“In every major event, there is an opportunity for change, and the major event we are experiencing today is giving us the opportunity to change,” said Renee Gordon, Director for the Department of Emergency Communications, Alexandria, Virginia.
Renee sums up what she and Bob Bloom, the Department’s Public Safety Systems Administrator, have done to protect staff during COVID-19. Both have been serving communities for over 30 years and realize they have the opportunity to turn this major event into something better. Together, and with the help of many, they have enabled call takers to work from home.
The City is among the first to provide technology for staff to work remotely to accommodate social distancing rules, while ensuring 9-1-1 continuity. To do so, the department is using Motorola Solutions’ VESTA® CommandPOST, an offsite solution for the VESTA® 9-1-1 system.
“What’s important is that it has the same functionality as the system our call takers use in the center,” said Renee. “That makes the call taker comfortable, which makes all the difference.”
Bob points out that the screen for VESTA CommandPOST is also the same, which includes access to their CAD system, RapidSOS data and more, which is a big plus. “They are working in a different environment, and not with everyone. So having the screen, the buttons, the functionality all the same makes the learning curve minimal.”
The Process to Make It Happen
In January, Bob recalls, Renee called him while watching the news about the virus in China. She believed it would get to the U.S. and said we need to be prepared and able to have people work from home. “We had the VESTA CommandPOST solutions for back-up,” said Bob, “and I thought why not set one up and test it?”
At first, they took only admin calls. “It worked,” said Bob, “but we weren’t 100% convinced. So we kept testing.”
When they put VESTA CommandPOST in call takers’ homes, they were particular about the set-up to ensure everything was correct. They even put numbers on each of the cables to indicate where each one goes in case they have to be moved. They wanted to make sure each call taker has what they need for success.
In addition to those working from home, they have people at the primary center, as well as the back-up center and at a remote site, adequately separated for social distancing. Then, if any location were to be affected by the pandemic, it would be contained to those staff, ensuring the department’s ability to serve its community. “The main thing,” said Renee, “is we had to find a way to keep our staff healthy because without them, we can’t run the center.”
The Initial Reaction and Plans Moving Forward
Bob and Renee report some initial resistance at first. People were skeptical, but Renee didn’t see that as a negative. In fact, she found it the opposite. “You need that person to push back and say, ‘no it can’t happen,’ because that gets you thinking how you can make it happen.”
Call takers were also hesitant at first, but once they started using the technology, it began to feel normal. They also rely on the phone intercom to stay in touch. “These are the most dedicated group of people,” said Renee. “They never fail to show up.”
Renee believes working from home is making a positive impact on retention. “We said we would never have call takers working from home and here we are. They save on gas, on time getting to and from work, and mentally, they have more opportunity to relax. We expect less sick leave and are already experiencing that. In this job, sometimes you just don’t feel like being around people. You need a mental break and working from home can help with that.” The ability to work remotely is a point Renee will make in her next recruitment announcement. It’s here to stay because of the difference it makes.
“It was a leap of faith that turned out great,” said Bob. “The only limits are the ones you set on yourself. The technology is here. Stop thinking you can’t do it. We worked through every roadblock. Test, test, test, and go for it. Make it known to your people and let them know it will work.”
Bob is getting calls from agencies across the country considering remote work and wanting to know how they made this happen. Bob and Renee say they couldn’t have achieved what they did without the support of so many people, including the City Manager and their network vendor, Carousel.
Moving forward, the long-term goal is to rotate people to give everyone the opportunity to work from home. Renee believes permanent offsite locations are important to ensure the center is always prepared to uphold the safety of citizens.
Motorola Solutions is committed to adapting technology to support PSAPs’ changing needs. To learn more about our new 9-1-1 Offsite Portfolio for the CallWorks CallStation and VESTA 9-1-1 solutions, including VESTA CommandPOST, visit us at Motorola Solutions Emergency Call Handling.