Virginia 911 center leverages remote capabilities, FirstNet to help address COVID-19 challenges
A Virginia 911 center is combining remote solutions with FirstNet connectivity as part of a multi-pronged strategy to ensure operational continuity during the COVID-19 pandemic today and to evaluate new technological options for the center in the future.
Doug Campbell, deputy director of the Department of Emergency & Customer Communications (DECC) for the city of Alexandria, Va., said such technology capabilities potentially are transformative for the 911 community.
“After 30-plus years of doing this, who would have thought we would be doing it [answering 911 calls] at home?” Campbell said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “But that’s what we’re looking at. You kind of have to massage it to fit your needs, but those are pretty cool [solutions], as technology has evolved. I would have never thought that we would be answering calls from home, especially emergency calls.
“During this pandemic, people are finding ways to adapt—basically, adapt and overcome. They come up with a system that this will work and that will work. And a lot of it is thinking outside the box—that’s for sure.”
Prior to the COVID-19 breakout, DECC had five VESTA CommandPost kits—a phone, laptop and second monitor housed in a Pelican case—but they became a key part of the center’s strategy as officials sought methods to comply with safety and social-distancing guidelines while maintaining continuity of operations during a difficult time, Campbell said. After initially splitting shifts to work in both the primary and backup center, the decision to disperse personnel even more led to focused efforts with the VESTA remote kits, he said. Today, DECC has seven CommandPost kits, he said.
“We got those up and running … and actually tested them at our facility first, to make sure we weren’t dropping calls and everything was working the way it was designed to work,” Campbell said. “The functionality was there, so we said, ‘Let’s go ahead and deploy these out in the field, with some 911 staff. But we’ll be cautious and only answer non-emergency calls first [with the remote phone] for at least a month,’ to make sure that everything was functioning as it’s supposed to.”
That stage included conducting tests to ensure that calls being answered at a remote site could be rerouted to the primary or backup 911 center, as opposed to being dropped—functionality that was proven to work, according to Campbell.
“It did what it was designed to do; it automatically fails back to one of our centers, where there are people still operating,” he said. “So, the call is never lost; it’s just rerouted … and sent back to one of the main centers. That made us feel a lot better, knowing that we knew we were not going to lose any calls.
“After we kind of proved that we were going down the right road, we went ahead and authorized the answering of 911 [with the remote platform], because that’s the most important call, obviously. Knock on wood, but to this day, we haven’t really had any problems.”
DECC officials decided to pair the CommandPost remote kits with broadband connectivity via FirstNet hotspots, which have proven to be extremely reliable—and a significant upgrade to some of the connections used in initial tests via other broadband sources, Campbell said.
“We got in there [to one of the first test sites], we weren’t getting the [signal-strength] bars we needed—it was borderline,” Campbell said. “So, we took the FirstNet hotspots, plugged them in, and we had the signal.
“It’s important that you have that signal—the availability to connect and maintain a constant connection.”
Since moving to FirstNet, “signal hasn’t really been an issue,” Campbell said.
With that connectivity, remote telecommunicators are able to access an open position set aside within the DECC primary call center and basically operate as if they were at the center, according to Campbell.
“It’s just like I was sitting at a work station in the center,” he said.
Although the remote user experience mirrors the functionality within the 911 center, there are some minor limitations, such as call replays from remote locations needing to be acquired via a manual process instead of the automated one that exists within the center, Campbell said. In addition, DECC officials find themselves contemplating new scenarios, such as providing remote telecommunicators with uninterruptible power supplies that provide the devices with the needed electricity during a power outage, he said.
But these challenges pale in comparison to the benefits the DECC is realizing today.
With the remote option, telecommunicators can remain productive, even if they are in a situation where policy calls for them to be quarantined—for instance, if the telecommunicator comes in contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19. In addition, having the remote kits helps DECC maintain appropriate social distancing, and it eases the question whether someone with minor symptoms should be told not to work.
“They’re not calling in sick,” Campbell said. “They’re supposed to follow the guidelines of the health department, whatever they suggest. If that person’s home—not sick but told to quarantine at home—we obviously don’t want them to come in until they’ve gone through the quarantine phase or the self-monitoring, but they certainly can work at home. That’s what we done. So, they’re not using sick leave, and they’re still working, so it’s kind of a win-win [situation] for everybody.
“We’ve noticed that—in the two months that we’ve been doing it—the sick leave has drastically gone down. It’s kind of like a cost savings, if you look at it in those terms. Nobody’s calling in sick. They’re working from home.”
This reduction in sick leave also means telecommunicators are not being forced to extend their shifts beyond the scheduled time as often, Campbell said.
“We’ve not had to hold anybody over, so overtime’s gone down,” he said. “I think that’s kind of neat.
“The only thing we can attribute it to is that a lot of these people who are working from home are comfortable with that … And we do have people who say, ‘Hey, I can work a little longer [when working from home].’ Or, let’s say we need a power shift next week—because something’s going to go on—we can change [a remote worker’s schedule] on the fly, and you don’t even have to leave your house.”
Campbell said he believes leveraging this remote-work capability in the future will result in even greater benefits.
“We want to make sure we exercise this equipment all the time—continuously—to make it works,” Campbell said. “So, why don’t we just rotate our folks through and do this year round—have call-takers at home, as well as having them in the center?”
Having telecommunicators with the ability to answer emergency calls from home could prove to be especially beneficial when events occur that prevent them from coming into the 911 center, according to Campbell.
“It would be great to have actually three locations to be working out of—your primary center, your backup center and then you have some people out there in the field remotely,” he said.
“So, if something disastrous were to happen, and they couldn’t get into work but they have their [remote] phones—there are aa lot of things we could think of—you have Plans A, B and C in place.”
In addition to remote call-taking, DECC plans to explore remote computer-aided-dispatch (CAD) possibilities, as well as cloud-based solutions, Campbell said.
Remote work is just one of strategies DECC is using to meet the challenges associated with maintaining 911 operations amid health concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, Campbell said.
In the primary center, teams of telecommunicators are being isolated and living in the center for a period of 10 days at a time, Campbell said.
“The [primary] center is completely sterile,” Campbell said. “No goes in or out. They are self-contained. We have the beds. We have the kitchens. We have the washer and dryer. They are self-contained for 10 days, and we rotate the teams—teams 1, 2 and 3 will rotate in and out of there.”
DECC has backup center staffed by personnel that return home each day, as they would in a typical scenario. In addition, there is another “remote” facility within the building that houses the primary center, but in an area that is separate from the primary center.
“What happens is that, when an isolation team comes out of a lockdown, they stay in the building and go over to the remote area, where they come and go every day,” Campbell said. “We have two phones set up over there for answering 911, and we have radios set up over there, so they’re able to dispatch, as well.
“So, we’re actually operating out of three locations, plus we have the ones who are working remotely at home.”