Department Interim-Chief Greg Megaard are both overseeing in-house as well as procedural adjustments within their departments to ensure continued public safety as well as the health of their own employees.

Both administrators stressed the importance of keeping their staffs as well as the public informed with timely and accurate information. The sheriff’s office is striving to remain up to date with regular trainings from in-house health professionals so that deputies are aware of necessary precautions such as wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) like face masks and gloves when necessary.

In addition to the trainings, Sheriff Gootkin has also encouraged his staff to employ common sense. For instance, patrol deputies may keep a further distance from vehicles while conducting traffic stops, rather than leaning in—while also taking stock of any potential dangers within the vehicle. Sheriff Gootkin is also grateful for external sources of information that are readily available to him and his officers so that they are always prepared to make the most informed decisions.

“We have one of our retired captains hooked at the hip with the health department, so that way if we have any questions or issues, we have an immediate source. . .to ask the experts and get answers from them,” Sheriff Gootkin said.

Chief Megaard is relying heavily on the frequently updated streams of information coming from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as the Gallatin County Health Department.

“Big Sky Fire [Department] is doing everything to be prepared to respond to the community’s needs, to support them not only from an [emergency medical service] standpoint but anywhere they can help,” Chief Megaard said. Tacking on additional precautions to education and equipment preparations, the fire department shut down public tours, ride-alongs and any other activities that required the public to enter their facilities.

Employees of the Emergency Operations Center prepare for COVID-19-related conflicts while carrying out daily work. PHOTO COURTESY OF SHERIFF BRIAN GOOTKIN

While internal work to adjust to the far-reaching consequences and threats of the virus have kept the departments busy, Sheriff Gootkin was pleased to report that the sheriff’s office has experienced little trouble while out on the job.

“Things have really been quiet. People have been very cooperative; people have been very nice,” Sheriff Gootkin said.

However, with a struggling economy and many people out of work, the sheriff fears what may be coming down the pike. “People getting desperate, that’s our major concern now as law enforcement.”

Sheriff Gootkin referenced comparable catastrophic events in history, such as the Great Depression, where many people’s response to the national struggle was to seek reprieve by means of criminal activity.  

“The sheriff’s office always plans for the worst and expects the best, and we don’t panic,” he said, confident in the office’s preparation in cooperation with the Emergency Operations Center for such a trend.

In the spirit of prevention, Sheriff Gootkin stressed to his deputies a cite and release protocol for misdemeanors like trespassing and shoplifting in order to avoid the spread of the virus behind bars.

“We want to try and limit exposure in the jail,” Sheriff Gootkin said. “The jail is a very difficult place because it has one ventilation system, so if we get a sickness or a virus, the problem is there is no place for anyone to go.”

For offenses that infringe on public safety, such as assault or driving under the influence, perpetrators will still be taken to the jail.

Another concern for both Chief Megaard and Sheriff Gootkin is the protection of their employees.

“It is imperative to make sure we are protecting ourselves through the proper PPE,” Chief Megaard said. “If we have one member or multiple members [of the department] test positive, that would impact our staffing significantly.” Chief Megaard said that while a staffing shortage due to viral infection would tax the department, the community would see no difference in response.

Sheriff Gootkin echoed Chief Megaard’s promise to the public. “We are public safety, No. 1, and we will continue to operate regardless. . .we have to continue to work to make sure people are safe.”

Nationally, proactive measures are being taken to ensure that EMS professionals are well stocked and such a shortage doesn’t occur. The National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians is continuing testing in order to certify emergency medical technician candidates. A provisional EMT certificate is also being offered to candidates who complete a required educational program as well as pass the cognitive exam, while the psychomotor examination is currently suspended.

Chief Megaard added that as a 24-hour operation, the fire department is a consistent resource for concerned citizens to reach out to with questions.

Sheriff Gootkin also extended the sheriff’s office phone line to the public, encouraging those with questions or concerns to reach out. The sheriff has proudly witnessed a community of people willing to come together in times of need, and he is glad to be a part of it.

“Every time we see the worst things happen. . .we see the best in people. Especially in this community, in this county, it’s amazing how we sort of rally and support each other. It’s good for the soul to see how people react and come together.”

To reach the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office, call (406)-582-2100. To reach the Big Sky Fire Department, call (406)-995-2100.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department has opened a call center in response to coronavirus (COVID-19). The call center is available from 8 AM to 5 PM (MST) every day of the week. For any questions or concerns, you can reach the call center at (406) 548-0123 or by emailing callcenter@readygallatin.com  Non-English speaking options are available. You can also visit healthygallatin.org for updated information.

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