In March of 2019, the COVID 19 pandemic was declared a National Emergency. The effect it had on our emergency communication centers (ECC) was something no one had ever experienced before, and centers quickly activated their Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP). Most centers had a pandemic plan that was planned during the 2009 H1N1 situation and eleven years later when COVID 19 hit, it remained a truly relevant plan. However, the biggest change was the new technology that would allow centers to operate differently than they had in 2009. Response plans were modified to allow phone and or online reports in lieu of an officer physically responding. Centers split their operations, opening their backup dispatch center, and staffing both simultaneously. Centers were prepared for social distancing by placing plex-glass dividers between the consoles and checking staff for signs of COVID prior to entering an ECC. Offices were changed into sleeping rooms training rooms became functioning centers, allowing the distancing of staff and finally, call takers were set up to answer 911 calls from their homes.
Now, nearly two years later, the effects of COVID are still being felt by the ECCs. We checked in with seven of our customers to find out if any of the initial changes made by their center to deal with COVID are still in place, and have any of them become a permanent change?
- Most of the centers have increased their sanitizing requirements and many of them have hired professional resources to decontaminate the center on a regular basis.
- All the centers that have fully functional back up centers and split their staff, are continuing with this practice. Some are researching the feasibility of this becoming a permanent situation, while others have made this a permanent operation.
- One center set up dispatch operations in a single office continues to use that for staff that have had direct exposure but no symptoms, to continue to work isolated from the rest of the staff.
- Several of the centers and their agencies have permanently changed response requirements allowing officers to call complainant to obtain report information instead of responding to the location of the incident. Some agencies have implemented online reports for past action incidents.
- Every center is dealing with staffing shortages. The shortages are the result of:
- The result of training academies being shut down during the heart of the pandemic
- Losing staff due to their school age children having to take online learning from home
- Staff testing positive for COVID
- All the centers are following local and or state mandates for the use of masks.
- None of the seven centers had mandatory vaccination requirements for their staff. All of them are following federal guidelines for essential workers and have created additional guidelines including:
- If a staff member’s direct family member gets COVID and they are not vaccinated, they are required to quarantine at home for a certain number of days. They may return if no symptoms or receive a negative COVID test.
- If a staff member’s direct family member gets COVID and they have no symptoms, they are placed in an isolated work area with the ability to process calls.
- During the heart of the pandemic, unvaccinated staff were required to take weekly COVID tests (this has since been rescinded).
- Fully vaccinated staff that contract the virus are granted emergency leave. Unvaccinated employees must use accrued annual or sick leave.
- Incentives are offered to employees become vaccinated, including 32 hours of additional vacation time.
Everyone thought the COVID pandemic would be a short-term event, but it continues, fortunately, not to the degree that it was during the heart of the pandemic. Our customers, along with the Emergency Communication Centers across the U.S., continue to show how resilient, ardent, and dedicated they are in their efforts to protect their first responders and the citizens they serve.
We would like to thank the following ECCs for their input to this article: Alexandria-VA, Chesapeake-VA, CONFIRE-CA, Iredell County-NC, Port Authority Police-VA, Stafford County-VA, and Virginia Beach-VA.