Late last month, CBS News in New York reported that 911 dispatchers in that beleaguered hub have received, on several occasions, more emergency calls than they took on September 11, 2001. Call volume in the most populated city in the US typically ranges between 4,000 and 4,200 calls a day but since late March telecommunicators have received more than 5,500 calls daily to public safety answering points (PSAPs) - and on two consecutive days exceeded 7,000.
Grant it, the Big Apple is big, but the sheer call volume increase over the city’s (and the country’s) darkest day is very telling. The numbers in New York, as well is in other cities, reinforce the reality that dispatchers are, undeniably, on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic - only working behind the scenes.
Coincidently, it was National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week last week, a time devoted to celebrating the incredible work that is being done by the unseen, unwavering individuals charged with directing emergency response resources to those in need. If ever there was a time and a reason to pay our respect to call dispatch centers and the even-keel professionals on the other end of the phone – it is now.
Telecommunicators tend to operate from secure, remote consoles. They deal with non-stop calls and fluctuating stress levels; and rarely learn the outcome of the problems they are solving or meet the people they are helping. They are the first point of contact for citizens who are often experiencing their worst day; and yet amid chaos, they must remain calm, gather the correct information, provide lifesaving instructions, and share succinct information with first responders and others.
Depending on length of tenure and the location of dispatch, some telecommunicators working in emergency communication centers have been able to draw on what they learned when other outbreaks of communicable diseases occurred. But for the most part, dispatchers dealing with COVID-related calls have been impacted in a way that will resonate for years to come.
Since the virus took hold, telecommunicators have been following organizational requirements and guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED). They have made modifications to identify potential infected patients and to limit responder exposure. They possess a unique view of the pandemic; and hopefully, PSAP personnel will be involved, from the get go, when officials begin to prepare for future public health emergencies.
Telecommunicators turn to NFPA 1061, Standard for Public Safety Telecommunications Personnel Professional Qualifications for best practices on receiving, processing, and disseminating emergency call information. They also refer to the standard to learn how they can best identify when they or fellow employees exhibit signs and symptoms of emotional and behavioral distress. This is important these days as burnout and stress is certain to follow in the wake of coronavirus, if the issues haven’t already presented. But even during normal times, telecommunicators can experience the highs of helping a mother with childbirth delivery and the lows of dealing with a frantic call from a family member looking to help a loved one in need. You just never know what’s going to be on the other end of the line.
Day in and day out, 911 dispatchers show that they can answer the call; they are making a difference in patient and responder safety and deserve our appreciation.
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