For 911 call-takers and dispatchers, working from home isn’t an option during the pandemic, so call center managers are doing what they can to keep employees safe and healthy.
Taking a cue from grocery stores and other retail businesses, supervisors and managers at the Frederick County Emergency Communications Center first looked for a solution to the problem of social distancing between call center employees working in close proximity to one another, purchasing plexiglass barriers to attach to each workspace, said Barry Williams, the call center’s quality assurance administrator.
Pods in the call center are typically made up of a primary and back-up dispatcher, as well as two call-takers sitting in a circle of desks, Williams said. By placing a clear guard wall between each connected desk, the risk of exposure to germs from one workspace to another is reduced.
“Everyone, when we talk, sometimes particles or droplets come out of our mouths when we’re talking and … the main concern, or, what we’re trying to stop is those particles from traveling into another workspace,” Williams said. “The thinking is, it’s not going to stop everything, but if we can do something on top of everything else we do to keep them protected, we’re going to do it.”
Policy changes have also been put into effect to further discourage the potential spread of COVID-19 or other contagions within the enclosed call center, said Kristie Dutrow, the administrator of operations for the call center. While employees used to switch roles — and desks — every so often during a given shift, physically moving desks was done away with in favor of switching one desk’s phone system from a dispatcher to a 911 call-taker or other position.
“If we can avoid unnecessary moving, then that’s going to save on cleaning supplies, as well, like Clorox wipes and disinfectants,” Dutrow said, explaining another policy implemented during the pandemic, which is having employees wipe down and disinfect their workspace whenever they get up.
Disinfectant wipes, bottles of hand sanitizer and other cleaning supplies are placed liberally throughout the call center for employees to use. Cloth masks, while not mandatory in the room, are also made available to any employee who wishes to use them, thanks to three women who worked together to donate handmade face coverings to the ECC staff, Dutrow said.
Another policy still being developed is a health pre-screening and questionnaire for employees beginning a new shift to determine if they might pose a risk of having the virus or having had contact with someone who is infected.
The screening, which is already in place at other public safety agencies such as for sheriff’s deputies and fire and rescue personnel, will focus on determining whether an employee has any symptoms of COVID-19 or if they have had contact recently with individuals confirmed or suspected of having the virus, Dutrow said. Symptoms could include a fever, cough, headache or trouble breathing, among other signs that will be included on the questionnaire.
The pre-screening will also use an infrared handheld thermometer to test employees for body temperatures above the threshold for a fever.
“Any time a person who has any type of flu-like symptoms, we have them self-quarantine and follow up with their doctors,” Dutrow said. “We are also consulting with the health department, because the symptoms are evolving based on what is discovered about the virus.”
While several ECC employees have been advised to go into quarantine as a result of screening efforts so far, Williams said the number has not been significant enough to impact the call center’s ability to handle calls and provide real-time information to first responders in the field. Quarantined employees have also not affected the ECC’s policies on minimum staffing levels per shift, Williams added, explaining that significant staffing changes would likely be a last resort.
“Because if you make a lot of changes and then something major happens, you don’t want to be caught short-staffed,” Williams said.