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inspections by FaceTime, Staggered Shifts: Towns Work To Keep Staff Healthy

inspections by FaceTime, Staggered Shifts: Towns Work  To Keep Staff Healthy

Hartford Courant, April 30, 2020

By Don Stacom and Steven Goode 

Windsor police work 12-hour shifts, Bloomfield’s building department does some inspections by video and Bristol firefighters are split into teams to minimize how many colleagues they work with.

In the time of social distancing, Connecticut communities are taking creative measures to minimize the risk of any department or agency getting hit by COVID-19 all at once.

“Most of our employees have been very resilient, they’ve pivoted,” Bristol Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu said. “The majority are understanding that if we don’t do the Draconian measures right, we could possibly be doing them all summer — which nobody wants to do.”

The vast majority of Connecticut municipalities closed their town or city halls to the public in mid-March, advising taxpayers to conduct day-to-day business by email or phone. Police started taking minor complaints by phone instead of in-person, and firehouses did away with public tours and open houses.  

In the weeks since then, department supervisors have looked for ways to further reduce the risk of employees getting infected on the job. The big threat — a whole department’s staff getting sick at once — has led to a series of new schedules and working conditions.

“All of our departments are operating differently,” Zoppo-Sassu said. “At the Building Department, everyone comes in every day — but some for the morning, some for the afternoon. And they’ve started to be creative about using Zoom and cellphones; contractors can go into a building and take video, and inspectors can review that."

Bloomfield has taken a similar approach.

“I just got off a Zoom meeting with the engineer, deputy town engineer, wetlands agent and a person who just bought a property in the town center and wanted to show us a concept plan,” said Jose Giner, Bloomfield’s economic development and planning director. “We were able to share our screens and look at everything that we needed to help evaluate the site.”

Trumbull has advised contractors that some inspections can be done using FaceTime, and plan reviews can be done by email. Fairfield installed a drop box behind town hall where residents can drop off building or zoning plans, permit forms and applications.

Minimize in-person back to top

To minimize in-person contact, Stratford has begun directing people to call ahead before trying to file a death certificate.

“We will meet you at the door and take the death certificate, burial, cremation permit and payment. We will process while you wait, and return your copies and permits to you at the door,” the town’s website advises.

Some assessors, city clerks and tax departments are alternating shifts; some employees work at city hall while others work from home, and the groups shift places the next week.

“Our IT department made sure everyone who wanted to work at home could have a VPN connection,” Zoppo-Sassu said in Bristol, one of the first Connecticut communities to reschedule staff as a prevention measure.

“The public works department is having the crews on trash and recycling go directly to their trucks in the morning, do their routes and then go home. There’s no congregating at the yard. The street department has half the maintenance division work, while half is on call,” she said. 

Bristol’s fire department has limited individual firefighters to working at no more than two of the city’s five firehouses, even to fill overtime shifts. The goal is to reduce the risk that one infected but asymptomatic employee could come in close contact with dozens of colleagues.

Police in Bristol haven’t done away with roll calls for now, and detectives are conducting some interviews by phone rather than in person. In Bristol, Windsor and some other communities police have been working 12-hour shifts to minimize interaction between officers at shift changes.

“When the coronavirus was just entering Connecticut, there was a concern that as it spread it would affect the ability to staff patrol operations due to a high number of officers becoming ill," Windsor Police Chief Donald Melanson said. "A normal schedule has officers rotating days off. Because of the latency of the virus, if one officer became positive — whether knowing they are or not — that would have the potential to spread the virus to officers who they didn’t work with every day.

“Going to 12-hour shifts gave us the ability to create ‘platoons,’ where a shift worked together and shared the same days off. At the end of their rotation they were off for either three or four days. This was beneficial in that if an officer became ill, there would be some time from when they worked to when they could return."

Windsor hasn’t seen any COVID-19 impact on police staffing, and is already looking at a return to normal shift schedules once the state’s risk peak has passed.