By Lindsey Sullivan | [email protected]
Before the COVID-19 pandemic became a public health concern in March this year, Alexandria’s Department of Emergency and Customer Communications was already working on an initiative to deploy 911 call-takers remotely. In late March, Alexandria became the first city in the country to provide a remote system for emergency call-takers.
The Computer Technology Industry Association’s Public Technology Institute awarded the City of Alexandria a 2020 Solutions Award Sept. 3 for creatively responding to physical distancing requirements brought on by the pandemic by providing an innovative system that allows call-takers to work from home, according to the institute’s award statement.
Douglas Campbell, deputy director of the DECC, said the initiative began in February when the department began to test the remote equipment they already owned for non-emergency use, as case numbers began to rise significantly. In March, after a successful 30-day trial with non-emergency calls, the program shifted to taking emergency calls remotely as well.
“At first our folks were very hesitant, you know, going home to answer these calls,” Campbell said. “What if we have a technical issue, what if we have a power outage at home? You know, no power — no connectivity.”
Campbell said the DECC had to think outside the box to prevent any possible issues the remote call-taking program might incur, like providing UPS – uninterruptible power supply – equipment in case a power outage occurred while working from home.
Alan Shark, executive director of the Public Technology Institute, said he was taken aback by how well the DECC planned for the future by using the 311 non-emergency line as a trial run before implementing the emergency line remotely.
“I think for the City of Alexandria, this award is really interesting because of the competitive nature of it, and how it came about from all the judges, as being really unique and incredibly timely,” Shark said.
In addition to providing equipment, including phones, Wi-Fi and monitors to remote workers, the DECC worked with Alexandria’s IT department to ensure that the same security measures present in the office would be available to callers at home.
Shark added that the external judges from across the nation recognized the award given to Alexandria as the most significant from this year, because of the city’s innovation.
“Just saying that they simply moved to a 911 remote system is taking away from what they really did,” Shark said. “What they did was solve a series of problems.”
Campbell said that despite the remote working-conditions, the program has never lost a call. This is a result of infrastructure put in place to automatically reroute any lost or dropped calls to the in-person backup center, where on-site callers are always available, he said.
Iman Harrison, a remote 911 call-taker who has been working for the DECC for more than a year, said she was unsure about the transition to remote call-taking at first.
“I was scared — I didn’t know what the setup would be, and I didn’t know how it would work at home,” Harrison said.
Harrison said the IT department worked to provide her an extra monitor so that she could see all of the systems necessary — including units, incidents and maps — in order to work effectively.
As the process of remote work smoothed out with help from IT and the DECC, Harrison said she has enjoyed the safety that working from home can provide, as she doesn’t have to worry about putting her family at risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Harrison added, however, that she would rather work at the call center because of the comfort of having in-person resources and co-workers of whom she can ask questions.
To combat this loss of camaraderie that comes with remote work, Campbell said the DECC has been keeping staff on a rotation of remote and in-person work every few weeks, while still giving those who prefer to work fully remote the option to do so.
Given the success of the program, the DECC plans to continue remote calling even after the pandemic. Campbell said having remote technology allows the emergency system to continue to operate during other potential crises, such as natural disasters or large protests that might inhibit workers from getting to the office.