Call-center changes aim to keep 911 operators and first responders safe

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911 operators in some cities are fielding a deluge of calls during the Covid-19 crisis. (Jen Rynda/The Baltimore Sun via AP)

In every city, 911 operators are playing a critical front-line role in Covid-19 response, fielding calls from people who are sick with the disease and figuring out who requires attention from police, fire, and emergency medical personnel.

That’s why cities are taking steps to make sure that 911 operators stay healthy, and that they’re able make decisions that keep first responders healthy as well.

A new report from the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) based on a survey of 500 911 professionals across 46 states and territories found the vast majority of public safety answering points (PSAPS) have instituted new safety protocols and support service to help staff cope with coronavirus-linked anxiety and stress.

“No matter what you do, it’s a very stressful job, but in these circumstances it’s even harder,” said April Heinze, the 911 and PSAP Operations Director at NENA. “Ensuring responder safety is the top priority.”

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At least one 911 operator, a 38-year-old man in Detroit, has died as a result of Covid-19 infection.

A few of the trends from the report, which gathered responses until April 1:

While many Americans are now working from home in order to observe social-distancing guidelines, very few of the estimated 98,000 police, fire, and emergency dispatchers in the U.S. have that option. That’s because, Heinze explained, most call centers aren’t equipped for remote work. “Hopefully, in the coming months and years we’ll see a little bit more of this and if this does anything, this teaches us the importance of virtual capabilities,” she said.

[Read: How behavioral ‘nudges’ can reduce burnout among 911 operators]

Public safety officials across the country, meanwhile, are instituting their own new measures aimed at keeping first responders healthy and safe.

NENA is updating in real time a COVID-19 resource page that offers best practices, webinars and human resources information.

“If you are sending people into a hot zone, responder safety is of the utmost,” Heinze said.

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