During the COVID-19 pandemic, the trend toward working from home has accelerated. New technologies are now making it possible for 911 dispatchers to work from home, too, whether to ensure social distancing or to supplement operations during evolving emergencies.
The computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems offer web-based interfaces and mobile capabilities that enable public-safety answering point (PSAP) operators to work from anywhere. Other technologies that are paving the way for dispatchers to work from home include the cloud, virtual private networks (VPNs), and faster data speeds.
Remote emergency dispatchers
An innovative implementation in Alexandria, Virginia, involves remote emergency dispatchers using equipment including a laptop, headset, smartphone, mobile hotspot, mobile router with computer-aided dispatch and other hardware. The city uses the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) network, provided in partnership with AT&T. A dedicated, secure and reliable connection ensures operation for public safety, everyday functions, and/or for emergency communications.
In Alexandria, hotspots and smartphones powered by FirstNet enable 911 dispatchers to take calls
In Alexandria, hotspots and smartphones powered by FirstNet enable 911 dispatchers to take calls and handle CAD operations from their homes and remote locations. The dependability of the FirstNet connection is critical; relying on a dispatcher’s home Internet service could be risky if it loses connectivity. Initially hesitant because of concerns about the unknown, Alexandria’s Director of Emergency and Customer Communications was spurred into action by the COVID-19 crisis.
Emergency Communications Centers
They had tested the system in January. During the first month of implementation, remote workers only answered non-emergency phone calls before beginning to handle 911 calls. The approach helped with social distancing in the midst the COVID -19 crisis, during which dispatchers could not work together as usual in close quarters. To ensure social distancing, dispatchers worked from two different Emergency Communications Centers (ECCs) – one primary and one a backup location – in addition to some dispatchers working from home.
There was also a fourth ‘isolation’ team, comprised of two fire dispatchers, two police dispatcher and one call telecommunicator – staying and working remotely in a nearby hotel for 10 days in a row. Deciding whether to allow dispatchers to work remotely depends on factors such as employee performance, operational effectiveness and available tools, according to experts. Careful evaluation of these factors ensures a successful implementation.
Technology requirements include a VPN and a dependable, high-speed internet connection
In addition to providing flexibility during a global pandemic, remote dispatchers can help departments augment their regularly scheduled staff members more quickly. Dispatchers who can work immediately from home are not delayed by the practicalities of getting to work. Staffing can be augmented immediately rather than several hours from now – an essential consideration during a developing emergency.
Technology requirements include a VPN and a dependable, high-speed internet connection. Connectivity might especially be a problem in rural areas, where operators are also more likely to need to travel a long distance to work. There might also be legal issues, such as access to confidential databases. There might also be concerns about discipline of home-based operators and challenges when it comes to working together cohesively as a team.
In the end, though, such questions are about ‘how’ a home-bound dispatcher scenario might be managed rather than whether it is feasible. The changing situation during the COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that the technical hurdles have been overcome.