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Heroes on call: Dispatchers double down on duties during pandemic

From left, Dave Blevins, dispatcher at the Austintown Township Communications Center; Steve Sinn, dispatch supervisor; and Gina Cackovic, dispatcher are shown in the center Friday. The center dispatches for Austintown police and fire, Milton police and fire, Craig Beach police, Ellsworth fire, the Mahoning County Sheriff’s Office and the Mahoning County Dog Warden. The center is attached to the Austintown Police Department. Staff photo / Ed Runyan

AUSTINTOWN — 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 firefighters to house fires — are twice as vigilant during the coronavirus pandemic.

The 911 dispatchers in centers in the Mahoning Valley 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.

In order 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 Steve Sinn, dispatching supervisor at the Austintown Township Communications Center.

Dispatchers also are changing 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. The information helps first responders take proper precautions, on top of the measures they already take, Sinn said.

In order to maintain the privacy rights of those who are infected, dispatching centers are taking other steps, too. Sinn said they have come up with a code word to communicate over the radio to all first responders to get the information, without revealing on the airwaves which home may have people infected.

“We came up with a covert code to use on the air with first responders. The radio code is to protect privacy,” Sinn said.

NO MORE CPR?

But there is a bit of a dark side in the way the virus has changed human interaction: People are not giving CPR anymore, at least not the traditional format that involves mouth-to-mouth contact.

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 hands-only CPR is available at https://cpr.heart.org/en/cpr-courses-and-kits/hands-only-cpr.

The 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/coronavirus-prevention-information-for-students.

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

∫ If you are uncomfortable or haven’t been trained to perform traditional CPR, have someone call 911 and start Hands-Only CPR (continuous chest compressions without any mouth to mouth contact) until someone else takes over or emergency help arrives;

∫ Use protective gloves, if available.

TAKING PRECAUTIONS

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, Sinn said.

“National Telecommunicators Week is once a year to recognize 911 dispatchers and call takers. They are kind of the forgotten public safety group, but we try to show them our appreciation and remind them they are a doing a good job. They are still coming into work everyday and not making excuses. We are proud of our staff for dealing with all of the changes,” Sinn said.

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

There are backup plans for dispatching locations in both counties, said Maggie Magee, director of Mahoning County 911. If there were a center where dispatchers were getting sick — there isn’t in the Valley — shifts can be covered because there is backup equipment in both counties that use the same software for ease of transition.

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

In Austintown, shifts were changed from five eight-hour shifts a week to four 10-hour shifts each week, so there is less changeover throughout the day, Sinn said. Desks have been spread out, and the same people are using the same stations.

“They all have their own phones and they can plug into the port where ever they are the most comfortable. We want them to feel as comfortable as possible. They are the first line of defense no matter what happens, they are the first line,” Magee said.

Masks and gloves are offered, but not required.

“We are lucky to have the space and room, and to have the other neighboring locations. We are working with Boardman, updating each other on staffing plans in place in case we need to switch up operations. It makes it easier to interchange operations if we have to,” Sinn said.

And, the centers continue required reporting and upgrades, Magee said. Sinn said dispatchers have adapted well.

CALL VOLUME

The dispatch centers in Mahoning County have noticed a lower call volume.

Sinn estimates his center has seen a 30 to 50 percent reduction in calls, but has seen an increase in medical calls.

“I would say there is a slight increase on medical calls related to the virus, or not. A lot of people are being a little more cautious if they have symptoms. But even with the slight influx, our overall call volume is down. I think that can be attributed to everyone staying at home. There are not as many cars on the road. People aren’t going to the stores or taking their normal commutes, so accidents aren’t happening. And, there are fewer traffic enforcement stops to reduce face-to-face contact,” Sinn said.

Magee said she thinks people are choosing not to call 911 and tie up responders because they understand how serious the pandemic is.

rfox@tribtoday.com

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