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July 15, 2020 [TR Daily]
911 Officials Put Premium on COVID-19 Employee Safety
With several months of experience under their belts dealing with the coronavirus pandemic, officials overseeing public safety answering points (PSAPs) around the country continue to fine-tune procedures and policies to make their workplaces as safe as possible, panelists at an online NG911 Institute event said today.
Dan Henry, regulatory counsel and director-government affairs for the National Emergency Number Association, cited survey data the group has compiled showing that PSAPs are taking the same kinds of measures to protect workers’ health and safety as other sectors, including imposing social distancing rules, requiring masks where possible, and conducting frequent and thorough cleaning of facilities.
But there are numerous challenges to implementing those practices, including that many PSAPs have limited space to enforce social distancing and limited access to personal protective equipment and they can find it difficult for headset-wearing operators to handle calls while wearing masks.
Overall, he said, “there is rising anxiety” among PSAP employees about their safety and security as the pandemic continues.
According to NENA’s surveys of PSAP directors, “It’s sort of palpable with people being stressed about this,” Mr. Henry said. “Normally, telecommunicators can put away their stress. They can sort of put it in a box when they go home. Now, there’s no escaping the stress of a pandemic.”
In addition, Mr. Henry said, while many PSAPs are under perennial budget constraints and short staffed, it has become increasingly apparent those issues have been exacerbated during the pandemic.
While many administrators had hoped the pandemic would be a short-term issue, it is proving to be something they will have to plan for over the next year to 18 months, he said.
Liz Graeber, 911 administrator for the city of Phoenix, said her operation, which includes much of the surrounding metropolitan area, has been successful in implementing “monitoring and lockdown” policies.
Though operators are not required to wear masks at their workstations, Phoenix has implemented numerous measures, including social distancing and severely restricting access to the emergency communications center (ECC), Ms. Graeber said.
Phoenix has also had to route calls through other facilities and temporarily shut down the ECC at times to conduct cleanings when an employee has tested positive for the virus, she said.
"We try to head it off as much as possible,” she said. "But we do take action when someone does test positive.”
Ms. Graeber also said Phoenix has had to tap into reserves in order to make up for budget shortfalls caused by the state not taking in as much sales tax revenue as it generally does.
Jim Lake, the 911 director for the Charleston County (S.C.) Public Safety Consolidated 911 Center Department, said the county has gone to great lengths to ensure employees are as safe as possible.
“It was really about reducing exposure and making sure the building is clean for our employees,” he said.
The center has spaced out workstations as much as possible and set up workstations in conference rooms that can be used by employees with preexisting conditions that make them more vulnerable to contracting the virus, Mr. Lake said.
While all employees in the building must wear masks while in public areas, they are not required to do so at their workstations, Mr. Lake said.
All employees are also subjected to temperature checks when they enter the building, he said.
Non-operator staffers have largely been moved to work-at-home status. Mr. Lake said.
The center also has seen “significant cuts” to its current budget, which are expected to get more severe for the next fiscal year, he said.
Chris Freeman, director-911 for Marshall County in Kentucky, said he has had to struggle with implementing safety protocols in his small ECC, which is housed in the same building as the county sheriff and prison.
“Our center is so small, we can barely maintain the social-distancing guidelines of six feet,” he said.
PSAP employees are required to submit to temperature checks before entering the facility, and undergo two more checks during their shifts, Mr. Freeman said.
Operators also must thoroughly clean their workstations before they leave at the end of their shifts, Mr. Freeman said.
As a small ECC that serves a large area, the county has had to educate people in the community about why they are not generally allowed to enter the building as they once were, he said.
“With such a small number of employees, and being short-staffed anyway, one single case can essentially shut down our ECC,” Mr. Freeman said, adding: “It would be a huge blow, not only to our area, but we take a lot of rollover calls from other centers.”
The county also gave 911 center employees 14 days of sick leave they could use during the pandemic so they would not have to be concerned about staying home if they became sick or had to take care of a family member, he said.
Deborah Grady, executive director of South Sound 911 in Washington state, implemented numerous safety protocols, including enhanced workplace cleaning practices, temperature checks for employees, and the arrangement of workstations so they are socially distanced.
South Sound 911 also has placed plexiglass partitions between workstations for an added layer of protection, she said.
South Sound 911 also went to pains to explain all of the changes to staff, she said.
"We made sure that we came in and had some visibility to make sure our employees knew they weren’t out there on their own,” Ms. Grady said. —Jeff Williams
Click for Webinar Recording
June 25, 2020
On July 15th, 11:00am EDT, the NG911 Institute will be hosting a webinar discussing the importance of NG911 funding and technology in light of Covid-19. Our panel of experts fro NENA, APCO, and Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) will cover a wide range of current topics including:
1) how ECCs have responded on the fly to Covid-19
2) ensuring call-takers are safe,
3) educating call-takers on questions to ask to ensure the safety of First Responders, and
4) adapting to a shifting landscape of emergency calls.
We will tie these important trends into two pieces of legislation that would; (1) allocate $12bil in funding to a nationwide NG911 system; and (2) reclassify 911 call-takers.
Wes Wright, Executive Director NG911 Institute (Moderator)
Jeff Cohen, Chief Counsel and Director of Government Relations (APCO)
Chris Freeman, Director (Marshall County 911) (Kentucky)
Deborah Grady, Executive Director (South Sound 911)
Liz Graeber, 911 Administrator (City of Phoenix, AZ)
Dan Henry, Regulatory Counsel and Director of Government Affairs (NENA)