CORONAVIRUS

Emergency dispatchers 'answering the call 24/7' despite COVID-19 risks

A 911 dispatcher fields calls at the Cedar Rapids Joint Communications Center. Clear barriers have been placed in front
A 911 dispatcher fields calls at the Cedar Rapids Joint Communications Center. Clear barriers have been placed in front of the dispatchers to separate work stations and aid in social distancing recommendations. (Cedar Rapids Joint Communications Center)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — While businesses, schools and most public buildings have closed up shop, 911 emergency dispatchers across the state continue to report for duty.

“We do not have the technology to work from home,” said Mandy Bieber, communications supervisor for the Linn County Sheriff’s Office. “And most of that is just due to cybersecurity — we wouldn’t want to jeopardize anybody’s personal information, so it’s important we stay on the Linn County network since we know it is safe and secure.”

The dispatchers in Cedar Rapids and Linn County also have begun screening 911 callers. They dispatch emergency help, then ask callers whether the caller or anyone in the house might have been exposed to the coronavirus.

They ask if anyone has traveled abroad or been on a cruise in the past two weeks or been in contact with people who has. They ask if anyone has experienced fever or the respiratory symptoms that mark COVID-19.

If someone answers yes, emergency personnel don protective gear to minimize their exposure.

As of April 24, 71 firefighters and 62 police officers have had possible exposure to COVID-19, but none of those exposed have tested positive for the disease, Cedar Rapids public safety spokesman Greg Buelow said.

CLOSE QUARTERS

Emergency dispatchers typically work in close quarters, which allows them to communicate with each other. It’s also meant they are now taking extra steps to protect themselves from exposure to the virus.

At the Cedar Rapids Police Department, maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between dispatchers can be challenging.

The dispatch unit has eight work stations at the police station, with four to five dispatchers working each shift,

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Consoles are set up in two rows of low-walled cubicles that face each other so dispatchers can easily interact.

The department installed temporary isolation barriers to extend the height of cubicles walls to “provide an extra layer of protection,” Buelow said.

The facility is locked down, denying entry to anyone other than dispatch employees, Operations Manager Joe McCarville said.

So far, none of the dispatchers at Linn County or Cedar Rapids have come down with the coronavirus, managers said.

At the Linn County dispatch center, Bieber said two to four operators are typically on per shift.

“We were fortunate that our dispatch consoles are far enough apart that we met the 6-feet-apart rule, without having to move or rearrange anything,” she said.

Bieber said the department’s janitorial staff has increased its sanitation efforts, including wiping down “all the doorknobs, light switches and anything else we might have to touch.” Dispatchers also are wiping down their work stations at the beginning and end of their shifts.

That dispatch center also has been closed to visitors, including Linn County deputies, she said.

“We’re doing everything we can to minimize the risk,” Bieber said. “We’re not taking any chances.”

CALLS DECREASE

Call volume overall has dropped for both dispatch centers, though Bieber said Linn County dispatch is now starting to see slight increases.

“In March we got fewer than 5,000 calls,” McCarville said of Cedar Rapids. “That is the only March we have seen below 5,000 calls in at least five years.”

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March is typically the Cedar Rapids dispatch center’s busiest month, McCarville said, mainly due to the big St. Patrick’s Day parade and celebrations following. The parade was canceled this year.

There could be many reasons for the drop in calls, McCarville said, including less traffic on the roads and people sheltering at home.

Bieber also suggested the fear of going to the hospital and risking exposure to COVID-19 may deter people from calling for an ambulance.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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