Have you noticed any differences in the calls you’re answering during the pandemic?
At first we had a reduced call volume because fewer people were out doing things. Most people were staying home and flattening the curve. But since we’re starting to open our parks and beaches, we are seeing calls pick back up again.
Some callers worry they have the virus because of what they’ve heard about symptoms. Others may realize the additional questions are linked to the symptoms and then say, “Oh, I don’t have the virus, I tested negative.” Others may ask, “Does this mean I have the virus?” Then some callers take a simple inquiry as an accusation. Of course, we’re not accusing anyone of having anything, but we have to ask about it. Every call has an underlying tone of fear.
I have also noticed a lot more mental health-related calls. With this pandemic, I’ve taken a few suicide-related calls. That’s really hard. While that’s still the minority, I’m seeing more of it than I used to. It’s very indicative of how everyone feels.
How are you determining what constitutes an emergency at this time?
When you call 911, my job is never to decide who gets help and who doesn’t. We decide the level of the emergency based on the answers you give over the phone. Then that determines the amount of personnel and/or the equipment we need to send, and whether or not you’re going to get an ambulance with sirens and more EMTs.
A caller can change their mind during the call, but we aren’t going to sway them to do so. Unless they say something to the effect of, “Actually, I’ll just call back if it gets worse,” anyone who indicates a medical need is sent an ambulance.
What’s the atmosphere like at work right now? How are you and your team coping?
It’s definitely a different energy. We have a hard time—the face masks make it hard to talk. I don’t think people realize we work in a loud environment. Every time a call rings in at 911, the phone rings around the room and comes through our speakers until it drops into a line. There’s always background noise. But we can’t see each other’s mouths with our masks on, so we’re having a tough time communicating. It’s an added stress level.
It was recently Cinco de Mayo and normally we would have a potluck, but now we can’t do that. That was very noteworthy to us because as dispatchers, there’s not much you can do together in a 24-hour call center. Every team bonding experience we have revolves around food. All you can really do is have a potluck, so it was very weird not being able to come together.
The good thing is we are all communicators to some degree so that’s what we do. We talk about our calls with each other. If I hear a colleague taking a really rough call, I can look over and check in with them. The team morale is strong. We’re leaning on that solidarity and familiarity with each other. But we’re also trying hard not to overwhelm anybody because we are all facing extra stress in our own personal lives.
If someone needed to call 911 right now, what would you want them to know?
The most important thing to know when you call 911 is that there is a reason for every question we’re asking you. If we are asking you something it means we absolutely have to. It’s not because we don’t like you or because we’re deciding whether or not we’re going to help you. It’s my job to ask questions and ask them verbatim the way they are written in order to help you as best as possible.
It really makes me sad that my callers are worried that they won’t get the help that they need. They’re convinced they won’t get help if they answer a question a certain way but I’m trying to convey the opposite. It’s not making me sad to the point where I won’t do it, but it nags at me. It’s terrible that you need help and you’re worried.
In general, I can feel the difference in the way people are feeling right now and that makes it harder. But the good thing is that I have people at the end of a call who say things like: “Thank you so much for what you are doing on the front lines. We know you have more important things to do.” But I don’t. Every single call I take is important.