Dispatchers man phones throughout virus scare

Take old, new precautions to keep staff, responders safe

WARREN — The unsung heroes of the law enforcement world — the men and women who usually remain unseen as they direct police officers to crime scenes and fire fighters to house fires — are twice as vigilant during the pandemic.

The 911 dispatchers in Trumbull County aren’t only continuing their work to get emergency responders to emergency situations, but also doing what they can to keep themselves, co-workers and first responders safe from COVID-19.

To protect first responders, dispatchers are taking information about where people who test positive for the virus live and inputting the information into dispatching software so responders know to take extra precautions there, according to Ernie Cook, director of Trumbull County 911. Dispatchers also are changing up their prescreening questions, asking callers questions to judge whether they are symptomatic, even if no one in the house has tested positive for the virus.

“We are asking questions like, ‘Does anyone have a cough or a cold? Any symptoms? Has anyone been traveling out of the country?'” Cook said.

In order to maintain the privacy rights of those who are infected, dispatching centers are taking other steps, too.

“It is very controlled to maintain some semblance of privacy,” Cook said.

When the center gets the list of addresses indicating which homes have people who have tested positive for the virus, only one person in the office has access to the list, Cook said. The employee inputs the information in a way that will only pop up on the screen of a dispatcher if someone from that address calls in or someone is sent to respond there.


But there is a bit of a darkside when it comes to the way the virus has changed human interaction.

“I don’t think anyone is giving CPR anymore, or I would imagine not mouth-to-mouth,” Cook said.

The American Red Cross recommends people use “hands-only” CPR if there is no “breathing barrier” or the person who is going to perform CPR doesn’t feel comfortable. Information about scheduling to learn hands-only CPR is available at https://cpr.heart.org/ en/cpr-courses-and-kits/hands-only-cpr.

The American Red Cross offers advice and guidance for performing CPR during the pandemic, along with information about first aid and sanitization during the outbreak at https://www .redcross.org/take-a-class/in-the-news/corona virus-prevention-informa tion-for-students.

l The risk of disease transmission is extremely low while performing CPR — especially when using a breathing barrier.

l If you are uncomfortable or haven’t been trained to perform traditional CPR, have someone call 9-1-1 and start Hands-Only CPR (continuous chest compressions without any mouth to mouth contact) until someone else takes over or emergency help arrives.

l Use protective gloves, if available.



Last week, dispatch center management made sure to recognize 911 dispatchers and call takers during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week with cakes, food and other tokens of appreciation, Cook said.

To help dispatchers continue their important work during the health crisis and to ensure continued operations, precautions are being taken.

There are backup plans for dispatching locations in the county, Cook said. If dispatchers were getting sick at a center– there isn’t in the Valley — shifts can be covered because there is backup equipment in Trumbull and Mahoning counties that use the same software for ease of transition.

Niles and Lordstown serve as backup centers for Trumbull County, as does an emergency backup trailer at the Trumbull County Emergency Mangement Agency’s operation center, Cook said.

“We can flip a switch,” Cook said.

But to avoid that, dispatchers are doubling down on some existing routines for sanitizing stations and adding new precautions.

Dispatchers have their own headsets, and some have their own keyboards. Before a shift ends, the person using the station sanitizes it.

“We are in a constant state of cleaning,” Cook said.

Cook said the employees have felt a bit claustrophobic.

“Social distancing is a challenge for any 911 center. So we get together and talk once a week to share ideas — all the directors in Ohio and the Ohio Department of Public Safety and the federal government sometimes,” Cook said. “Typically dispatch centers aren’t very large. But they are showcasing our mitigation standards in Franklin County because we have been ahead of the curve. When all of this started, things were changing daily, hourly. It has been a challenge, but we have made sure we have people there to answer the phone.”

Cook said the 911 centers in the state have planned for other disasters, like tornadoes and other storms, but planning around a pandemic has been a unique challenge.


The Trumbull County dispatchers have noticed changes in call volume.

Cook estimates calls have been down about 50 percent.

“A lot of the busy work type of calls are down, although we still get the normal calls of overdoses and bad guys being bad guys — there is no reduction there,” Cook said.

Domestic violence calls are on par with the numbers last year, Cook said. There were 171 domestic violence calls in Trumbull County in March 2019, and 178 in March 2020, Cook said.



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