April 2, 2020


PERF’s COVID-19 coronavirus resources, including past editions of the Daily COVID-19 Report, are available at https://www.policeforum.org/coronavirus.


Emergency Communications Centers and COVID-19

For this issue of the Daily COVID-19 Report, PERF focuses on how Emergency Communications managers are working to protect their employees against the virus, so they can keep 9-1-1 operations up and running during the pandemic.

9-1-1 Centers are especially vulnerable.

There are approximately 6,000 9-1-1 Centers throughout the United States, and many were facing staffing shortages even before the emergence of COVID-19. Keeping these Emergency Communications Centers (ECC) operational and adequately staffed during the pandemic has become a critical concern for agencies of all sizes.

9-1-1 Centers are especially vulnerable in the COVID-19 crisis. If too many patrol officers become symptomatic or infected with the virus and must self-quarantine, agencies can assign detectives and other former patrol officers to patrol duties. But 9-1-1 operators have many complex, specialized skills that cannot be quickly taught to other employees.

While most jurisdictions are reporting an overall drop in calls for service, there have been notable exceptions. Over the last week, for example, New York City has received more than 6,500 calls per day to 9-1-1 seeking medical assistance – more than twice the daily average.

In smaller 9-1-1 Centers, the loss of even a handful of telecommunicators can severely impact operations. “Our Communications Section has only few people capable of performing this job,” said Captain Sean Marchand of the Oceanside, CA Police Department.


Keeping 9-1-1 employees at a distance from each other

Police departments are working to facilitate social distancing among 9-1-1 employees. For example, San Francisco moved its Emergency Operations Center into the Moscone Convention Center to create more space for 9-1-1 personnel.

Agencies that have backup 9-1-1 facilities are placing personnel in multiple locations to reduce the chances of many employees being impacted if one person becomes infected with coronavirus.

Lincoln, NE is running operations from both its primary and backup centers, with staff divided between the two. Cayuga County, NY has adopted a similar approach, in which its 9-1-1 Center staff has been split into two teams, each with 9 telecommunicators, who work from both the main and backup centers.

In Portland, OR, training for new call-takers and dispatchers has been moved off the main floor to a separate simulation room to achieve greater distancing.


Working remotely

In Hamilton County, OH, the county commission authorized $100,000 for the Emergency Communications Center to purchase equipment that will make it possible for some telecommunicators to work remotely. Other agencies reported different strategies:

Stephen Willoughby, Executive Director, Richmond, VA Department of Emergency Communications:

“Our call-taking functions have moved from the main Emergency Communications Center to the department's training center, to minimize the number of personnel in each space.”

Bob Finney, Communications Director, Collier County (FL) Sheriff’s Office:

“We canceled in-service training and discontinued roll-call briefings. We also isolated 20% of our ECC staff to the backup center so they’re not all at the same location. And some civilian staff are working remotely.

“Our Mobile Communications Unit is also prepared and ready to deploy to further isolate our staff, or to accept staff from the City of Naples Emergency Communications Centers if we have a contamination.”

Michael Diekhoff, Chief, Bloomington, IN Police Department:

“We recently added to our contingency plan the ability to move Indiana University police dispatch operations into our building, or vice-versa, if one of the centers should be contaminated and need to be cleaned.”


Contingency plans to boost staffing

Almost all ECCs have recall procedures and cancellation-of-leave policies outlined in their continuity of operations plans (COOP). Some jurisdictions reported they are already restricting or eliminating leave, as well as secondary employment, to limit employees’ exposure to the coronavirus in other settings.

But there is concern that COOP plans may not be able to prevent staffing shortages brought on by the coronavirus.

Some jurisdictions are implementing new approaches to make more personnel available if too many call-takers and dispatchers have to self-isolate or become ill. For example, the state of New Jersey has established a procedure to call up trained (but not fully certified) substitute call-takers and dispatchers under certain conditions.

Bill Vedra, Director, Cincinnati Emergency Communications Center:

We’re training other employees to handle 9-1-1 calls that aren’t actual emergencies.

“Cincinnati already had SOPs in place laying out steps we take during a staffing shortage. Ultimately, the last resort in those procedures was to mandate overtime. But these policies never contemplated having few, if anyone, capable of working that overtime, like we might experience if our workforce has been depleted due to pandemic quarantines or self-isolation. We had to go back to the drawing board and write a disaster staffing plan.

“Our training staff quickly put together a crash course in answering non-emergency calls, and CAD entry. We've trained all of our support and administrative staff, as well as a group of city employees from other departments, for this role – which we’re calling Disaster Call-Takers.

“It hasn't been necessary yet, but we'd put this group into a non-emergency queue, so our own call-takers could focus exclusively on emergency calls.”

Russ Palmer, Deputy Director, Chatham (GA) 9-1-1 Communications Services:

“We’re participating in weekly conference calls with the other Public Safety Answering Points in our region to share information and resources. APCO and NENA have provided guidance, and both hosted webinars, with great information available on their website.”


Restricting Access to ECCs, and Monitoring Employees’ Temperatures

Access to Emergency Communications Centers has been restricted to employees and essential support personnel, such as contractors servicing mission-critical systems and cleaning crews.

Because the COVID-19 virus may be transmitted by persons who haven’t noticed yet that they have a fever, several ECCs also have stepped up their screening of everyone entering the facility, including employees. Many have established a single entry-point for the building and are taking the temperatures of employees and other people as they enter and leave the facility. In St. Petersburg, FL, where a telecommunicator recently tested positive, a volunteer from St. Anthony's Hospital is on-site twice a day, Monday through Friday, checking employees’ temperatures.

The Richmond, VA Department of Emergency Communications is also providing mental health information and resources to employees.

Jennifer Kirkland, 9-1-1 Center Manager, Grand Junction Regional Communications Center, Mesa County, CO:

“We have restricted access to the 9-1-1 Center to employees and command staff. All who enter are required to use hand sanitizer at the door. We are taking all employees' temperature at the beginning of their shift, and sending people home if they have fevers. Colorado is under stay-at-home orders, and employees are abiding by that when off-duty.”


Restrictions on food brought into 9-1-1 Centers

Some 9-1-1 Centers are imposing restrictions on food being brought into and prepared in their facilities. In the Seminole County, FL Sheriff’s Office, for example, all deliveries, including food, must be left in the lobby for a staff member to go pick up.

The Lincoln, NE Emergency Communications Center is not allowing any food packaging, bags, or boxes onto the floor of the ECC. “We have purchased a stock of paper plates, cups, lids. All food must be transferred to our supply of paper goods, and all wrappings and containers discarded in the break area,” said Sharon Codr, Operations Manager. “Employees must then clean and sanitize all surfaces where the food was handled with cleaning supplies we provide. After that, they may bring their plated food inside the Center.”


Expanded Cleaning Protocols

ECCs have stepped up their protocols for cleaning and sanitizing their facilities.

This is especially important because 9-1-1 Centers are open 24 hours a day, and personnel on different shifts generally share consoles and other equipment.

“We are cleaning the consoles heavily between each person, and we have altered our operations so that consoles are not shared throughout the day,” said Jennifer Kirkland, 9-1-1 Center Manager for the Grand Junction, CO Regional Communications Center.

“We went to a team-based system with very little overlap and a strict cleaning program,” said Vail, CO Police Chief Dwight Henninger. “Specific consoles are assigned to each employee.”

The Alachua County, FL Sheriff’s Office is sending personnel to its backup 9-1-1 center at least once every two weeks, so that the main center can be thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. When personnel return to the main center, the backup facility is then cleaned and sanitized.

Rich Nowakowski, CTO, Loyola University (Chicago) Police Department:

“I’m responsible for all the radios and body-worn cameras for the department. I have taken each radio, public safety mic, and BWC and followed the Motorola protocol for deep cleaning and sanitizing the equipment.”


Keeping Field Personnel Safe: Enhanced Screening of Calls for Service

In addition to focusing on the health and safety of their own employees, ECCs are revising their call-taking protocols to better screen for potential COVID-19 cases in the field.

The goal is to alert first responders to any potential COVID exposure risks they may encounter when handling the call.

For the most part, call-takers are asking some basic questions on all calls – medical, fire, and police – about whether anyone at the location of the call has tested positive for COVID-19, is under medical direction to self-isolate, or is experiencing the common symptoms: fever, shortness of breath, and/or a dry cough. If any of those factors are present, dispatchers are alerting responding personnel, who then take protective measures such as requesting to meet complainants outside, or using personal protective equipment. Or depending on the nature of the call, the dispatcher may direct the caller to make a report to the police online.

Julia Fraley, Supervisor, Benton County, MN Sheriff’s Office:

“We screen every caller who requests face time with a deputy or emergency medical personnel. We have also had several reports of people reporting others who may be positive for COVID-19. This could be an emerging trend that could lead to further issues.”


Gaining access to medical data: New HIPAA guidance

In recent weeks, several law enforcement leaders have expressed frustration over the inability of 9-1-1 personnel to obtain information about whether a person at the location of a call for service is a confirmed case of COVID-19 or is at risk of having been exposed, because such information is generally protected by HIPAA.

New guidance from the HHS Office for Civil Rights states that public safety personnel can gain access to this information in most instances. HIPAA allows information to be shared under several circumstances, including:

  • To notify a public health authority in order to prevent or control spread of disease;
  • When first responders may be at risk of infection; and
  • When the disclosure of protected health information to first responders is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health and safety of a person or the public.

Chief John Bryfonski, Bedord, NH Police Department:

“Initially, we were not getting a list of positive COVID-19 patients from our state Department of Health and Human Services. But our Chiefs’ Association found guidance from the federal government that allows first responders to receive protected health information as an allowed exception under HIPAA.”



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Interim Guidance for Emergency Medical Services (EMS) Systems and 9-1-1 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) for COVID-19 in the United States: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/guidance-for-ems.html

APCO International (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) – Information on COVID-19 for Emergency Communications Centers: https://www.apcointl.org/resources/9-1-1-info/information-on-covid-19-for-emergency-communications-centers/

NENA: The 9-1-1 Association – Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources: https://www.nena.org/page/covid19


The PERF Daily COVID-19 Report is part of the Critical Issues in Policing project, supported by the Motorola Solutions Foundation.


PERF also is grateful to the Howard G. Buffett Foundation for supporting PERF’s COVID-19 work.

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