Heart and Hustle in Hamilton County

Hamilton County 911 Dispatchers Answer the Call During COVID-19

January 22, 2021 Bridget Doherty Season 1 Episode 4
Heart and Hustle in Hamilton County
Hamilton County 911 Dispatchers Answer the Call During COVID-19
Show Notes Transcript

Chances are every person in Hamilton County will dial 911 at least twice in their lifetime.  And connecting people to emergency services like police, fire, and EMS during a pandemic is more important than ever.  911 services have seen a tremendous amount of change over the past year, but the mission has remained the same: providing  the most accurate, expeditious, and innovative communication services possible. Director Andrew Knapp discusses how to keep emergency communication running during a pandemic and why servers and bartenders tend to make the best 911 Dispatchers. 

Jeff Aluotto  0:08  
Hello and welcome to Heart and hustle in Hamilton County, a podcast about the people places and policies that govern our local response to the covid 19 outbreak. I'm your host Jeff Aluotto county administrator with Hamilton County. And during this episode we will be discussing the issues, challenges and opportunities Hamilton County faces as we battle a global pandemic. I'm here with my co host Communications Manager Bridget Doherty. Hello, Bridget. And today is a show that I had been wanting to do for a long time. I think the chances are that every person in Hamilton County will dial 911 at least twice in their lifetime in connecting people to emergency services like police, fire and emfs during a pandemic is more important than ever. 911 services have seen a tremendous amount of change over the past year. But the mission has always been the same, providing the most accurate expeditious and innovative communication services possible. Hamilton County has actually been acknowledged and recognize as a leader in 911 services in the state of Ohio and in the nation. And we're really fortunate today to have with us the director of the Hamilton County 911 communication center, and Andy Knapp, welcome.

Andrew Knapp  1:25  
Hello. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

Jeff Aluotto  1:26  
No, thank you. Thank you for being here. So why don't we just start off just so folks who are listening can get a sense of what your department does. Tell us a little bit about the organization you lead and the communities you cover here in Hamilton County.

Andrew Knapp  1:40  
Okay, so, so the hammer communication center is responsible for the 911 services as well as the police and fire dispatching services for a large portion of the county factors when it relates to 911. Call taking. We actually operate for 47 of the municipalities. The only municipalities that we don't answer 911 traffic for would be the city Cincinnati city of Norwood. We dispatch police fire and EMS for just about everyone else. The city of Redding has their own police dispatch. Emily village has their own police dispatch Indian Hill, and in Redding still do their own police dispatch. And then city 11 and Sims township have their own police and fire dispatch center as well. So we handle a very large, very large portion, we're with being a multi jurisdictional center and, and our centers been in operation continuously since 1949. We are one of the first multi jurisdictional communication centers actually in the nation and have oftentimes been used as a model for for other other regions

Jeff Aluotto  2:45  
to look at to see, you know how this type of a service could be could be implemented. And from a shared services perspective, and it has been a lot of talk about that, especially as it relates to 911. Communications. I think, and you would know the numbers, but there are other urban counties in the state of Ohio that have maybe 40 piece apps public safety answering points for 15 piece asthma. And we we have in this county as of this point in time three

Andrew Knapp  3:13  
rhetoric. Yeah, you're absolutely right. And they are one of the things that we're Hamilton County has always been a leader is trying to share the services amongst the municipalities, especially the common services that you know, when you have the duplicate equipment, the duplicate, the duplicated personnel and the technical people that are required to run and, you know, a top notch center like that it's very expensive. And so you're exactly right, Jeff, there are still a lot of counties in Ohio that have upwards of, you know, better than 10 to 15 and upwards of 20 piece apps within their counties. And so we are very fortunate here that we have the cooperation and really that's what it comes down to is the cooperation and the understanding of the value of having those shared services.

Bridget Doherty  4:03  
So let's get right into it. This is primarily a COVID. podcast. So when were you if you look back when we first made aware that COVID was coming in, and how did you prep for that?

Andrew Knapp  4:16  
So I can almost remember it like it was like it was yesterday. It was in late January, January 29 or 30th. We we had a call with our our medical director, Dr. Jason McMullan from the University of Cincinnati physicians is a medical director and helps coordinate our emergency medical dispatch program and he alerted us that you know, have you heard anything about this and you know, if you look back at that time, we'd heard maybe a little bits and pieces about something going on in China. And he felt that it was necessary that we should probably start because of the the availability of of international travel especially with having an international airport here. The The we should start questioning our incoming callers. Have you recently traveled to China? I mean, and so we actually implemented that with a city, Cincinnati. We, the 2911 centers worked very closely and very well together. We had a quick call with Cincinnati. And, and and agree that this is something we should start to look at you obviously not knowing the magnitude of what we're what we're confronting, but but So believe it or not, you know, late, late January of last year, we were we started the process.

Jeff Aluotto  5:32  
So I'm sure you had, once you knew that this was potentially coming, you had to adapt very quickly, they all all county departments had to adapt in some way. But the 911 Center, given the critical, the critical nature of what you you all do, had to make sure that you were your main up and running. So what were some of the first steps that you took as an organization to respond once you knew this was a potential threat?

Andrew Knapp  5:57  
So I would say some of the first steps were to think about how we protect ourselves, like what is our continuity of operations? You know, fortunately, we worked with the the Emergency Management Agency, and they had developed, you know, a comprehensive continuity of operations plan, which most of those plans they have, they were geared around what happens if, you know, there's a tornado, some type of natural disaster or some type of chemical incident, some type of mass casualty incident. And so, all of the planning and strategy, we had surrounded a specific incident, and usually those incidents have a, like a very narrow timeline. Yes, they may last weeks, but you know, this was a timeline where there's the initial impact, there's the ramp up, then you hit a peak, and you're over the edge. And on the way, you know, no one could have seen what what, you know, what we know, now, we didn't know, you know, then what we know now. And I think what, what struck us is our staff, I mean, it'd be honest with you, if if this was an incident that was not going to affect it was not going to you know, it was not the big crash that you know, you could you could respond to you could mitigate it and recover from it. This was an incident that was so unknown. But I think our first our first worry was our own internal staff that if we know and as an organization, and we have for many, many years valued the speed with which we answer the calls from our residents. And in the in the, the expertise that we handle with this and and the last thing we wanted to do is when you're working through a pandemic would be to do anything that affects your staffing, and obviously, losing people is critical. And our big concern is we really thought, you know, back at the time, we really thought that if one person got it, everybody was going to get it, who was going to wipe us wipe us all out. And, and, you know, thankfully, you know, knocking on wood everywhere I can I mean that in, that was not what happened, we found that, you know, through doing the the social distancing through, you know, wearing the masks through, if you washing your hands and using the hand sanitizer, and all those things that everybody knows now, and it's become the new normal. Back Back when this all first started, really the first critical thing I was concerned about was was the the safety and the health of our staff subsequently, so as not to impact our service.

Bridget Doherty  8:28  
Sure. And then the staff, I mean, like you said, you know, they're all concerned about what's going on. So in the way that you're set up, it's actually one big room. So they're all kind of you know, they're together working as a team. And then when something is this contagious, I mean, you know, spreading them out had to have been kind of difficult.

Andrew Knapp  8:47  
So the social distancing became a challenge. We're very fortunate in that we have enough workstations within our facility, where we developed a strategy that we were staffing in and as crazy as it sounds, this is what we did, and it's worked for us. We've staffed like every other workstation. So you know, while we couldn't physically separate to the best of our ability, what we tried to do was to then alternate these workstations and try to create that separation by just changing what the the normal behavior is, you know, when you work in a place that has multiple workstations, you're used to going into your own cubicle work in the same spot all the time. And in an environment that's very similar is that I enjoy the view here I get comfortable with with you know, the situation right here. And we had to re engineer that behavior of our of our workforce in that you may not be able to sit here every day we really need alternate you and move around and in the process then also you the the cleaning and disinfecting have, you know, cleanup before you sit down and clean it in the middle of your shift, clean it when you leave. And then we let that that that workstation, stay idle for you know an eight hour shift so that you know it was just airing out and, you know, things didn't didn't live and breathe and breathe on those surfaces. So the strategy that and, you know, the kudos the workforce, because there's the ones that had to actually do that, you know, we came up with the, with a concept of how to do it, but But, but, you know, again, kudos to the workforce for, and it's not just in their, in their work activity within the organization, we had to communicate to our staff that, you know, you and your own social behaviors outside of work, it's, it's critical that you follow exactly what those standards are, because, you know, a stray exposure to something brings that into the organization and affects the service for everyone in the county. So again, our staff I think, was very diligent about their own, you know, even personal behaviors and how, what they did on their off time, and a lot of a lot of jobs, you don't have to worry about, you know, when I'm off, I'm off, and that's, that's that, but in our position, we can't behave like that.

Bridget Doherty  10:58  
Yeah. And you can't shut down the organization, where other private businesses, you know, they could shut down for a few days, or even work remotely. Like that's,

Andrew Knapp  11:06  
that's not an option, that technology that we require, you know, we can do it to a certain aspect now that we can do before we'll get into that a little bit, but, but they have to be on site, they the the technology is incredibly expensive. It's it's, you know, proprietary in nature, and, and so yeah, you're exactly right.

Jeff Aluotto  11:24  
So with with all that said, with all that preparation, and all that due diligence, what type of an impact Have you seen, with your staff? And COVID? Have you had any staffing shortages, because of COVID? Have you largely been unscathed? What have you seen inside the communication center?

Andrew Knapp  11:40  
So, starting at a very high level, the number one industry itself is experiencing staffing shortages, in that it's a very difficult job, it has the you know, we are talking to people on the worst days of their lives with some sometimes, you know, horrific situations that go on. And, and I can tell you with 30 plus years in the business, there's still calls that I hear in my head that echo you may have been 25 years ago, but I still remember like it was yesterday, the industry itself is having trouble with staffing people. So likewise, so are we and then you add a worldwide pandemic on top of that, and what that did was in addition to having to worry about, you know, them themselves and in their environment, they also have their own families that they're they're worried about. So we were very fortunate that we did not have any, any positive COVID cases within our center. until probably about six to eight months into the end of the pandemic, we were very, very fortunate. And when we, when we did, they were isolated cases, where someone, and again, they took the advice and stayed home when they started to feel sick, they stayed home, so we had very limited exposures. Again, knock on wood, we've been very fortunate that and even to this day, I think that out of an organization of 8080 plus people, I think just round fingers atop my head, maybe 10 total that have added and out of the 10 I know three have just been in the last couple of weeks. And so here we are hopefully in the in the in the sunset, if you will of this pandemic and and we've been very fortunate again Knock on wood that that staffing issue didn't hit us It wasn't as big an impact is we were concerned that it was going to be

Bridget Doherty  13:29  
Tell us about your call volume hasn't changed much pre COVID

Andrew Knapp  13:34  
so when when things first kicked off you know and he looked at we had our normal baseline when when the the orders were issued, the stay at home order was issued and pretty much everything shut down. We saw a dramatic decrease and so did all of our public safety partners there were dramatic decreases in the number of calls to 911 and requests for service because keep in mind you know the number one stuff is one aspect of the job we also take non emergency traffic for all those communities as well. So your parking complaints your theft reports your you know vehicle lockouts where they buck your keys and cars things like that. And because everyone was staying at home everything I mean it drastically it really dropped off you know, or auto accidents dropped off or I mean like like all aspects of of, you know, the law enforcement dispatching as well as fire fire incident seem to stay about the same. I mean, fires are usually accidents and you know, within you for whatever reason they they occur, or fire traffic seem to be about same but the the mess and law enforcement did see a decrease as well as the number one system and that further helped us in that. Here. We were worried about staffing and luckily we didn't have a staffing issue but on top of that, we saw the reduction in the number of in the call volume we're having so it was a to say a win win but for all intents and purposes that In fact, wasn't when when that aspect,

Jeff Aluotto  15:02  
are you actually getting people calling you about COVID? You'd have people calling you for instructions relating to COVID. If they're experiencing symptoms, that type of thing, or are they more, if someone is really sick, and they need a, you need an ambulance, something like that,

Andrew Knapp  15:17  
most of it most of the COVID related calls we've gotten, that have been, you know, brought to my attention is are people that are symptomatic, that are experiencing, you know, severe types of distress that need some type of transport. You know, we've had our, you know, minor calls here about questions, but in general, you know, or health department did a great job of messaging, you know, don't call 911, unless you need something. And again, we're ramping up, we were seeing what was happening in New York, where they were, you know, they were trying to find, you know, mutual aid, Ms units, and they were, they were, you know, organizing groups of 40 and 80 ambulances to bring into the city. And we were thinking to ourselves, wow, that hams us, I mean, you know, how do we get that much, you know, emergency equipment into us, our big fear was that, you know, we were going to be so overwhelmed, and, and not have resources to send to folks when they, when they needed it. And, and, again, thankfully, that's not what happened. But, but we, you know, we tried to work work through that. And that was our big worry of having to tell someone that, you know, we don't have an ambulance to send you for 30 or 40 minutes. And thanks, Beth didn't happen. We I think we were very fortunate here that our residents really responded. And understood, I think, the impact that this could have had, and as such, they, you know, everyone was was very good about only using the system if they needed it.

Bridget Doherty  16:43  
So during this time, I remember you had tested out a pop up 911 Center. Right, can you tell us about that.

Andrew Knapp  16:51  
So again, as we started evaluating our staff concerns we partnered with with another piece app, and the idea was that we've always shared a backup center with them, because the likelihood of needing it is usually very slim. And so you know, hammock has never had their own independent, you know, backup facility. When this kicked off, we realized that we need to have something because I needed the ability to separate our staff. And, and our partners actually activated their backup and did separate their staff. So there was a couple different philosophies of management in 911 centers, you know, separating the staff, it was done so that if 50% of our workforce is one place and 50% somewhere else, if there's an infection, and it winds up being a widespread infection, you're only losing, you know, half of your staff, not the whole organization. So we, we were very fortunate in that we had just done an upgrade of our overnight one platform in 2019. that enabled us to purchase workstations that are completely portable. And we developed an InDesign two system, you know, if we call it the pop up, 911 Center, and Nora tactical dispatch center in that, these things were also portable, that really I needed an internet connection, which we gained by via cellular connection. And we could deploy 15 workstations, literally anywhere that we wanted to. And so we once we secured that equipment, we did actually deploy a backup Center at one of our partners at the mobile common and on Sharon road. And, and we had, you know, use our conference room, their business was closed because of the shutdown that we had going on. So we were able to use our conference room, we stayed there for a good 90 days where we had a secondary center, up and running ready to go if we needed to separate our workforce. And then as they started opening back up, they you know, we obviously wanted to be you know, good partners and just not park there permanently. And so we moved our all of our equipment over to Korean townships administrative complex, and we again deployed a small dispatch center there, where we were able to move off site if we need to, and, and we were we were exercising this at different times where we would have a handful of 911 operators taking the calls from off site, which is something we've never ever done before. So that was that was our short term strategy of being able to if we really needed to separate staff for whatever reason, that we could we could do that and and do it in a manner not to so it's not the impact the the the service levels that we normally, you know, strive to achieve. So that's

Jeff Aluotto  19:27  
a good segue into my next question, Andy, so putting your industry hat on here, and taking it even outside the scope of just the Hamilton County common center. What do you think are some of the lasting impacts on the 911 industry as a whole due to this pandemic?

Andrew Knapp  19:44  
I would say is that the industry as a whole the staffing still lingers in my mind that you can never have enough staff and that, you know, hiring in within your organization has to be a top priority and unfortunately, it's it's a very time can Assuming process, not just from the actual hiring, but then the training when people come on board, you know, it's still a good four to six months before, you know, the the nine one operator Can't you know, ride you know, if you think about how police officers and firefighters are trained, they ride side by side with someone else, when when you answer that call, you're you're live on that call, I mean, there's no one else that can, they can back you up and you can't just you know, sit by and watch. There's extensive training and, and simulation and classroom environment and those things that we're trying to do. And I think that becomes even even more important. The other thing I would say is we were so fortunate in Hamlin County, and that we have developed relationships with all of our responding partners. And, and not just the immediate responders, when you think of, you know, firing emfs and law enforcement, but also like the health collaborative, we're so fortunate in Greater Cincinnati to have health collaborative and that we have a partnership with all of our hospitals and we we interact with each other. The people that we know that are Ms. People transporter one of these hospitals, and it impacts them. And we're able to communicate back and forth. And that's something that we've had in your member, Jeff, from the early days of the Hampton County Emergency association was created, you know, but you were all of the people responsible for some portion of the tri state emergency Association, as Rob was thinking of, and all the folks within a regional basis who are responsible for some portion of emergency responses, they having those relationships in advance I think are just so important. You know, the the cleanliness of your of your building and, and facilities for us has done a phenomenal job of making things available to us and doing the extra cleanings when we needed. And, and then, you know, we had less and less cases of the normal flu that goes around. So the crazy, you know, side effect of this is that, obviously the masks work, the washing your hands work, the you know, all of that that social distancing, all that stuff worked, and we had less cases of the the flu that would normally go around, you know, like probably every workplace deals with that. I think those are the long lasting implications are making sure that you have that technology in advance making sure you have those relationships in advance, and and then exercising them and just constantly being a think tank of trying to think what are other things that what are we missing here? I mean, really, the whole time, very early in this, I kept saying to myself, what are we missing. And when you have that kind of thought you call when your partners I mean, we have good relationships with, you know, Butler County and Clermont county and Warren County, and we would just get ourselves together, and hey, we're doing this, what are you doing? Like, what am I What am I missing and within our organization,

Bridget Doherty  22:44  
right, some of those intrinsic partnerships, you know, especially on the jurisdictional level, because of all the different jurisdictions that you serve, these these folks have limited resources. And before the pandemic hits, commissioners had instituted the sales tax, and a big part of that sales tax was public safety. And it was to keep these the 911 Center fees low for these jurisdictions, correct. So do you think running into into this pandemic has kind of helped with these jurisdictions staying on board and and Future Planning

Andrew Knapp  23:20  
that I think of this is absolutely demonstrated that the need for for this to be a cohesive group of people, and then to act as one and the way to act as one is to be in one. So Had we been so fragmented to where this coordination, you know, would have had been, would have been complicated, by way more way more relationships than it needs to be? The fact that we are able to reduce the the user fee that they cost me there's a there's a cost to any service. And in the number one business said, the equipment that I have to have, it has to be state of the art, it has to be, you know, the the top notch and resilient and redundant and all those things. You know, and it's not just the number one system, it's the radio system is the computer system, it's the the facility, you know, everything that I need, you know, I have to have double and triple of everything. And we didn't need to duplicate that everywhere. So the the commitment that the commissioners made by doing that into public safety absolutely solidified. And the pandemic should be an excellent example of had had we been fragmented. I think this would have been way more complicated. We would have probably had way more of an impact. And, and certainly, the fact that we were not had to lessen the severity there, and there's no question that had an impact on our communities, and we've lost a lot of great people I have. I have people, you know, especially retired folks, retired. Police, you know, officers that I knew, you know, were affected by COVID. And when we lost them, but I think Had we been more fragmented than what we are now and had the commissioners not made that commitment. To keep the fees as low as possible, that allow the municipalities then to in turn, spend more money on their own public safety. And really, that's one of the things Commissioner importune was was very adamant about is that, you know, we will, we will commit to this reduction and trying to help you out, but you need a commitment to your public safety within your own jurisdictions. And and I think everyone understands and appreciates that has done a great job of doing that.

Jeff Aluotto  25:28  
So, so Andy, whenever we talk about 911, and emergency communications, I never want to leave that conversation without sincerely thanking you, and thanking all of the communications officers and the staff who do this on a daily basis. out at our at our Comm. Center. You mentioned earlier in our conversation about the some of the some of the calls that stay with you, you know, over the 30 years of your career, I have not, I'm not a emergency communications professional. But I have had the opportunity over the years in this enrolls county administrator to hear some of the calls that have been taken out of the center. And you're absolutely right. I mean, some of the calls that I've heard, haunt me to this day, and the poise and professionalism with which the the employees out at the communication center, manage these calls. And the degree to which they show compassion to people who are calling on, as you said earlier, the absolute worst day of their lives, is just really to be commended. And so I just never want to leave a conversation about 911 without thanking you and your staff for that, and just a plug, I guess, if I could, you know, if there's folks that are listening to this, this podcast, and if you're thinking about a career choice, that is a really worthwhile public service that you can do that helps people helps your community, I don't know, in public service, any better way to do that than by working in the emergency communications field. So, Andy, with that,

Andrew Knapp  27:14  
Are you hiring? Absolutely. And we are always looking for good quality people. And we do find that some people will think that this is a position they can handle, and they get in and you know, recognize that the commitment that it takes. So absolutely, we're always looking for for good quality people. And you can visit the county's HR website, the communication officer position is the the number one position for Hamilton County. And, in fact, we're looking right now, we're recruiting mode right now, because we are looking to have people start as soon as you know, March 1, and it takes a little while to get through our processes. And nonetheless, you know, we are right now is a perfect time to be looking for that the type of people that that do well, in this that we've we've found, in my experience, believe it or not, waitresses and waiters, I mean, folks that work in restaurant business. And, and I know that that's been one of the businesses really hit by by, you know, COVID because of all the closings, those folks have an unbelievable ability to multitask and to do a variety of things simultaneously. And, you know, they memorize menus, they memorize ingredients, ingredients in preparation methods and things like that. And we're a very similar industry in that you're taking a call one minute for, you know, in a non emergency parking complaint, the next day, you're, you're on a bank robbery, the next minute you're delivering a baby and while you know, every day is not, it doesn't have those extreme highs and extreme lows. The reality is that that's that's the nature of the work environment that we have is there's ups and downs and up and downs and, and it takes a very, very special person. And you're exactly right, Jeff, there are some some unbelievably talented and skilled people that work for us, we're very fortunate to have and especially under these circumstances where you know, you have your own family and the nine one business and public safety in general, it becomes more of a lifestyle than just, you know, a career. I mean, it is a is a career where it becomes more of a lifestyle in that you have to modify your behavior externally, in order to you know, your job is, is you're an absolute essential worker. And so we are we're always on the lookout for a good quality people that want to work in an industry that has a direct day to day impact with with the public. It's a very satisfying career. And I say this, and you've heard me say many public meetings, I am in my dream job. And then and I say that and I don't take that. You know? I'm not kidding when I say that in that. I mean, this is really, I've enjoyed my entire career and this wouldn't trade a minute for the world and it's one of these deals of how do I find the next generation of people We're gonna take this over because quite frankly it's it's not an easy job it's nights holidays, it's weekends, it's, you know all the things that are contrary to what we consider a normal nine to five type of job.

Jeff Aluotto  30:10  
We're trying to recruit here, Andy So,

Andrew Knapp  30:13  
right, I'm with you.

Jeff Aluotto  30:14  
But no seriously in you, you saying that this is your dream job you show it every day in terms of the dedication and passion with what you bring to your job. So I want to thank you, personally for everything you do for Hamilton County. And for you mentioned, the county's website, www dot Hamilton County ohio.gov. For people who want to access the county's website, in particular, the job announcement page if you're interested in working at the Hamilton County communications center. So Andy, thank you. And thanks to everybody for listening to what is Episode Four of heart and hustle in Hamilton County. I want to remind people to subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify and other pages that have the like, you can find the podcast on our website. As I just said Hamilton County ohio.gov on the county administrator's page and I look forward to talking to everyone again on the next edition of heart and hustle in Hamilton County.

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