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Public Safety Now: How one city ensures the safety of its staff during COVID-19

JW: Hi, and thanks for tuning in to Public Safety Now on Hexagon Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety here at Hexagon’s Safety & Infrastructure division. We’ve had a lot of conversations with some great organisations throughout the U.S., and, actually, throughout the globe, here over the last few weeks. As you can imagine, the conversation is all around corona, it’s all around the COVID pandemic and we have some great guests here today that’s doing some pretty innovative ideas. They’re being proactive and reactive all at the same time in how they’re handling it, so I’d like to welcome my guests and have them introduce themselves. I’ve got Renee Gordon, director at the City of Alexandria, VA, and I’ve got Bob Bloom, also with Alexandria as the Public Safety Sys Admin.

RG: Thank you for having us.

JW: So, why don’t you go ahead and introduce yourself, Renee? Just tell us maybe a little bit of your background in public safety and how you got to the director position.

RG: Like you said, my name is Renee Gordon, I’m a former Prince George’s County police officer. I was in the city of Baltimore, I was at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, and landed here in Alexandria, one of the greatest cities in the country. And we pre-planned, we knew some of this was coming down the pipe early on, and we started planning for it probably seven weeks before most people did.

JW: Very nice. Well, that gave you guys a little bit of time to kind of adjust and kind of put a plan in place just in case. And from the looks of it, all around the globe, that pre-planning came in handy, for sure. Bob, you want to tell us a little bit about yourself?

BB: My name is Bob Bloom. I’ve been in the industry for about 30 years now. I started at a small centre in Lycoming County, PA. From there, I moved to Baltimore city, MD. From there, I worked for two vendors, and then from there I landed at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, and for the last several years I’ve been at the city of Alexandria, which is one of the great cities in America.

JW: Nice. Yeah, glad to see the shout out for Alexandria. That’s always a good thing. You know, it’s great talking to you both. I love talking to people that have been in the industry for a long time. You guys probably have got a lot of war stories – kind of been there, done that. This COVID pandemic is an interesting case that’s going on right now because as we’re talking to agencies and organisations all throughout the world, it’s been very interesting to see how they’re reacting and some of the ideas that they’re putting into place. We’ve talked numerous times here how the public safety as we know it and the communication centres, in particular, new ways and new techniques and a change is really going to happen because of this pandemic. And you guys have done some really cool stuff. Do you want to tell us a little bit about how guys are reacting to this?

BB: Sure. We started with our COOP plan and our COOP plan had a pandemic portion to it, which we probably thought we were never going to use. I know when we were building it, I was like, “Ok, alright, sure.” But it hit us, and we were ready, and we implemented it and it has three phases. Our first phase, our key target areas were the staffing shortages due to infection or quarantine, changes and swings in call types and volumes, social distancing challenges, and utilisation of our Next Gen 911 and our IP-based technologies that we could spread staff between home and multiple locations. And we also added when we got to phase three, the utilisation of the 14-day voluntary isolation teams. As we moved through the phases, it got more intense and we started doing more. For example, our 311 staff we moved them out of the centre to a secondary location. And when we got to phase three, we actually moved all of them home.

JW: So, let’s break down some of these phases. It sounds like you guys really put them into separate buckets, if you will, and really started looking at these and zooming in as far as what you would need to do. Let’s talk a little bit about phase one. We’ll just start at the top, right? So, you talked about staffing shortages due to infection and quarantine, which is something I think that we’re all dealing with. And then also the social distancing and putting that information in. So, let’s talk a little bit about phase one and how that came to be.

RG: So, phase one came to be because of the social distancing. We really wanted to make sure that they had enough space in between them, that they could function without having a mask on. So, we separated them between the primary centre and the back-up centre. We also at that time started thinking about what if one person got infected? Would that mean that we would have to quarantine people? Would that mean that we would all quarantine together? So, we developed an isolation team that would be voluntary-only, and then go into one of the centres. The primary centre has the most of what we would need. We needed a kitchen, we needed a shower, we needed places to sleep and we also needed food. We needed to be able to wash our clothes. So, those are some of the things that we thought about before we would even think about getting to phase three where would put the isolation team in place.

JW: So, the isolation team. Bob and I talked about this a little bit last week. So, this was voluntary, and you asked your workers there if they would go into isolation for is it a 14-day run? Do I have that right?

RG: Yes

JW: So, they’re locked in for 14 days at the site?

RG: Yes

JW: Interesting. And to your point, they’ve got kitchen, they’ve got showers, they’ve got all of this information there, so it’s staff goes in, doors are closed, and those personnel then are there for a two week, 14-day run. How’s that working out?

RG: So, I was in there with them because I couldn’t ask them to do something that I wouldn’t do myself, and it was better than I thought. But at day 10, it was time to go home.

JW: Yeah.

RG: And so what we learnt from that is that, if we could plan for the next isolation team to come in at the 10-day point, and relieve that team, it would be much better, because once we got past day 10, we were like, oh my God, I want to go home.

JW: So, it’s great to look at a calendar and say, 14 is a nice, round number, it means two full weeks. It gets us across two full work weeks, even. But you’re saying here the lesson learnt there pretty quickly was at day 10 you seemed to be pushing the limits of what people could be locked into one building, all together in it.

RG: Yeah, and we made sure that we had things like, people would have their separate quarters, so we took offices and made those separate quarters for people. We made sure that we came together and had dinner together all of the time. We just built the team around cleaning, it worked out to be pretty good because everyone fell in line. Everyone pitched in, but I was the biggest baby. At day 10 I was like, I want to go home.

JW: Well, I can imagine. You know, there is something to be said. Even if you’ve got a bunk and you’ve got a nice facility, there is something to be said for just getting out and getting back to your own home, I can imagine. So, is that still going? Do you still have an isolation team right now in the work?

RG: Yes, we do. We have the second team in there now. And so, some of them, well most of them, they’re doing 10 days. We wouldn’t let them go past 10 days.

JW: Ok. So, you made the adjustment to go to 10 days and then go in. So, I guess, Bob, being the sys admin, how about from your side? Did you have technical expertise in there with them? Or if there is a problem, do you have to go in? Does outside people, are they able to come in?

BB: No, we’re not allowed to go in, unless there’s a serious emergency because it’s going to break the isolation. But, we got lucky on the first one. We had a supervisor that was pretty tech-savvy and we were able to talk through just about anything. And by only having a certain number in there we had a lot of empty positions, so if something did happen they could just go to another position.

JW: Very interesting. And that keeps that team segregated from any potential infection to where, you know, going in if they’ve been, you know, if they’re clear to start their 10-day run and will quickly transition into a 10-day run. If they’re clear to go into their 10-day run, then that means you’ve got at least personnel that are qualified, that can handle anything thrown at them at least for those 10 days. And now at the end of this 10 days, so like the next one’s going to be coming in, so the third group will come in here at the end of this next 10-day run. Do they have several day quarantine prior to going in so that you’re not bringing in anything that you’re not aware of?

RG: No, and that was one of the things we thought a lot about. Team #1 will go back in for 10 days now. And the rule was when we left, you would just go home and then stay at home until it was time to come back. We were so grateful just to able to go home, it was fine. In this area, the national capital region now, we’re starting to see that uptick, so we really don’t want people out in the community. We want them to just go home and just come back to work.

JW: Very interesting. It’s a cool thing to be able to hear different ways of doing our job, right? We’re all used to going on our crews, you know. When I was at the comms centre, my crew was like a team and we were like a family. We’ve said on other recordings that you get closer sometimes with your crew than you do with your own family at home sometimes as far as communication and conversations that go and you know that those people got your back. To have those people all put into a central location for 10 days, giving them all of the information and all of the details that they need to be able to work for 10 days, that is a very interesting way of segregating out your team and ensuring that you’ve got proper coverage.

RG: Yeah, and as the director, I really didn’t have to get on the radio or take calls, and I recognised that. So, I was the trash dumper, I cooked them dinner and they had to eat what I cooked whether they liked it or not. So, we had a good time. We got close, and it was a great experience.

JW: That is very interesting. So, then the second part of your plan was moving other personnel. So, you talked a little bit about segregating from the primary centre, backup centre, so ok you’ve got a little bit of distancing there. We’ve already talked about the team that was isolated, but then your phase two actually moved other staff members outside of the floor as well, right?

RG: Yes. And, Bob, I think you just set that up today. So, what we discovered, too, was in order to have that six-foot distance and not have to dispatch with a mask on, we wanted to create a different place where we could spread them out even more and, Bob, I’ll let you talk about that.

BB: That’s the third location for dispatchers. We’ll have two police dispatchers, two fire dispatchers and a call taker and a third location that’s getting ready to be occupied. I was just there this morning getting set up and that’ll be our third location. So, we’ll have the primary centre, the backup centre and this third location as well as the call takers we have working from home as well as the 311 people all working from home as well as all of our administrative staff and the IT staff working from home. So, we’ve got them really spread out, so if somebody does get sick somewhere and there is some exposure, we’re not losing the whole team and, therefore, we don’t lose our ability to serve the public.

JW: You mentioned working from home, and it’s something in the private sector that’s becoming normal now. Having a home office, working remote, whatever little spin you want to put on it, is something I think the private sector is used to in certain areas. But working from home in emergency services is like, this is new, and this is something that a lot of people are looking into, a lot of people have done, a lot of agencies, I should, say are trying right now. Someone told me just a couple weeks ago, out of all the times in history for this type of pandemic to hit, what a great time it is right now with the technologies that we have. So, now you’ve got your IP radios, your IP telephony, the ability to take software CAD those types of things and bring that out to someone’s house is interesting. How are you guys, and you say you’re rolling that out now, how did you guys prepare for this from a technology point of view to be able to give someone a home office, if you will, that they can do their job?

BB: It’s interesting, it really is. Of all the challenges you meet to do that. Renee just said, “I want them home.” Ok.

JW: The directive was set.

BB: That’s correct. We get them home and let them be functional. The CAD we set those up in workstations that remote back in to the comms centre into an actual CAD workstation. That worked pretty well. We didn’t have too many problems with that. We used, I’ll use a vendor name. We used FirstNet wireless internet routers. So, that if anything happened in the community and we lost our internet capabilities we’d still have availability being on FirstNet. That worked pretty good. The phones, we’ve got the PSAPs in a box. I never thought we’d use them outside of a room some place in the city, you know a backup site or something. That actually worked out quite well. We had some challenges we had to work out. One of them was in order to get the any alley information correctly into our CAD we had to assign them each a workstation and then you had to backtrack and assign the coding off of the box to make that work and there were some other things. But the phone thing was what really flabbergasted me, that we could actually take a 911 call and a box phone in somebody’s house. If you think about it, 30 years ago when we first started making these comms centres, grandma had the fire phone in her house. If she had the box she pulled the set off the siren and somebody would run and write it on the chalkboard. So, that’s where we started so we’re kind of back to our roots, we don’t know it but we are.

JW: Yeah, it all comes back full circle because I am also old enough to remember the fire phone and being at my grandparents’ house. My grandpa was a fire chief and you know all of a sudden the phone had a distinctive ring, and it was just like a quick three-ring, I think, or two-ring back to back, and he picked it up and there was someone on the other end, a dispatcher we’d call them now is what it was, basically giving them, just repeating the information over and over as people just picked up this phone. He’d right down the information on a little note pad and then he’d take off and go, and it was ,to your point, I mean here we are, right? Those are people that are out at their house getting information and we’ve come full circle with technology. You mentioned FirstNet. It’s something that has been, I’ll say slowly but yet kind of quickly I guess, that’s being as neutral as I can be. FirstNet’s rolling out all across the US and I think there are some agencies out there that have, I don’t want to say struggled, but have been trying to figure out how do we put this in, how do we implement this, what type of money is this going to cost? But in a situation like we’re in right now, it sounds like the FirstNet really helped you guys out in getting that connectivity all across the area.

BB: Yeah, it did. It was very helpful. And I don’t have to worry about, as an IT person, that if we get major issues going on here and we use up all the bandwidth on the wireless phones we could still have connectivity back to our centre and back to our phone servers. That’s what’s key to make all of this work. If we don’t have connection, then we’re dead in the water. So, that makes me sleep better at night.

JW: Yeah, no that comes in handy, that’s for sure. You know, you talked about the PSAP-in-a-box being able to pull those phones out into locations. I mean, I’ve heard some items, agencies across the country are doing things like looking at hotel conference rooms or looking at hotel rooms. Right now, you’ve got a lot of hotels, a lot of open area that’s not being utilised by the public, for obvious reasons, and being able to set up command posts, or whatever you’re going to call them, back up or dispatch centres all around the region is something I think that others are also looking at, and it sounds like that PSAP in a box allows you to pull that telephony out and have that where needed. It might be interesting, and I’ll be so bold to say, to see how will the feds react to this from a CJIS point of view. If you’ve got what you call PSAP-in-a-box and you can actually put them in different locations and still keep the same level of service, that might be a conversation for post COVID where we can sit there and look and talk about what are some changes that are needed in the industry and is this something they would provide if we can ensure security requirements are being met that only the person that’s CJIS certified is doing that and it can all be documented and audit trailed is that something they’d be willing to change, and I know it’s too soon now to be talking about that, but it will be interesting to see some of the changes that come into play there.

BB: They said we could put in a request but that would take…we’ll be out of the pandemic before that press back. It might be something we want to take a look at and putting it in after the fact and just see how far we can get. But I think there’s going to be a lot of things that are going to change in the industry just because of this, and one of them is what exactly do dispatchers do?

JW: Yeah, yeah.

BB: The role of the dispatcher is fast changing also. Some of the other technology challenges we had was: what happens if the internet connection gets dropped and the firewall kicks in and drops the call? Systems are designed to pass it to another call taker but we really didn’t know if that was going to happen in the field, so when we did our field testing that was one of things we did, to trip the firewall and watch the call. See the test call we had on there was actually going to go there. And it did, so I was very happy to see that worked its plan.

JW: It’s always good whenever you’re running those tests and you know what you want the outcome to be whenever it actually happens. So, that’s always a positive at the end whenever you get the result that you’re hoping for, for sure. It’s very interesting how this is going. In keeping with the phase two, let’s talk a little bit about the people that are at their house. I’ve been working out of my home here for the last 17 years in the private sector and on the vendor side. For me, it’s pretty commonplace. I had my two kids, so summertime was always a little bit of a challenge because they were home from school. We joked a little bit in a previous conversation about you know, the dog comes in occasionally and the next thing you know you’ve got a dog barking or panting in the background. So, there’s always those home office things that occur. Renee, what kind of response are you guys getting from your personnel being able to work out of their home? Are they finding it challenging? Are they finding it nice? Is it working well for them? Anything there?

RG: They absolutely love it. We’ve put some rules in place, you know, no children in the background, no barking dogs in the background. And if you couldn’t do that then could we take the phone and move it to the next person. But we did a lot of testing. We tested out non-emergency calls for at least a month before we even thought about the 911 calls. It’s just scary, thinking about the 911 calls from a location other than your communication centre. But we tested it in the centre for hours and hours and hours until we felt confident that it was okay.

JW: Do you have any tools in place to keep them connected? So, you know, one of the conversations we’ve had is how command & control could get lost if you have an individual sitting all by themselves in a house. But if I’m a 911 operator and I’m taking a hot call, let’s say, and I’ve got information that I’m putting into the system and people are responding to, there’s always that, you know, you think about your time when you were sitting in the dispatch centre, there’s always that time when you hit your mute button and look over and say, “Hey, tell the officer blah blah, whatever.” Do you guys have any other types of tools or are you finding any challenges with those type of events?

RG: Yeah, so going back to FirstNet, we set up a talk group in FirstNet for both the 911 side and the 311 side, so it’s almost the old push-to-talk. And that’s what it is, we just get on the phone and talk to each other and everyone hears it. It’s almost like being in the centre.

JW: Nice, nice. Any video cameras or any type of visual you guys are pushing around from home offices?

RG: Not yet, because we’ve had such success and their call numbers are very high, so I think that’s one of the things we looked at is that if they weren’t going to keep up with the call volume, then they might not be a good candidate for it. But the people that are out there are doing very, very well, they love it; we love it.

JW: We’ve had guests on this podcast in previous recordings that we’ve released and one of the interesting comments that came up was agencies across all of the USA are spending millions of dollars on back-up centres and having all of this infrastructure put in, just in case. And now with this COVID epidemic, or pandemic I should say, now here all of a sudden we’re utilising home locations where we can put individuals at a house, and it is interesting to see how that’s going to change. And I keep talking about where we’re going to end up in the future because I think that’s important. I see and can envision agencies deciding, you know, we’re going to have a back-up centre for our technology, but when it comes to hardware, software, desktops, that type of thing, utilising these home offices and that type could be an option for agencies.

RG: Well, if you think about it, we’ve had these phones for a long time already. Before we upgraded our phone system, we had these same phones with our previous phone system, but we never used them. So now we have the opportunity to use them, so how far can we push technology now that we’ve caught up to our own selves? So, it’s been there, we just haven’t used it. And so now that we’re starting to use it, we need to push the vendors for more. Push for more.

JW: You know, I completely agree. And I think that’s where, at least on the vendor side, that’s what we’re hearing from who we’re talking with is so: here’s what we need and here’s how we need to go, and you know I’ve talked about this before. Historically, and this goes back to the early 90’s, everything was a big server set up in one room and then a client set up in an adjoining room and problems of running network cables and making sure that everything was connected and syncing because it had to be live connections. All of those things is what we used to worry about. And now with the technologies that are out there, to your point ,Renee, vendors need to be pushed and we need to be pushed harder because going into a browser base to where now you’ve got the ability to pull this thing up from anywhere. Those types of technologies are going to be needed because, as we learn from this crisis and we start pre-planning for the next, I think it’s going to be imperative that’s the type of technologies that’s in there. It sounds like you guys had the forethought to be able to have a lot of the technologies in place that some agencies listening to this may not have been able to afford or may not have been able to look into getting at that point, whether it was due to their location or budget or whatever reason. I’m starting to see a trend here that says some agencies that kind of had that forethought and kind of pre-planned, if you will, they’re sitting in a pretty good spot right now to be able to react accordingly.

BB: One of the big things is one is cheaper, cheaper than building a back-up centre and maintaining a back-up centre, because there’s a huge price ticket on there and your return on investment just isn’t there, where this is much cheaper. And the other thing, too, is your back-up centre within can be a lightning strike, fire, tornado, and wipe out your back up centre, where this you’ve got people using various technologies in multiple locations. And for us, we have them in a three-state area so you’re on whole different power grids, your utilities are all different and it’s a lot better.

JW: Yeah, it’s a back-up to the back-up. If one area gets hit then…cause here’s the thing, the world’s going to continue moving forward. There’s still going to be storms, there’s still going to be power outages, unrelated to the COVID crisis there’s still going to be those it happens type of moments. And to your point, Bob, if I’ve got people spread out, if it hits one subdivision and it doesn’t hit the other, I’ve got a back-up to that back-up, if you will, and I’ve got enough to be able to cover it and react accordingly. So, we’ve talked about the first two phases, so then you guys mentioned a phase three, so let’s kind of go into that phase three area. What are some of things you guys are looking at? Does that kind of put the first two phases together and keep that rolling or is there something new and unique about phase three?

RG: Yeah, it kind of puts the two together and keeps it rolling. But it also gives us the ability to continue to change as things get hotter. So, phase three gives us the shift in gears to either back it down or rev it up, so we always want to think ahead and be prepared for what is phase three, maybe look at what phase four could be, because everything is unknown and so some of the other things the hotel came up. The hotel is actually part of phase three. So, now we’re thinking about well if we have to go phase four, what is phase four? I just don’t think we’ll ever get past phase three because it’s moving so well for us, and it may not work the same for every jurisdiction, but this one is working for us.

JW: It sounds like what phase three kind of pulls in there is a little bit of fluidity, right? It allows you guys to put the infrastructure into place and then, depending on the success or any risk or anything that you’re learning in those first two phases, phase three allows you then to react accordingly and maybe do a little bit of a side step if need be, or to your point, add in the hotels and utilise hotels to be able to place people It’s great to hear that because so often, as you guys know, we live in a black and white world, right? It’s either this or that and we write a policy for it and then that’s the way it’s going to be and in this type of environment you’ve really got to be able to kind of ebb and flow, if you will, and be able to continue moving forward and, Renee, saying it in your words, pushing that envelope and kind of getting better out of what you got.

RG: Yeah, absolutely. I was just asked this morning, what’s the next phase? My response was, ”Actually, I’ve never been in a pandemic before.” So, it’s going to take all of us to come up with what’s next.

JW: What’s the other entity saying about it? You’ve got police, fire, EMS, you’ve got a lot of other agencies around there. What’s been their reaction to what you guys are doing with these different phases here?

RG: Well, I think they realise that the things we’re doing, it’s for them. So, between 311 and 911, we touch every department in the city. And it’s important for us to make sure that we can provide our level of service to them so that they can do their jobs. And I think us thinking ahead has helped them to feel good about it.

JW: That’s good, so it sounds like you guys are getting some good results. You’re doing some really cool things. As we wrap up here, I want to give you both a little bit of a chance. Is there anything here that you guys have had on a whiteboard or any ideas that you guys have had but, unfortunately, you’re not able to do it. Any kind of things that said, man if only we could do this, this is where we could take this? Is there any kind of lessons learnt, if you will?

RG: Bob, go ahead.

BB: The big lesson that we’ve learnt, especially my IT team, is that nothing’s 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.

RG: I really want to push the vendors because there’s so much possibility out there. There’s cloud-based solutions now and if on our part, if we’re not afraid to test the waters and say, we can do this then we can work together as a team: us and the vendors.

JW: I like that thought, coming from the vendor side, I can tell you that I think we’re looking forward to that type of conversation. It’s sitting down and having conversations like this with agencies like Alexandria to really be able to understand what kind of out-of-the-box thinking can we start doing and what type of areas in emergency services should we start leaning to. Because I think what this, once again, has taught us is that just about the time we think we’ve got it figured out something definitely comes in and falls on our plate and it always becomes the next challenge. I think continually moving forward is what public safety does best. We’ve seen it in other industries, you talked about cloud computing, we’ve seen that all across the world, right? Our financial system, all up in the cloud. And some really key areas are being hosted and worked very well in that regard and some of the push back that we as emergency services may have had to, no, no this is the way we do it and this is the way we have to have it done. This COVID pandemic could be changing some of that, and I look forward to that challenge. And I look forward to working with agencies like yourself as we move forward. Guys, you are doing some great things there in Alexandria. I know you guys are busy people and got to get back to your real jobs. I really looked forward to this conversation. Man, you guys did not let me down. This was really cool and innovative. Some good stuff that’s going on over there. I wish you both the best, stay healthy, and really just a big thank you to Renee and Bob for joining us here. To hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at HxGNSpotlight.com, and thanks for tuning in.