911 dispatchers even more isolated during pandemic

Apr. 7—WEST OLIVE — Isolation is a somewhat common situation in normal times for employees of the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority.

Dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, matching up with their counterparts in the police, fire and medical agencies.

But, unlike those counterparts, the dispatchers sit quietly at their consoles inside a separate building in the Fillmore Complex in the middle of Ottawa County. While police officers, firefighters and paramedics are out and about, dispatchers work hard in their lonely confines to make sure people's emergency needs are met in a timely fashion.

The quiet of their workplace used to be broken up by occasional tour groups, visits by emergency professionals and trainings. Employees also used to attend fire department open houses and visit schools to educate people on what to do in an emergency and the importance of Smart 911.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the secure facility was even more firmly locked down.

"One of the aspects of my job is interaction with people," Ottawa County 911 Executive Director Peter McWatters said. "Tours were suspended, as were in-person interviews with media and job applicants. We didn't do as much outside training. We kept up with requirements by online training."

Dispatch Deputy Director Tammy Smith said it just isn't the same.

"Virtual training cannot take the place of human interaction," she said.

At the start of the pandemic lockdown a little more than a year ago, everything stalled.

"It was really slow for about a two- to three-week period," McWatters said. "Since then, there's been a fairly steady increase to where we were before the pandemic."

As the calls for help rose back to normal levels, dispatchers did notice an increase in responses to mental health, domestic situations and civil issues, he said.

Like every other business operation, Central Dispatch changed safety protocols for staff. That included temperature checks, wearing masks when away from their consoles and increased cleaning practices.

Everyone also got his or her own keyboards, McWatters said, and that practice will likely continue into the future.

Some Central Dispatch staff did test positive for COVID-19 and a few were briefly sick. But the cases were contracted outside of the facility and any staffing issues were brief, Smith said.

Call-taking protocols were also changed with the onset of the pandemic. Smith said they are constantly being updated.

"We implemented some screening questions for the caller," she said. "We have done that for all responses — including police, fire and EMS."

Smith said they do what they can to make sure emergency responders are prepared when they respond to a call for help. If a police officer can respond with a phone call, or talk to someone outside, that is arranged.

"Overall, people are cooperating with the dispatchers and the questions being asked," Smith said. "Unfortunately, the questions have become normal and people expect it."

A chance to bring attention to dispatchers and the important work they do is during the upcoming week, April 11-17, which is National Telecommunicators Week, McWatters said.

"We're very fortunate to have the partners we do, but nobody sees us," Smith said.

For more information on the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority, and to sign up for Smart 911, go to www.occda.org. For Smart 911, go under the "Resources" drop-down menu.

You may contact Becky Vargo at bvargo@grandhaventribune.com.