Growing up, Lt. Mario Ruberto dreamed of becoming a paramedic like those he saw on “Emergency,” a 1970s semi-documentary TV series about Los Angeles Fire Department paramedics.
Ruberto began living the dream when he became a Mayo Clinic cardiac care nurse in 1980. Over the next 40 years, he would become a paramedic, a police officer and a college instructor.
Those experiences served him well as MTPD’s emergency management coordinator, a role that recently included the responsibility of creating the department’s plan to protect officers and people they encounter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This melded my careers from medicine, emergency management, as a paramedic and a police officer,” Ruberto said.
To create the plan, Ruberto distilled reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and translated them into new ways of doing business for the department. And it paid off. With enhanced cleaning efforts and isolation, the department has seen just three COVID-19 cases to date. The department has around 140 full-time officers and more than 50 part-time officers.
"His being a subject matter expert really put the MTPD in a great position to manage the impact of the pandemic and keep our staff as healthy as possible,” said Leah Palmer, a department project manager who worked with Ruberto on the COVID plan.
Steps the department took included:
- Modifying schedules to reduce officers’ exposure (officers five 12-hour days followed by 10 days off);
- Holding virtual roll calls
- Using single-person squads, and disinfecting squad cars between shifts;
- Assigning backgrounds, training and investigations staff to patrol;
- Requiring officers wear N-95 face coverings while transporting suspects, who are provided surgical-style face coverings;
- Temporarily stopping fare inspections for the safety of customers and officer
"It was all about the safety of the officers and maintaining our continuity of operations,” Ruberto said.
The aftermath of George Floyd’s homicide meant changes to the COVID-19 plan when officers needed to relocate people without homes who were encamped along the METRO Blue Line and in jeopardy from fire and smoke from the demonstrations.
The department’s Homeless Action Team, a dedicated group of officers developed by Ruberto, Capt. Brooke Blakey and Sgt. Tim Lawrence, moved the encampment’s occupants into hotel rooms and worked with community partners to transition many into permanent housing.
"Without the dedication of Sgt. Lawrence and the team working with occupants of the encampment, another tragedy could have happened,’’ said Blakey, the department’s executive officer.
"We did mix teams during the demonstrations out of necessity, but we still maintained all the cleaning and field masking measures. One week after the demonstrations, we asked that all officers do the asymptomatic COVID testing offered by the Met Council, and we have had no positive cases. We have now re-implemented most of our COVID safety measures,’’ said Ruberto, who also has found himself in the role of a counselor.
"I took a lot of calls from concerned officers and provided the latest information during our virtual roll calls to help calm their fears, he said.