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.”

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:

  • Shelter-in-place orders seemed to be decreasing 911 call volumes in many areas outside the COVID-19 hotspots. New York City, however, had more calls during the survey period than it did during the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001. But Heinze said that even in areas where call volume is down, call time is up as operators try to get as much information as possible to ensure responder safety.
  • The vast majority of 911 operators who responded to the survey said their local authorities were appealing to residents not to use emergency service lines for Covid-19 information.
  • Local emergency officials said they are using guidance supplied by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to screen callers for possible COVID-19 infection.
  • Dozens of respondents, unprompted, noted that increased domestic violence calls were a major concern. Charlotte, N.C., for example, reported a 17-percent increase.
  • Safety measures being taken to ensure operator and respondent safety included lockdown/quarantine policies at the central 911 facility; changes to dispatch policies, such as asking callers to meet responders outside the home if physically possible; stricter policies for workplace cleanliness and changing schedules/locations to allow staffers to maintain safe distances from each other.

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.

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

  • In Dallas, where at least five police officers have tested positive for Covid-19, Police Chief Renee Hall is encouraging people to report some crimes online when they can.
  • In Tucson, Ariz., city officials put out a guide for when residents should — and shouldn’t — call 911.
  • In Pennsylvania, emergency management coordinators from Montour and Columbia counties released a joint statement Monday asking anyone calling 911 to alert county telecommunicators if they have been exposed to or are infected by Covid-19 in order to protect emergency personnel responding to the call.
  • In at least two states, Alabama and Massachusetts, health officials are sharing the addresses, but not names, of confirmed Covid-19 patients with emergency response personnel to protect responders.

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.

Celebrating public sector progress and innovation in cities around the world. Run by @BloombergDotOrg’s Government Innovation program. bloombergcities.org

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