COVID-19 pandemic is causing unprecedented challenges for ECCs, 911 centers
We’re living in brave and unsettling times created by a global pandemic that has changed nearly all of our societal and operational norms in just a few weeks. No one and no business has gone untouched. What was unimaginable 30 days ago is all there is to read about today.
What’s also getting a lot of attention are the breakdowns and underlying frailty of nearly healthcare systems globally. Almost all of them were caught unprepared to deal with a crisis of this broad and deep magnitude. While hindsight is often 20/20, the reality is most systems—healthcare or otherwise—are often unprepared and ill-equipped for the unimaginable and the unprecedented.
ECCs Understand Unprecedented
ECCs (Emergency Communications Centers) or PSAPs (Public Safety Answering Points), which are the first line of defense for public health and other emergencies, live, breathe and operate daily in the world of the unimaginable and the unprecedented. It’s part of everyday life for the heroes working in ECCs. Frankly, it’s a mode of operation that most emergency services personnel take tremendous personal pride in and wear as an unspoken badge of honor. Despite the challenges, ECC personnel are able to thrive in such environments.
But even Superman has Kryptonite and, for those on the front lines of this crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is presenting new challenges to the first responders in the field and especially behind the scenes in ECCs that would’ve been nearly impossible to prepare for.
Key Challenges for ECCs to Date
ECC teams don’t reside within protective bubbles immune to the effects of a global pandemic. As such, some of the challenges being faced within the nerve centers of global emergency response as a result of COVID-19 are predictable and similar to those that may result in other regional public safety or natural disaster situations. ECCs are already facing at least five key challenges as they work to protect the public through the pandemic:
- Personnel shortages. Similar to other times of crisis, people aren’t always able to get to work, and ECC employees are not immune to this. ECC team members have contracted COVID-19 and fallen ill (or worse) and had to stay home, while others have had to miss work in self-quarantine due to either exposure or showing symptoms of the virus. Maintaining adequate staffing levels, especially during times of virus-induced heavy call volumes, has created the first very real wave of strain on ECCs.
- Social-distancing compliance. Most ECCs are located within local municipality facilities that are tight on space, lack cutting-edge ventilation or air-filtering systems, and can be far from ergonomically ideal. These factors often result in telecommunicator and dispatcher workstations being extremely close in proximity, which makes new social-distancing standards extremely challenging. Workstations in ECCs typically do not mirror those in modern tech company environments, where relocating a workstation can be as simple as picking up a laptop and moving. ECC workstations are connected to various mission-critical communications systems that require their own monitors, microphones, and other equipment that far over-complicate a typical workstation beyond a basic laptop and external keyboard/monitor set-up. As a result, simply picking up and moving comes with a lot more complications to the physical and technological operation of a workspace.
- Remote-working feasibility. While advances and migrations to IP- and cloud-based technologies have modernized how much of the professional commercial world looks at the mobilization and remote location capabilities of their work forces, many ECCs are still operating on 20+-year-old technology that doesn’t provide the flexibility or geo-diversity to support remote work. And the upgrades that are required to modernize these critical systems aren’t the kinds of initiatives that can be conceived and completed in the short span of a week or two that would be required to really respond in a timely way to the current need, even if it was funded as an emergency measure. Having ECC team members (e.g., quarantined or staying home to care for ill family members) work remotely can unfortunately present a number of new challenges or simply be impractical, based on the age, infrastructure and set-up of the systems in place.
- Traffic-volume swings, capacities and management. Since the crisis began to take shape, many ECCs have seen non-emergency call volumes spike multiple times as we’ve progressed through phases of the pandemic. From the early stages (and still), ECCs have been handling additional calls attributable to a concerned and/or symptomatic public, virus testing questions, and the relatively still new phenomena of people clogging emergency lines to either report social-distancing violations or over confusion about governmental stay-at-home mandates. While call volumes in at least some areas are actually dissipating below normal levels due to the various “stay at home” measures being implemented (i.e., many areas are reporting substantial declines in things like motor-vehicle accidents and crime), the flow of emergency and non-emergency calls remains volatile and high in many areas. Incoming call volumes are way up in some places due to the pandemic. But areas experiencing dips in traditional emergency call volumes are starting to see those declines offset now by more mental health and suicide-related calls that could be a likely byproduct of the constant onslaught of media attention and bad news attributable to COVID-19, as well as new confinement and isolation measures.
- Unequipped backup centers. Many ECCs are having to quickly prop up and operationalize backup facilities either to manage capacities, implement social distancing, or because primary centers must temporarily shutter for cleaning and disinfecting due to team members presenting symptoms or testing positive. While most primary ECC facilities are fraught with staffing, space, technology and investment challenges as it is, backup centers are typically even less equipped to successfully manage the challenges being presented. They suffer the same issues—often exponentially—as those described for primary centers.
Creativity, Compassion and Coming Together
Often taken for granted, the ECCs we depend on in times of crisis have their hands full now more than ever. They’re being called on in more unique and “unprecedented” ways as a result of the pandemic and—despite the new challenges being faced—are continuing to answer the bell when and how we need them most.
The job is a difficult one on a regular day. But the battle they are fully engulfed in now finds them neck deep in all-new challenges. We should all be grateful for their unwavering and continued commitment to get up, go to work, and jump in the murky and unchartered waters this pandemic has created.
How we face adversity is what defines us as individuals, organizations, societies and a species. We will overcome this challenge together, and how we get there will go a long ways in setting new precedents and determining how well-equipped ECCs and other organizations are to collectively confront the next “unprecedented.”
Jim Shulkin is the director of marketing at Zetron.