Alexandria, Virginia 9-1-1 dispatchers are taking calls and handling operations from their homes using FirstNet’s network, hotspots and smartphones. The agency is leveraging FirstNet for remote 9-1-1 calltaking and launching a new dynamic for a public safety function that has traditionally been tied to brick and mortar PSAPs or agency-owned communications vehicles.
The remote dispatchers are using a laptop, headset and smartphone, FirstNet hotspot, a mobile router and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. The hotspot ensures remote dispatchers will not lose connectivity “if all hell breaks loose,” said Renee Gordon, the city’s director of Department of Emergency & Customer Communications.
COVID-19 has required administrators to be creative with social distancing in PSAPs while maintaining public services. Per Gordon, “We’ve had this equipment but never used it, and it’s been in the back of our minds that we need to explore this technology,” Gordon said. “We did a lot of testing. Probably why others aren’t using it is because it’s scary. What happens if the call drops?”
After three phases of planning and testing, the remote 9-1-1 calltaking capability went live March 6. For the first month, the remote workers answered non-emergency calls from home until they were sure the system worked well enough to handle 911 calls as well.
Home-based dispatchers access the department’s CAD system remotely via a connection to a laptop set up at their normal dispatching position at the 911 center. “It’s the same as what they have in the center, just a shrunken-down version,” said Bob Bloom, the public safety systems administrator. “They have RapidSOS, Smart911 and all the buttons at their fingertips. We put a talk group for 311 and 911 on the phones so it’s like being back in the center where you can share information.”
The remote call-takers and dispatchers work their regular 12-hour shifts, handling the same call volume as they did before the coronavirus outbreak. “The remote call-takers and dispatchers work their regular 12-hour shifts. Bloom said from a functionality perspective, the remote employees are working the same way, except in a different location, and their call volume is the same. “Overall, they seem pretty happy with it,” he said. “There are some things we’ve tweaked and continue to tweak,” said Campbell. “We are happy to share our experiences and collaborate with other centers that are considering this functionality.”
Editor’s note: COVID-19 has been an unprecedented event for our nation’s first responders and demonstrated that we must be able to adapt in new ways to continue providing services. Remote 9-1-1 calltaking may not become mainstream, but it definitely opens up the realm of possibilities when traditional PSAP space is not available.
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