Public safety answering point personnel already have a stressful job, plagued with understaffing.The coronavirus pandemic has added another layer of stress, as two National Emergency Number Association surveys indicate.
Public safety answering points (PSAPS) have for years faced shortages of workers and that’s why it is crucial during the coronavirus outbreak to keep call takers healthy and at work, and also deal with the mental strains of the pandemic.
That is one of the takeaways of surveys done by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) that wanted to take the temperatures of PSAPs across the country to learn how they have handled the pandemic, what measures they have taken to care for personnel, as well as what they’ve observed from 911 call volumes.
Results of the two surveys vary, depending on the PSAP. Some PSAPS have quarantined staff members who had possible symptoms of the coronavirus, exacerbating the work shortage. Some PSAPs have backup facilities that can serve as alternative locations to separate workers, who may have been tested and are awaiting results. Overall, the PSAPs follow CDC guidelines in trying to keep employees healthy and when communicating risk to the public, but PSAPs and how they deal with the stress of the pandemic and keep employee morale up differs with each PSAP.
In some parts of the country, 911 operators have been declared official public safety professionals and can reap the kind of rewards that police, fire and EMS receive. In the case of the pandemic, that can mean mental health support and also obtaining the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) and even means to sanitize equipment and workstations.
NENA CEO Brian Fontes pointed out that the national Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has included 911 professionals on its list of essential personnel, but not every state and locality classifies them as such.
“Some of these centers are not on par with other public safety colleagues in getting the appropriate personal protective equipment or means of sanitizing their facilities,” Fontes said. “That is very frustrating.”
Like others throughout the country, 911 personnel have experienced the challenges of finding cleaning supplies to sanitize their workspaces. And the nature of their work calls on most of them to be present at the PSAP during work hours, which are likely 24-hour shifts and not eight-hour shifts.
“These are people who are sitting behind consoles,” Fontes said. “These consoles are used by the person on the previous shift, and so the fact that this is not your own console calls for additional cleaning.”
And if an employee does get sick or demonstrates symptoms, it exacerbates that lack of personnel. “If it’s somebody who is going to be tested, who needs to be removed from the work environment for seven days or however long it takes for the results to come back or if the person tests positive, the impact on the 911 center could be substantial,” Fontes said.
The fact that 911 personnel can’t work from home and may have family to care for or kids at home to school adds to the “extraordinary stress level.”
The surveys indicated that more than 40 percent of call takers felt additional stress.
“Most of those surveyed had deployed either employee assistance programs, peer support programs or other programs, including weekly check-ins with a mental health professional to ensure that staff are getting through this time appropriately,” said April Heinze, 911 and PSAP operations director for NENA. “It’s been refreshing how well the PSAPs have responded to ensure that their staffs are mentally fit for the difficulty of what they’re facing right now.”
The surveys found that during the first six to eight weeks of the response to the coronavirus and shelter-in-place requirements, overall call volumes went down. The nature of some calls, such as suicide and domestic violence calls increased. But in the areas where the coronavirus hit hard, the “hot spots,” EMS calls increased.
“The hardest-hit areas are continuing to deal with raised call volumes, more [where] the EMS side is concerned.But where law enforcement calls are concerned, there has been a decrease.”