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9-1-1 pandemic

 January 21, 2022 at 5:00 AM PST

Good Morning, I’m Annica Colbert….it’s Friday, January 21st>>>>

The pandemic challenges at 9-1-1 dispatch centersMore on that next. But first... let’s do the headlines….######

Researchers say San Diego's sewage indicates the region is starting to come off the current surge in covid-19 cases.

UC San Diego professor Rob Knight leads the project that has been analyzing wastewater from the point loma treatment plant for the last two years.. he says wastewater is a leading indicator of the virus’s spread, with data typically three weeks ahead of confirmed cases.

“we’re coming off the surge for sure, however it’s possible that cases will continue to rise or maybe peak around now.” (:08)

Knight says people need to remain cautious as thousands of cases are still reported daily.

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The Chula Vista elementary school district has a new superintendent. He’s a former teacher who comes from outside the district, although he has deep south bay roots.

Dr. Eduardo Reyes was appointed to the top job supporting more than 28-thousand students in k-through-6th grade. Teachers in Chula Vista have been working with an expired contract since late last june.

“learning happens in the classroom it doesn’t happen in the district office …it’s in the classroom so we want to make sure they have good working conditions and that the contract is respected.”

He starts as the Chula Vista superintendent on february 22nd.

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Santa Ana conditions are expected this weekend. The national weather service has issued a wind advisory for the inland valleys and mountains starting midnight Friday through 6pm on Saturday. Sustained winds are expected up to 20-30 miles per hour, gusts up to 55 miles per hour before things start to settle down on sunday.

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From KPBS, you’re listening to San Diego News Now.Stay with me for more of the local news you need.

The National emergency number association has brought Hundreds of 9-1-1 experts to San Diego this week to learn about new technology and find solutions to staffing problems and other challenges they’ve faced during this pandemic.

KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado says COVID-19 has left many dispatch centers understaffed and overworked.

Nat sound: 9-1-1- what’s your emergency?

WHEN YOU CALL 91-1, YOU ASSUME SOMEONE WILL BE THERE TO ANSWER THE CALL DURING YOUR HOUR OF NEED. 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

THAT’S APRIL HEINZE THE 911 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 more than 50 percent staffing crisis

SHE SAYS 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

LORI BROWN, A DISPATCH SUPERVISOR FROM THE INDIO POLICE DEPARTMENT, SAYS IT’S CRITICAL THAT THEY ATTEND THESE CONFERENCES THAT KEEP THEM 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

BROWN SAYS EVERYTHING FROM APPS TO CARS NOW CAN COMMUNICATE WITH 911. 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 9-1-1 IN THE FUTURE

We’ll be able to draw a geographical boundary around the concerts and say all 9-1-1 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

HEINZE SAYS 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.

KITTY ALVARADO KPBS NEWS.

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Governor Gavin Newsom wants California to become a major producer of lithium…the battery material essential for electric cars. CapRadio’s Scott Rodd reports on the ambitious – and experimental – plan.

More than half a century ago, the Salton Sea in Southern California was a destination for families and vacation-goers.

Now, the land-locked body of water is largely abandoned due to toxins.

But Newsom has a grand vision for its future.

NEWSOM-1: “We have what some have described as the Saudi Arabia of lithium here in the state of California.”

And he says that could make the Golden State a world leader in lithium production.

GRAHAM-1: “Well it's definitely a worthy experiment because on a global basis, we're desperate for new sources of supply.”

John Graham is a professor at Indiana University’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

He says unlike traditional mining, direct extraction pulls lithium from underground brine. The process is promising because it recovers high concentrations of lithium. But…

GRAHAM-2: “It's never been actually well-demonstrated on a commercial scale that it's economically feasible or environmentally sustainable.”

Newsom wants to incentivize private companies to explore direct extraction and build nearby battery manufacturing sites.

Graham says that could take up to 20 years…and warns similar efforts have failed in countries like Australia and Chile.

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Veterans suffering from certain medical conditions became eligible for "presumptive" VA disability benefits last year. These are medical conditions that occured because of military service but arose after that service completed. But the claims they're filing have added to the agency's huge backlog. American Homefront’s Carson Frame has the story.

[Decades after he deployed to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand in the late 60s, Army veteran Jim Scott developed urinary symptoms that bothered him enough to go to the doctor.

SCOTT: …he asked for a urine sample. And he came back in the room and he says, “Guess what, you’ve got some urine in your blood,” because the little vial was full of blood instead of urine.

It was bladder cancer. More than 20 tumors — one the size of an orange — that would require surgery and chemo. Scott thought Agent Orange—an herbicide used by the U.S. government in Vietnam — was to blame. So he filed a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which said he didn’t have enough proof that his military service caused his illness.

After his cancer was treated, Scott lobbied Congress to recognize the link between bladder cancer and Agent Orange — so that veterans could get VA disability benefits without specific proof. It finally happened last year.

SCOTT: I was ecstatic. It was like, Are you kidding me? They finally you know… breaking news VA expands benefit…for conditions related to certain toxic exposures, that's what I remember most

Three new presumptive conditions were added: bladder cancer, hypothyroidism, and Parkinsonism. The VA is sending letters to eligible vets.

But Scott says he received a packet of paperwork that didn't fully explain the process.

SCOTT: But it's like, Okay, once I fill it out, am I done? You know, or do I just wait, or is there something else that I should do? So that's kind of where my confusion lies right now

Veterans' advocates say the VA’s letters are boilerplate, with information that’s not tailored to veterans’ specific issues or claims. Stacey-Rae Simcox is a law professor and director of the veterans advocacy clinic at Stetson University.

SIMCOX: ….that leads to mass amounts of miscommunication and misunderstanding amongst veterans. And it also means veterans run around trying to get information they don't need to get because VA already has it. But they don't know VA has it because they didn't tell them that.”

Even if veterans submit all the right information, that doesn’t mean the money will start flowing any time soon.

The VA already has more than 70,000 claims to review stemming from Parkinsonism, bladder cancer and hypothyroidism. And that's on top of a longstanding massive claims backlog for other veterans and their families.

As of the beginning of the year, the VA said it had a TOTAL of more than 260,000 claims that had been pending longer than 125 days.

While the VA has been struggling with a claims backlog for years, Secretary Denis McDonough told reporters last month that the pandemic made it worse.

McDONOUGH: We stopped, for example, providing what we call Compensation and Pension Exams, during the pandemic…to ensure that veterans were not exposed to the virus.

Those medical exams are usually the first step after a veteran files a claim.

McDonough says they've resumed now, and adds that the VA is taking other steps to catch up.

McDONOUGH: Under our current plan, we’re having employees work overtime. We will — between that added over time, automation of records, digitization of records, and hiring of additional people — get that down under 100,000 claims by early 2024.

But that’s still a long time for veterans who’ve been battling health conditions and the VA for years. And Jim Scott, the bladder cancer survivor, worries that some of his comrades won’t follow through on such a drawn-out process.

SCOTT: some veterans may go in and apply and not hear anything for an extensive period of time and kind of dismiss the fact that they are going to be considered or not and not keep the claim active. If that's what is required. I do have a concern about that.

He encourages vets to file claims, stay on top of them, and be proactive until they get their benefits.

That was Carson Frame reporting from San Antonio. This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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Coming up....

“Look up in the sky, it’s a bird, it’s a plane it’ Superman…”

Superheroes can come in many different forms. We’ll look to the origin story of a local comic store to find how the legacy of its unlikely hero helped it survive the pandemic. That’s next, just after the break.

To understand how a local comic book store survived the pandemic you need to look at its origin story, says KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando. She checks in at Comickaze, the comic book store she has been going to for decades, to see how it has overcome multiple challenges these past two years.

Comic books don’t always have superheroes but if we look to the origin story of Comickaze, we will find an unlikely hero in Robert Scott. He started the store 30 years ago, stocked it with diverse books, and made it a welcoming environment for customers. He was a champion of comics and the ability of comics to create a community. But in December of 2019, Scott died unexpectedly of health-related issues leaving the store in the hands of its two employees just as a pandemic was about to shut the world down.

LUCKY BRONSON: When everything is going well, you can talk about community, and we're a big community,

Lucky Bronson was one of those employees.

LUCKY BRONSON: But when faced with possibly closing our customers, our family and friends, they stepped up and started buying stuff and keeping us open. And in that that's when, you know you're part of the community is when you're at your lowest and people show up and help us stay open.

Bronson now manages Comickaze. He says it’s thanks to the community that Scott built and the eclectic stockpile of books he acquired that the store survived.

LUCKY BRONSON: Because of all that product we have sitting around and our customers willingness to try something new during the pandemic, it definitely kept us afloat.

Meagan Masingill was one of those customers.

MEAGAN MASINGILL: During the pandemic, we read more, we tried to do pickup more. It's such a pleasure to have built a relationship, and that's what keeps me coming back and supporting them.

That supportive community also extended to some of the small comic book publishers.

LUCKY BRONSON: For instance, Robert Kirkman's company, Skybound. They published a comic, a new Walking Dead story that no one expected, published it for free, sent it to us for free so that we could sell it and make some money while this whole thing was going on.

Now things are sort of back to normal. Regulars, wearing masks of their favorite pop culture icons, are back in the store each week to pick up their comic book subscriptions. Gary Dexter dedicates one night a week to what he calls his adult day care.

GARY DEXTER: I get here after work sometime around about 5, and I stay till closing time. And we just review the events in nerdkind for the week and so highlight them a week.

Bronson provides the kind of customer service you won’t find online or at a big chain says Dexter.

GARY DEXTER: They look after me every week, pull the books that I read. So not only not only is he, as I say, looking after your own subscriptions, but he knows what you like. He can recommend stuff for you, exposes you to stuff that you would otherwise miss. And I think that's important in a store of this type.

Alonso Nunez is executive director of Little Fish Comic Book Studio where he’s helping foster the next generation of comics fans and creators.

ALONSO NUNEZ: A comic store really functions as not just a place to buy comics and to get recommendations, but really as a kind of almost community center without overstating it for nerds, for geeks, for just fans of the comic medium of manga. And it's really important to have the opportunity, as I like to say, to find something completely out of the blue, to almost literally trip over it on the ground…

MEAGAN MASINGILL: This really does look cool, though. I'm so sorry I got distracted…

And that’s one of the joys of Comickaze where not only are shelves stocked to bursting point with books but there are boxes lining the walls with treasures waiting to be unearthed.

MEAGAN MASINGILL: And that's why I like physical shopping for books. I wasn't going to buy something tonight, but I might grab this.

Nachie Marsham says it was a small comics shop that hooked him on comics as a kid. Now as publisher of San Diego-based IDW Publishing, he appreciates those spaces as more than just a place for nerds to meet and discuss what they love.

NACHIE MARSHAM: From a cold-hearted, mercenary aspect of things, like that's just good for the industry and the business in general. We want people to be able to get out there and be the ones who are saying, like, ‘whaddaya mean you've never read this? You have to read this right now.’ Yes, please do. We love it a lot, too. And it's the lifeblood of what works for us as we move forward.

Moving forward, Comickaze still faces challenges especially with supply chain issues and the ever changing nature of the pandemic. But it has a community it can count on.

Beth Accomando, KPBS News.

Comickaze is located on Clairemont Mesa Blvd. with new comics arriving every Wednesday.

That’s it for the podcast today. Be sure to catch KPBS Midday Edition At Noon on KPBS radio, or check out the Midday podcast. You can also watch KPBS Evening Edition at 5 O’clock on KPBS Television, and as always you can find more San Diego news online at KPBS dot org. I’m Annica Colbert. Thanks for listening and have a great day.

The pandemic has created enormous challenges for 9-1-1 operators. Hundreds of these first responders are in San Diego this week to learn about new technology, and to find solutions to the issues the industry is facing during the pandemic. Meanwhile, veterans became eligible for a new kind of benefit last year - called “presumptive” benefits , these are post-service medical conditions that arose because of military service. But the agency is facing a huge backlog of claims. Plus, how a comic bookstore has overcome the challenges of the pandemic.