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Public Safety

911 center operators share lessons learned from the pandemic

Hundreds of 911 experts are in San Diego this week to learn about new technology and find solutions to the issues they’re facing during this pandemic. KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado says COVID has left many dispatch centers understaffed and overworked.

Hundreds of dispatch center leaders from across the nation are meeting in San Diego for the annual conference of The National Emergency Number Association, or NENA. And the pandemic is at the forefront.

"There’s never been anything like this in our lifetime," said April Heinze, the 9-1-1 Operations Director with NENA. She says during this pandemic, being there is becoming more and more difficult for our first, first responders. "Overwhelmingly the average 911 center, staffing-wise, is down about 30 percent … all the way to very large 911 centers in urban areas that were [in a] more than 50 percent staffing crisis."

Heinze said because of this new normal, virtual technology is on the cusp of becoming mainstream to help more dispatchers to work from home. But it’s not as simple as it sounds, "Because there are certain things in the 911 center that you can’t really recreate in a virtual environment … you have to have great cyber security good broadband connectivity for those virtual environments to work," she said.

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Kitty Alvarado
9-1-1 industry leaders attend an educational session on new technology for dispatch centers at the NENA conference in San Diego.

Lori Brown, a dispatch supervisor with the Indio Police Department, said everything from apps to cars now communicate with 911, so attending conferences like this one is critical to keep dispatch centers on the forefront of new technology. "We are no longer in the days where your 911 call is connected to a telephone central station and then delivered to via a phone line to the dispatcher," she said.

Her department provides safety and emergency operations for one of the most famous music events in the world, The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. They are already planning more efficient ways for 250,000 music fans to access 911 in the future.

"We’ll be able to draw a geographical boundary around the concerts and say all 911 calls that happen within this geographical area we want to ring to our command post at the concert as opposed to going back to the center," said Brown.

Heinze said while this pandemic has been challenging, it’s also been a time of incredible learning and innovation for the industry that will benefit their industry for generations.

"We will be so much better prepared if for some reason something like this happens again."