By Jeffrey Vilk, Guest Writer
In the closing scene of the 2000 movie “The Patriot,” General Lord Charles Cornwallis is staring with despair out his window as he watches American colonists win another battle over British troops. In this moment, he utters to his assistant, “Everything is changing…everything has changed.” This is the perfect metaphor for everything that is going on during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Normally, in our industry, change takes time. However, there are certain times when change happens so quickly, we feel like our heads are spinning. When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in 2005, floodwaters surged into emergency centers and destroyed rooms with 911 communication equipment, crippling the entire infrastructure almost immediately. Many dispatchers no longer had homes to go to, so they were living out of suitcases. On 9/11, 3,000 calls came into New York’s emergency call centers in the first 18 minutes. In a 24-hour period, the centers received over 57,000 phone calls.
All these incidents affected dispatch centers beyond anything that had happened before. COVID-19 differs only slightly. While the call volume now is lower than it was during those emergencies, we are still dealing with many repercussions of the virus. We are increasingly mindful of cross-contamination in centers. We are realizing that centers may need to operate with the absences of half of their staff or more in hard-hit areas. We are developing contingencies for not only single centers affected by mass absenteeism, but for entire regions where forced consolidation is the only way for centers to continue to operate.
The communication center has become an island. No non-essential agency personnel are allowed inside the center and before any person does enter, they must use sanitizer and have their temperature taken. In some agencies, dispatchers can no longer just switch terminals. They must go to one specified terminal and remain there during each shift so the employee’s movements can be traced back — in case those occupying them on other shifts get sick.
For some agencies, if someone from a shift calls off, a replacement from the same shift must be tried first in order to limit unnecessary exposure to colleagues on other shifts. In some centers, the wiping down of every inch of a terminal has become commonplace to further prevent the spread of illness. Completely new shifts must be drawn up on the fly to account for extended absences if more than two or three dispatchers are out sick at one time.
What happens if surrounding centers lose just as many dispatchers? How will the region deal with having to staff a center 24/7? Who dispatches for whom? Do the dispatchers come into the bigger centers or do the bigger centers just dispatch for the smaller ones?
When the curve is flattened, we’ll realize we as emergency dispatchers and supervisors have learned a lot from this virus. I think we’ll put more energy into preparing for the unknown. We’ll come up with contingencies that we never thought necessary before. It’ll be necessary to try and prepare as much as we can, so we won’t be as taken by surprise for the next crisis.
There is no question the entire landscape around us is changing. Our children’s children will read about this time in the history books. Society has developed a renewed respect and admiration for doctors, nurses and first responders. It is well deserved and, frankly, overdue.
However, don’t allow the world to forget about us, the first-first responders. If we’re able, we’ll be there to answer 911 calls for people at their worst moment. But we need to be healthy to do it.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: While dispatchers don’t usually come face-to-face with those we help, don’t let your agencies forget that we need PPEs (personal protective equipment), too, in the form of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer. As agencies continue to receive donations from their communities, remind them that comm centers could benefit immensely from the donation of sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer as well.