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Public Safety Now: Managing Fire and EMS resources during times of crisis

During trying times, public safety agencies and emergency call centers must work together to plan call-taking procedures, dispatch recommendations, assignments and move-ups as part of a system of solutions to ensure safer communities and responses to all emergencies. Listen to this Public Safety Now podcast for an informative discussion about one of the most important aspects of emergency call centers: resource management.

JW:  Hi. Thanks for tuning into Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, vice president of sales for U.S. Public Safety at Hexagon’s Safety and Infrastructure division. One of the areas that we wanted to talk about today was managing personnel and maintaining resources during a crisis period. It’s such a key aspect, right, especially in emergency services and the dispatch realm where you’re looking around and there’s some empty seats in the house. And that’s just on a normal day. And then a crisis hits. I love the words, at the end of my shift, mandatory overtime, or something big happened ten minutes before I was supposed to get out the door, a big crisis happened, and now I’m mandated to sit there for as long as necessary. It’s what we do. But making sure and managing during those operations is a whole different aspect.

So, I’ve got a couple of people here that we’re going to talk to you today. And I’m excited about this conversation. Nancy Lockhart, she’s our fire operations chief for St. Joseph County 911. And I’m going to let Nancy introduce herself here in just a little bit. But she comes with over 30 years of experience in this industry, so it’s going to be great kind of getting her perspective on it. We’ve also got Chris Carver, director of the East for Hexagon Public Safety. And his background in 911, in managing these types of shifts, I think it’s going to be great and interesting. Both of you, welcome, and thank you, guys, for joining.

NL:  Thanks for having us.

CC:  Yeah, thanks very much, John.

JW:  Yeah. So, Nancy, tell us a little bit about yourself and kind of your career and how you got here, talking on this podcast.

NL:  First of all, hello, from the now-official first responders in the state of Indiana. Governor Holcomb just signed the bill into law in Indiana; 911 dispatchers are officially first responders. That goes into effect on July 1, so great work to Indiana NENA and also great work to the state legislators for this important designation for all of us.

JW:  That is awesome. Congratulations on that alone. That is big news, right there, and I see it going all across the U.S. But congrats to Indiana.

NL:  Yeah. We’re really, really excited about that. About me, I’m just a small-town kid, working in 911, right? So I was not in public safety. Got into public safety. I was actually selling carpet, and said, “I don’t want to do this the rest of my life.” Somebody overheard me. So, a very long story short, it’s a job making, in 1989, about $35,000 a year, down to $3.35 an hour and zero benefits to become a 911 dispatcher. And I’ve never looked back. And I get to do some cool things as a part of that career path. I get to work with NENA, which is huge. I get to work with the International Academy of Emergency Dispatch, also huge. And I get to go across the country and meet some really, really cool heroes in this business. So that’s just me.

JW:  Great background. No. It’s very interesting, going—whenever I hear people that come into the industry because it’s just something… they want to make that change, it’s always great to see the success on how that happens.

Chris, a little bit of background about yourself.

CC:  Sure. I’m fortunate to have Nancy beat just a little bit. When I started in 911, I made $5.85, so I got you on that, Nancy, just a little. Started as a fire/EMS dispatcher in central Ohio, while attending the Ohio State University, then, would later on move to New York. I always saw that as a steppingstone that 911 was not going to be my career. And here we are a little over 25 years later, still involved in 911 profession in some way. So, after working in central Ohio, when I did move to New York, I worked for New York City Fire Department, served all the way from dispatcher up to director of fire dispatch operations. Then also became involved with NENA, just like Nancy, in a slightly different role. I was actually on staff at NENA as their director of PSAP in 911 operations for four years. And then a year ago or so, I became fortunate to join the Hexagon family as the director of the East, here.

JW:  Some great background there, too, because I know you guys both come with a lot of experience and a lot of information that you can look at that, right?

I remember back in my day sitting in a dispatch seat. We actually worked 12-hour shifts. I knew coming in six, that was going to be my shift. And then every four weeks I switched over to the day shift and then back the night shift and did that. Then I worked at a center that actually did eight-hour shifts. I know there’s all types of resourcing. The one thing that I always found ironic was you kind of get in that zone. And everyone always asks me, how do you work midnights for four weeks and then days for four weeks? I don’t know. I just did. And I liked it. It gave me that sense of change.

The question I’d have for you guys is it always feels like during a crisis period, we completely flip. It’s like, oh, my gosh, now we need people here from this time to this time, and we get people kind of out of sorts a little bit. How do you think we can manage that a little bit better and kind of keep people in their zone and keep people in their, I’ll say, in their groove—how about that?—and still manage that crisis? What are some techniques you guys have found in the past?

NL:  Well, I think the one thing we know for certain is the only things that are completely true in the 911 industry are death, taxes, and we’re always short in the dispatch center, right? So, we have kind of a double thing going on here. We have a staffing shortage. We have had to now stall our hiring process. We’re going to be going to back academies. And we’ve had to stall that because of the emerging COVID-19 thing going on. So that’s going to leave a short for a longer time.

We instituted a policy several months ago where we were no longer allowing people to work 16-hour shifts. They were doing it voluntarily. It wasn’t a mandated thing. And unfortunately, we’ve had to lift that policy. If they voluntarily want to do it, we’re allowing them to do that during this crisis. But we’ve had a lot of illness go through, and our folks have just picked up and gone through it. We had a flex shift from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. to 2:00 a.m. So, we actually had five shifts within our center. We’ve merged those two shifts onto a day shift, afternoon shift and midnight shift to help ease some of the discomfort. And they’ll be returned to those once our staffing is back to normal. We’re doing everything we can to try to ease the pain right at this point, but we’re blessed that we have some of the best telecommunicators on the planet.

JW:  That’s the thing I hear over and over. It’s just, I think it was one of the things that gave me pride to be able to say that, when I worked at the 911 center was it doesn’t matter what happens, the resiliency. We just did it. It’s just what we do. And I think in emergency services all across, to your point, not mandating 16-hour shifts, I think that’s probably great for health and well-being. But at the end of the day, emergency-services personnel are going to step up and do what they need to do. And that’s kind of the pride, it’s the reason why I’m excited to say that I actually wore that headset.

Chris, any thoughts on shifts and how that works?

CC:  Yeah, definitely. And then the other the other piece, too, I just want to highlight make sure that we talk about as well, when we’re talking about resources, of course, for 911 professionals, we’re talking about two different types of resources. We’re talking about the people inside the center, which is our sort of our first resource. And then we also have the resource management of our tools in the toolbox, if you will. And as we go through a crisis, especially one like this, the reality is, is that it’s going to impact, which we sort of have to make sure we talk about both because it impacts both sides of the equation. So whatever those solutions are, whether we talk about adjusting the shift schedules of those inside the center, we also need to be aware of what the adjustments are, say, for example, changes in shifts schedule to those outside the center as well, because one of the two worst feelings I know I’ve ever had inside a 911 supervisory or management role is to look on the floor and have either no people, no units in the field to dispatch the calls, or ridiculously sometimes a combination of both, which is a really sick feeling to have. So it’s the change in the schedules is certainly part of it. I have spent many a night on the floor of an office in a 911 center, but I would say that there’s also an important component of that beyond the shifts that we also need to recognise the importance of technology to be able to adapt to whatever those solutions are, because that’s sort of something we think about sometimes in terms of changing shifts and things like that. But we also need to know, really from minute one, to plan for an increased number of physical positions inside a center, an increased number of break facilities and restrooms, and all that sort of stuff. So the shifts and the things like that not only affect your own personnel, but impact the field and then also impact a whole bunch of related conversations that sometimes—I don’t want to say we forget to have, but just kind of gets unintentionally left out. And then moments like this happen, and we’re kind of—sometimes unfortunately some agencies are behind the eight ball.

JW:  Yeah, I agree, I think that’s an important point. One of the agencies I was talking to was up in Northern California and we were having a conversation about the wildland fires that they went through. And an interesting thing there occurred, and it was something that we never did at my agency when I was there. We never had an incident that kind of met that level. Well, one of the things that they did was they shared resources, meaning that you had agencies from one city that would go over to the county and help them work the incident, or they were pulling dispatchers from around, I’ll say the region and not the state, but around the region to come in and work shifts. Because to your point, if I turn around and I’ve got a majority of my seats that are empty, that’s a scary feeling, not just for the manager of that shift or the director of the comm center, but also for that dispatcher that’s looking to their left and looking to the right, realizing, man, I’m feeling all alone here. Especially during the crisis that we’re in right now, now you’ve got situations and we’ve talked about this on other podcasts here. But you’ve got situations where families could be ill, family members. You know, you’ve got kids home from school. You’ve got situation now where there’s other stressors happening in that dispatcher’s life that could impede their ability to get to that shift. And I know we do whatever it takes to show up and arrive. But man, sharing resources throughout the region, what a great way to be able to help man.

Nancy, have you ever had to do anything like that there in Indiana? Has that been something where you’ve had that type of ability to share resources from other centers?

NL:  We have the ability to do that. And we’ve done that on a limited basis, you know, for line-of-duty deaths and those things, going over and manning a center so the dispatchers can attend the funeral. But when we think about this, this is kind of a new animal for all of us. So, any of the resources that we may request or call for, you know, we’re all on the same boat. We’re all working more shifts. Flu has gone through other centers. So, we feel that it’s going to be hard to tap anybody else because we’re all facing the same crisis. So, yeah, this is a very scary thing. You know, we’re looking for, how do we do grab-and-go resources, i.e., 911 in a box. Where do we find that? How do we do that in the event that we did have a lot of people that were sick or to manage the incident? Could we go to another location? Is there a possibility? I’ve heard talk and seen some stuff on some of the feeds on social media that people are looking at how to dispatch from home. We’re reaching out to our H.R. to find out what we can potentially do about childcare for our dispatchers because all of our schools pretty much are closed down. So, everybody’s being homeschooled. We’ve got a lot of those things going on. We’re testing our contingency plan. We’re bugging out to our backup center next Tuesday so we can have this one disinfected. But in the event that all of that is compromised, what do we do? I don’t think there is one size fits all, but I think that we can look from a bunch of different angles and kind of put something together. So, I’m really following any feeds and we’ll take any advice on what you guys would offer for something like that.

JW:  So, Nancy, let’s stick with this topic for just a second, because you brought something up that’s of interest to me. And, you know, as we’re moving into the Cloud and we’ve got agencies that have web-based applications that they can utilise, let’s talk a little bit about this dispatching-from-home model, because, again, you have to keep in perspective. I was in the comm center from the mid ‘90s into the early 2000s, and so when I was running a comm center, starting out as a dispatcher, it was just never thought of.  There was nothing in my house that I could do that with. But today, technology is there, and it is something to consider. And I think you mentioned some H.R. topics and those types of things. But what are your thoughts about that? If I’ve got a dispatcher who’s able to sit in their home office, what type of benefit could come from that?

NL:  Well I think the benefits are just kind of immeasurable, and the ability to be at home with your loved ones, be safe, be in quarantine, away from this big bad bug. The thing that we will run into, though, are CJIS security. So, all of our centers have to be certified for an Indiana FRIDISE. How are we going to do that? How are we going to accomplish that at home? Because we certainly don’t want an officer taking his eyes off the vehicle to run a plane. There’re just so many concerns about the CJIS portion of that, we don’t know how that’s accomplished. You know, radio over IP, the telephones, CAD, all of that we can manage. It’s just that one component that could become a problem.

CC:  If I could—

JW:  I think you’re right. Yeah, go ahead, Chris. Yeah. Let’s see what you got.

CC:  I go back and forth on this, having worked some fairly major disasters. The fact that we technically can do it, I mean, it’s a good thing and it’s probably a measure of last resort. But I think there is so much more to what goes on inside a 911 center that’s essential for managing events that requires a degree of collaboration that I just don’t know if we’re there yet, if we can all avoid it on keeping folks sort of at a distance from the operation.

Case in point, and this is one of the things that I really want ask Nancy about too myself, because I’m curious from her perspective, working with IED. Managing the triage process on emergency medical calls, managing emergency medical resource assets and redeploying ambulances and doing all those sorts of things and maintaining coverage, but then also sort of more the command and coordination function that’s operate, that’s really a purview of many of emergency communication centers. I’m sure that potentially down the road we might be able to do that with a completely disjointed workforce and spread out. But right now, I think it becomes a question of what do you gain for the loss? And, you know, whether it’s the CJIS requirements, whether it’s awareness or coverage, whether it’s maintaining rapid adjustments and changing operational conditions, you know, that sort of thing, I think it’s interesting to watch how this hopefully possibly this event will require some of those conversations to better figure it out. But I think that’s also where the important difference lies between something that say, for example, a reservation call center. You know, and I’ll confess, that’s one of my big pet peeves in the entire world is when anybody calls a 911 center, a call center, because what we do is so much more than that. And I think, Nancy, will agree to that. I’m 99 percent certain she’ll agree to that. So it’s interesting because some of this is technology, but also some of it is understanding the role and the operations and what it is we actually have to do to preserve the safety and effectiveness of emergency response inside a community during a major disaster.

JW:  You know what, Chris. I can’t say I disagree with you. I struggle. And here’s where I struggle with this. I struggle because I consistently or I’m sorry, continually, I think is the better word, try to push my own brain to say, don’t get stuck in your old way of thinking. Yeah, that’s a way. I’ve done it forever. But that may not be the best way. I see that with my own kids. As my kids have grown and they’re now in their twenties, we’re working on a project together. I’ve always done steps a, b, c and d. And then all of a sudden, my son will tell me, what are you doing that for? Why don’t you skip b and c? We can just do this. And then it’s like, oh, okay, let’s try it. And then all of a sudden, I realise, wow, there is a better way. And I use that example in this scenario because I can’t disagree with anything you guys are saying. But as we’ve been talking about on multiple podcasts, at the end of this, there’s going to be change. We’re going to have new policies, new procedures, cities, counties, states are going to change the way that they do things. Now I get it. CJIS rules are still just so important, right? I’m not saying we should just open up the network to everybody and anybody. But it’s interesting to me to think outside of the box just for a little bit that says, you know, I’ve got some really good dispatch staff that for whatever reason, I mean, let’s pretend that it’s, you know, like a Hurricane Sandy type of event, Chris. There could be some really good dispatchers sitting at their home that can’t get to the dispatch center for whatever reason. They just can’t get there. Does this put us up into an era where, again, as a last resort, kind of like my backup center, I don’t use it every day, but when I do need it, it is there. Does this open us up to that type of, I’ll say, technological advance that says, wow, I may be able to fill some seats and whether it’s, you know, with a web cam to keep them kind of, you know, I can kind of see what’s going on, if they’re sitting remotely or whether it is the person sitting in the next room. Is this opening us up for a way to start thinking differently and thinking creatively?

CC:  Well—Yeah. Go ahead, Nancy. I’m sorry. Go ahead.

NL:  Yeah. No worries. I absolutely think it is. First of all, I do agree with Chris that if we went to something at home at this point, during this event, that would be an absolute last resort because I do firmly, 100 percent agree with Chris. Command and control is important on the dispatch floor, but quickly advanced to a place where we had virtual command and control for just such a thing. Could we deploy people to hotel conference rooms and could we have them pick up a briefcase that’s got CAD and radio and all of their stuff in it. They go home or they go to a conference room where they’ve got pretty good broadband and network connections and then they are plugged in with the webcam or whatever it is, and we have virtual command and control so we can communicate with all the other operators if there are questions about a call that comes through, etc. I think that that is an idea that should be on the cutting edge.

CC:  Yeah. And if I may, Nancy, that is exactly where my head is. When I was at a conference actually in Amsterdam and the entirety of Sweden’s air traffic control system is managed through virtual reality today. There are no longer controllers in towers in Sweden. Most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. They have created a virtual environment in which they can do that mission-critical role without actually looking out upon an airfield. And they’re leveraging A.I. They’re leveraging virtual reality. They’re doing all these amazing things to create the environment in which they actually need to be together collaboratively to work. And Nancy, that’s a phenomenal idea about a hotel conference rooms. You can strategically have, with the way technology is today, it could be a pelican case, right? Just a small pelican case with all your essentials. And it really fundamentally changes the nature of what a backup center is. Is a backup center now another $10 million building, hardened down the street? Because the reality is that building could get hit by the same flood, the same tornado, the same biotech, whatever it is. So really, the flexibility of really going 10 steps beyond where we are today and leveraging the technology, leveraging hopefully the NG911 networks that’ll be deployed nationwide, leveraging the data networks are really, truly offering a whole bunch of amazing potential to solve the resiliency problem, John, that I think you’re talking about.

JW:  Yeah. And it’s interesting as states roll out ESInet and the technology, Nancy, I think you said it right. It’s really not a technology discussion here. We know the technology can handle that. It really comes down to the safety of the data, the security of that data, and then making sure that we continue on. I mean, at no point during this discussion, and maybe this is just today, do I ever see an empty dispatch center or, oh, you know what, we no longer need a dispatch center because we’ve got everybody dispersed throughout the county or the state, sitting in their own home offices. I don’t think I’m looking at it that way. I think I’m looking at it as, and I love the idea of a conference room or something of that effect, again, you said it earlier. And when you said it, I immediately just kind of thought, huh, I hadn’t thought about that. But you’re right. You’ve got to move all of your personnel from the primary center to the backup center just so that you can just clean and disinfect what you’ve got right there, sitting up. Those types of things are going to have to happen. And as we, I’ll say, as we fill our comm centers, we maybe bring in extra people, we have additional people on shift, those are going to be critical types of discussions that say, you know what, I’ve got more people in there than I normally do. I’ve got to keep my personnel healthy. I’ve got to keep them to where they can be back tomorrow. Thinking outside of the box I think is how we can do that.

NL:  Exactly. And there’s not only the health discussions, but what about the dispatcher that would be able to come in and supplement the shift or pick up the shift, but now they have childcare problems and nobody to watch their children? So if we have options that are available that we could put them in a home office or put them in a hotel conference room where they can be away from other people, whatever that takes, I think we need to look toward that in the future. And finding a solution like that, we’ll be a beta test site for it, I’ll tell you, because we absolutely want to find a way to be able to do that. We’ve been in that discussion for a while. We have hardened backup center. But you are absolutely right, John. What happens if that center gets taken out? Why can’t we just deploy to a local hotel or a local fire station or a local whatever, set up operations, and continue from there seamlessly? think it’s an amazing idea.

JW:  And again, I can see in my mind the people listening to this. And, you know, some are rolling their eyes and saying, oh, that that’ll never happen. I can’t believe—you know what. I can go back years and years ago with dispatchers that I started with that told me of the days that there was no computer in their comm center, that there was—I don’t know what that mouse thing is, or why you’re touching that, but that’s not even necessary. And the changes that have occurred throughout the years have taken us to where, I mean, it goes back to what you’re saying. Indiana, they just said 911 are professionals. It’s stuff we’ve been saying all along, and now they’re being recognised as such. And with that, it’s going to become in a continual evolution of how we do our jobs a little bit better.

NL:  If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always have what you always had, right? So, I think that a crisis like this should spur innovation. It should spur those types of ideas, because across the country, we all have the same identical concerns. How do we fix the problem?

JW:  Exactly. And oh, by the way, it’s like this in every large-scale incident, large crisis type of event. The show must go on. There’s still going to be those day-to-day calls of, my mom’s having chest pains, or I’m having difficulty breathing, or someone burglarised my house. There’s still going to be those calls. Those call volumes aren’t going to go down. In fact, I’ve had some of my guests actually tell me that some of those could go up because, as the three of us know, I just remember over the Christmas break how much the calls would go up because everybody was home together, showing each other their love, and next thing you know, a fight breaks out or a domestic breaks out. Now, all of a sudden, you’ve got people that are, I’ll use the word, sequestered in their home for multiple weeks. It’s going to happen. In certain circumstances, it is going to happen. Our call volume on our usual calls is going to go up, not to mention the additional calls that are coming in. I think that’s the important thing to remember.

NL:  We’re anticipating that as well, an increase in domestic calls. We’ve done some things on this side enacting one of the protocols that we are offloading some of the patients. We’re talking about managing resources, we go to the other side of the radio that Chris talked about. We’re actually offloading some of the patients that are not as sick to 211. And 211 is our hotline in Indiana for calls about COVID, and we’re able to manage resources on the other side by offloading some of those and referring them to 211 for those that aren’t sick. So, the idea is to keep more of our ambulance resources in service because we were, like everybody else, running out of ambulances. Finding better ways to manage those in a crisis, too, so the sickest people are still able to get help in a timely fashion.

JW:  Yeah. That’s a great point, and it’s one that we’ve talked about with others, and depending on when they’re listening to this podcast, they may have already heard this. But I know NENA at nena.org, they’ve got a resource page, and there’s a lot of really good information out there that agencies can use. To your point, if you’re getting phone calls in and someone just needs someone to talk to, someone might be stressed out, our first inclination is, let’s send an ambulance. Let’s get help out there. But you know what. There’s the crisis text line, for example. We can tell people to start utilising these resources that are out there. If you’ve got a 311 set up within your city, county, or state, that might be something where we can pass calls through. There are other resources out there than most overburdening our standard responses, if you will.

NL:  Absolutely. And our responders to changing the way they do business as well. If we have patients that are symptomatic, in several cases, they’re sending an ambulance only, so they don’t expose the engine company as well, potentially. So, we’re trying to keep our first responders healthy. Implementing the new protocol… we just went to the new protocol for those that use the MPDS protocol 36… we’ve seen some advantages of that because we can tailor response plans specifically to that by changing the incident type just from that protocol. The normal protocols will get their same response. But we’re able to change it. So, on the CAD side, the CAD back end, it made more sense to just implement the pandemic protocol.

JW:  Interesting. Yeah. No, that’s good because, again, you’ve got to maintain consistency across all of your agencies. You know, as a dispatcher, I always felt responsible for the safety of the officer or the fire/EMS personnel I was dispatching. And to that point, if someone calls in and they’re showing symptoms and signs and they’re not sure, a standard response all of a sudden has four, five, six people on the scene. Can I do that with just two? And maybe EMS is a little better prepared. They’ve got some procedures to where they’re going to make sure that they can stay safe. Do I really need to send a police officer? Do I really need to send that rescue pumper? And those are the types of things and some of the changes that I would see.

NL:  Yeah, with a shortage of PPE, especially, we’re seeing that need to cut down the response. Chris, what have you seen and heard?

CC:  Yeah. No, actually, that’s exactly happening here in Columbus as well. Columbus fire has instituted a policy where only the first EMT or medic off the truck actually dons PPE to preserve it because they’re scared of running out. They go out and do an assessment, and then if they feel like they need the second person on that ambulance to come in and support them, then they can make that change.

The other thing that they’ve also instituted that I think is really smart because, for example, in this community, the engines are ALS level of care. They all have paramedic firefighters on board. What they’re doing is actually reducing the response to other things like fire alarms to keep engine companies available for life-critical EMS events that are not potentially COVID-19 related because, John, as you said, and this is one of the things that is a long-standing and probably an internal challenge for 911. No matter how big that one thing is, wherever that one thing happens to be, say, for example, a tanker overturning on the highway, there’s still going to be poor Mrs. McGillicuddy at the nursing home on the other side of town, having a heart attack. And if we overcommit resources or if we don’t manage or call queues or if we don’t follow the protocols correctly or don’t set them up to be able to support that type of event, what ends up happening is the response time to our second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, 23rd events become way longer and potentially with less resources, and that has a negative outcome for others as well. So that goes back to that whole managing that emergency-response process beyond just a phone call into the actual dispatch function and the resource-management function.

JW:  It really comes down to Mrs. McGillicuddy needs love too, and that’s what we’ve got to be there to provide, is what I’m hearing you say, Chris. I love that.

So, guys, hey, listen, I got a question for you now. I’m going to shift gears just a little bit. Nancy, I know that you were key as far as designing your in-house training program and training incoming employees that may or may not be familiar with the communications center there. So my question for both of you is this. You know, after 9/11, I’ve read the articles, I know people, there was this sense of, I need to help out. I need to get involved. I need to be more involved for the betterment of my community. And after large crisis, we’re going to see that or during a large crisis, we’re going to see that. So, let’s bring that back to the dispatch. Is now the time to bring new people aboard, during the crisis? As we’re dealing with this pandemic or whatever type of call that we’re dealing with, is now the time to bring in new people?

NL:  You know, right now, until the situation stabilises, we are not, just for the health and safety of everybody. At this point, we don’t want people that have potentially been exposed to the virus entering our building for testing. So we’re holding off on that for a little bit. But absolutely. We’re getting applications on our Facebook site daily. We’re getting applications to our county website daily. I don’t know if it’s because of the crisis or just because we’re hiring. But absolutely, it’s a great time to bring people in, just not while we’re all in quarantine. Our center’s in lockdown right now, so we have absolutely nobody outside of the team allowed in here without social distancing. We still have to have vendors come into service things in the building. There are still deliveries. But right now, it’s all about keeping our folks safe.

JW:  That’s probably a pretty good idea. Chris, any thoughts on that?

CC:  Yeah. So, this is actually something I could probably rant about for the better part of a day or two, so I’ll try to hold this to a quick answer. Whether it’s corona or whether it’s the pipeline explosion that a community faces or a fertiliser plant like Waco or, God forbid, a mass shooting, whatever those large scale events are, every one of them highlights a reality regarding 911 staffing that unfortunately too few people in the United States have come to accept or fully understand. The 911 folks, I think, get it. But we still have an obligation and necessity to get stakeholders—those are the politicians. Those are the communities. Those are the people we serve—we need to get them to understand that 911 staffing is not something that can ever be let down or forgotten about or pushed aside. There are agencies across the country that get it right every day, that are places people want to come in and work, that have a hiring list that’s full of names that want to come in and be a part of that agency. Unfortunately, there’s other agencies that are not quite there yet or agencies that have a longer way to go. There’s a lot of reasons for that. But the first, most basic problem is that too many stakeholders don’t understand how many people it actually takes to run a 911 center.

They don’t—I’ll share this very briefly. I had a conversation with the director of London Metropolitan Police’s Command and Control Center a couple months ago. And he knew in an instant that the average number of hours that he got out of an employee inside his organisation where they were actually able to answer and dispatch calls, was I think it 1,544 hours a year. So that number, not to get really math-y and really in my geeked-out self here right now, but every agency has to know what that number is, because that’s the number of hours that you’re going to get out of that new hire. So, if I know I need three people on duty 24/7/365. I need to start doing some math and figure out exactly how many people have to be there. And then I have to learn how to create an environment which that required number of people are willing and able to work for my organisation. And too many centers are running short staffed day to day, just normal, everyday operations, just a regular old Tuesday. So, when these types of events happen, they’re already scrambling from the first minute. And as we’ve talked about, this event’s going to be long duration, so it’s only going to exacerbate that impact. So the staffing conversation is one, quite honestly, that we need to have a fundamental improvement of understanding on the part of a large number of people inside the public safety and government communities of this country to ensure that when the pandemic happens, when the disaster happens, we don’t have to look around and see empty seats inside our center.

So, congratulations to Nancy, to want to come in and start during a pandemic. That’s great. Good job to you and your team there in northern Indiana. That’s wonderful. But we really need to get to a point where everybody is, because as everyone knows, our unemployment rate was very low, which means jobs are in—employers are in search mode for people to come into work for them. It makes this challenge even greater. It’s a very complex challenge, but it’s one that we all need to come together to solve. And hopefully it will be one of the takeaways from this particular event that as a public-safety community vendor, vendor, government official, 911 professional, police, firing, EMS, all of us need to come together and solve this because it’s essential for the effectiveness of our 911 organisations.

JW:  Yeah. At the end of the day, here’s something that we know to be true, right? This, too, shall pass. We will get through it. That I guarantee. And there will be something next. There will be something down the road. And I think to your point, Chris, is, you know, maybe utilising this to get some education throughout our elected officials and throughout our senior staff to understand the complexities that could occur, it’s not just Monday morning at 3:00 a.m. when you’ve dispatchers sitting around, waiting for the next call. This could happen at any time, and a large-scale incident could occur. And during those times is the reasons why we need to be staffed up. And I think that those are some good, important points to make.

NL:  And Chris, I think a NENA stakeholders’ course would be very interesting. There you go. There’s the next thing for your plate. Because NENA’s on the forefront of doing some of the educations and of course with the stats and the data that you guys have, I think that would be a phenomenal thing to be able to teach senior leadership at the local and state levels so that they actually really understand what a staffing model truly is supposed to look like.

A lot of times the staffing model comes from somebody that is not in public safety or has never sat in a 911 dispatch center and understood the functions and the important things that go on, and what it really takes to staff that center, back to Chris’s point. So, I think having those things, what an amazing idea. Let’s educate the public as to what it really takes to run a 911 center.

CC:  Yeah, absolutely, Nancy. I’ll be happy to share that with the NENA staff and with other public safety organisations as well. I think that’s one that is such a big challenge, everybody has a role to play in solving it, whether they’re vendor, association, agency, or all of the above and likely even more.

NL:  Yeah. If there’s some consulting—I know when they did the consolidation project for Indiana, the consultant that was hired believed it took 30 seconds to process a 911 call. And that’s what got us to the abominable original staffing level that we were actually at. It can cause huge issues, especially if you’re consolidating, because then consultants don’t know the numbers. They’ve not done the work. They don’t understand what happens in a 911 center.

JW:  Yeah. If you’re looking at a spreadsheet, it’s easy to pick a number, get an average, get a mean, and try to figure out what’s the minimum that I need? I mean, we continually see this all throughout, whether it’s private sector or public sector. How can I do things with less budget? How can I do more with less, I guess is what I’m trying to say there. And I think, to your point, Nancy, we’ve got to go back to the people that understand this. No one is saying that I want to have double the amount of shifts just to all sit there and be able to pat each other on the back and have just a bigger shift for the sake of having a larger kingdom, if you will. There’s definitely a need for that. And I don’t think a spreadsheet can show that. I think that there are some times that the 30-second rule, for example, you know, maybe I could quantify that and maybe I could figure out a way of making that realistic to tell my city council or to tell my county council how that’s the case. But in reality, those numbers don’t compute. And in reality, when it comes down to it, Mrs. McGillicuddy wants to sit on the line and maybe I can get that call entered in 30 seconds, but then she wants that friendly voice as I’m sitting there talking to her to make sure that she feels safe as our responders are getting to the scene. There’s more to it than just the 30 seconds.

NL:  And there’s no more valuable asset than a dispatcher with tenure. So, in order to keep people and retain people, we need people to cover benefit time as well. And that’s one of the things I think in staffing formulas that people forget is we have people that have seniority in the center, and they’re getting two, three, four weeks’ vacation. You multiply that times the number of people in your center with that kind of tenure, and look at the pounding the rest of the staff is getting. It’s like the other dispatchers get punished because somebody has seniority and is taking a vacation. It’s like they’re punishing each other. Why don’t we have enough staffing to help ease that burden of benefit time? We’ve got to take care of the mental health and wellness and all of this for our dispatchers. We got to make it a place where people want to work. It is hard work. It’s stressful work. It’s meaningful work. But I don’t think we should beat our dispatchers up for their entire tenure here. We need to retain them. We need them for a long period of time. We want them to stay around.

CC:  Yeah. If I could add, Nancy, to what you just said. The best example I’ve ever seen of that is what happens when you have a great organisation and then something bad happens. Do your people show up without even being asked, which perhaps from a command-control issue is maybe problematic. But there was nothing as heartening as what I saw and such great lesson about great organisations as in the aftermath of 9/11 in New York, when every FDNY dispatcher reported to work without even being asked to do so. Granted, there was an official order later, but you had everyone when there was a crisis show up to be a part of making that better. And that is such a rewarding experience. It’s such an inspirational experience. And it’s an indication of what happens when we do have great, great organisations full of people that are really passionate and care about their job. And if we don’t beat them up and wear them down and make the job impossible, those are the kind of results that you can get.

And John, to your point, that’s never going to show up on the spreadsheet. Willingness to report to work and come in while everybody else is going out. While the public is going home to shelter in place and do what they do, do you have an organisation that inspires people to get on the street, to come in, to figure out childcare and other challenges. But to do so, they can come in and make their contribution to overcoming a really major, terrifying event? That’s a phenomenal thing. And in our best 911 organisations, that’s what people are doing every single day.

JW:  Yeah. I know we’ve all seen that, and it is probably the reason why I hold my time at the 911 center with a sense of pride is just for what you talked about, Chris. The people that I still, to this day, am friends with and socialise with were people that were at the 911 center, that we worked together. We were there arm-in-arm through a lot of critical incidents. We worked through it together. And to your point, that tenacity and that willingness to show up. I don’t need a mandate from the chief or a mandate from the governor, if you will, to tell me that my sense of duty to my community is to get there and do what I need to do. That’s why I’m just, like I said, proud about being emergency-service personnel for my years and still being able to contribute here on the vendor side and being able to do those things.

So, guys, this has been a great conversation. I know that we can probably sit here forever, continue to drink our coffee and talk about this topic. But I know that we’ve got other work to do.

And Nancy, I want to thank you for your time. I know this is busy for you guys at your center. I wish you all the best. You know, pass our regards on to your crews and let them know that we’re definitely thinking about them. And you know what. stay healthy is probably the best advice that I can get. Sounds like you guys are doing just that.

A big thank you to both of our guests. Chris, Nancy, this has been awesome. To hear additional episodes or learn more, visit us at hxgnspotlight.com. And thanks for tuning in.