Coping with COVID19: Plan, Test, Execute – A Blueprint for Success

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The big lesson is that nothing is impossible if we just work on it, we can make it work. Everything so far that has been a roadblock for us, we’ve been able to figure it out. And now to share that experience is what we’re going to do next.
Image created by Jack Adamson via Unsplash
Public Safety and First Responders have been on the front lines of the COVID 19 crisis from the beginning.  As a group, they have been challenged to continue to perform their normal duties as there is no shutting down public safety functions.  Public safety agencies have created new and innovative ways to accomplish their functions to ensure the safety and well-being of the communities they serve. 
 
One of our clients, the city of Alexandria Virginia, met this challenge head on by looking at various aspects of their duties to determine how best to continue top quality services to citizens, given the multitudes of impediments resulting from COVID-19.  The guiding principle throughout this process was to maintain the level of services regardless of the direction of the CoronaVirus. Fortunately, the Department of Emergency and Customer Communications (“DECC”) had a place to start.  They had previously developed a detailed Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP), which included a comprehensive pandemic response component.  When it first became apparent to them in late January that they could be facing a pandemic, DECC went into action.  They began by reviewing the COOP and identifying what action would be needed to actually implement the pandemic portion of the plan.
 
The basic pandemic plan consisted of 3 separate phases.
 

Phase 1 – Split the Comm Center into 2 Separate Physical Locations

The focus of Phase 1 was addressing the staffing changes that were likely to occur as a result of   infection or quarantine, changes and swings in both call types and volume of calls, and social distancing challenges.
 
Their goal was to create a space where the dispatchers could operate without the necessity of wearing masks, primarily through moving some telecommunicators to the back-up center.  As the city already maintained a 2nd location in a hot-standby mode, implementation was straight forward.  In early March, the city moved one half of the staff to the standby facility. The 2 facilities mirrored each other closely.  The city’s 311 staff moved to a different location within the primary building to provide additional social distancing. The Center practiced precautionary virus measures, including wearing masks into the building, temperature taking upon entering the building, thorough and frequent scrubbing of both facilities, and providing additional cleaning measures between operational shift changes. 
 
The testing process for Phase 2 was the most difficult portion of the plan. Phase 2 required very specific technology and capabilities that would allow the agency to disperse staff to multiple remote locations. This was the 1st time that the city would be utilizing these planned capabilities. DECC needed to duplicate the three legs of dispatching, which is receiving a call, logging a call into computer aided dispatch (CAD) and dispatching the call to the first responders.
 
  • The city utilized their existing Next Gen 911 and IP-based technologies provided by FirstNet. These capabilities provided the ability to move many workers including administration and technical staff to working remotely from home.
  • The PSAP used “PSAP in a box” to accomplish remote dispatching and used FirstNet route to duplicate the functions of the dispatch workstations. The “PSAP in a Box” provided the remote dispatchers the same capabilities at home as they had in the dispatch center. The flexibility of building remote locations allowed the PSAP to setup up the remote locations to replicate the physical and human interaction environment of the call center.
  • The Planning and Testing for Phase 2 required an estimated 2 ½ weeks of from planning to exercising the equipment. 
 

Phase 2 – Implement Remote Dispatching and Isolation Center

Goals.Further disperse call-taking functions and create an Isolation Unit, both of which had not been previously undertaken by the city.

Implementation of Remote Testing.  

  • Implementation of remote call-taking began in late March
  • Function started with primarily administrative calls and then moved to dispatch calls.
  • Due to the vigorous testing, this step was accomplished relatively seamlessly.

Creation of an Isolation Unit.  

  • First Isolation Team was started at the end of March
  • Participation in the Isolation Unit was voluntary and included total isolation from outside visitors.
  • Various requirements were considered when determining the working location to be used. In addition to the unit functioning as a Dispatch Center, it also required basically full household functionality: including separate sleeping, cooking, laundry, and recreational facilities.  The location that could best provide those features was the main comm center. 
  • The initial time frame was targeted for 14 days but, was changed to 10 days in large part due to the separation from families.
  • The city has now had 3 rounds of isolation and there is a waiting list for participation in the isolation unit.
 

Phase 3 – Implementation of a 3rd Dispatch Center with Isolation Capabilities

Goals.  Establish an additional dispatch center.
Implementation.
  • Created remote dispatch center in mid-April
  • Worked with a local hotel to determine best physical location for center within the hotel.
  • Deployed all the equipment and technology required for the Dispatch Center
  • Assembled team of volunteers
  • Brought the remote center live as to ensure full operational capability 
  • Having established its operational capability, the remote center has since been dismantled. 
 
Remote Training

Goal.  To keep moving forward with personnel training and the on-boarding process with recently hired dispatchers.  Remote training is a new program for the city and was implemented as part of Phase 2. 

Implementation

  • City is using Microsoft Team to implement
  • Remote Training is utilized for orientation and introductory classes
  • Where possible new employees used their equipment and current internet connections.  If equipment was not available, then city provided necessary devices. 
  • Next step is to have CAD application training in a dedicated, classroom at a city facility where social distancing and other prevention measures can be practiced. 
 
Lessons Learned
  1. The big lesson is that nothing is impossible if we just work on it, we can make it work. Everything so far that has been a roadblock for us, we’ve been able to figure it out. And now to share that experience is what we’re going to do next.
  2. While plans look great on paper, testing and exercising was a key ingredient to success.
  3. By splitting staffs between the 2 facilities, the center was able to enable social distancing quickly.
  4. Created checklist of the myriad things needed during testing to successfully implement remote dispatching.
  5. Change of this magnitude in a short time frame requires both the right technology and a significant amount of effort on the part of the support staff.
  6. Communications teams were very flexible and accepted the changes that needed to be made in order to keep their services at the levels needed. 
  7. Ensuring that the technology and related components were available and ready was the most challenging aspect of the implementation
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