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Could remote dispatching solve 911 comm center staffing shortages, burnout?

The technology, which proved itself during the pandemic, not only helps with employee retention but can ease police departments’ budget constraints

Working from home

Remote work is likely to prove useful during emergencies or when covering shifts on off-hours, and it also saves dispatchers time and money on commuting costs.

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By Bill Campbell

When a 911 center dispatches law enforcement officers to a scene, there’s no such thing as too much information. From knowing which officer is closest to the location to having extensive experience in the intricacies involved in responding to calls to being able to quickly look up and analyze the previous history of the address, information — and time — are of the utmost importance.

But with 82% of communications centers understaffed and 74% of employees plagued by burnout, law enforcement officers on the ground don’t always get the support they need at the time they need it most.

With pressure to swiftly respond to citizens rising, demand for experienced dispatchers increasing and budget constraints hampering police departments’ ability to staff up, there’s never been a more critical time to leverage technology to alleviate the heavy load law enforcement agencies and 911 centers face daily.

By offering flexibility and greater work-life balance, remote dispatching and call taking promotes employee retention, increases job satisfaction, decreases work-related stress and reduces turnover. In addition, it also increases resiliency by distributing workers over a larger area, providing a fail-safe in case of disaster — or pandemic.

When COVID-19 hit the U.S. almost exactly four years ago, many 911 centers didn’t have the infrastructure or technology systems in place to allow for social distancing, let alone handle an outbreak among dispatchers. With pre-pandemic staffing challenges and burnout already in place, something had to give.

To help solve this problem, a major 911 communications center in the Northwest used technology that emphasizes real-time collaboration and interoperability to create a customized solution during the pandemic. An initial “quarantine room” for dispatchers and call takers exposed to COVID quickly transformed into a mobile dispatch center in a customized trailer in the parking lot. From there, the comms center allowed workers to securely log on from home by developing a remote dispatching system.

What could have merely been a stopgap to deal with COVID ended up becoming a lifeline.

Remote dispatching allowed the center to have extra employees on standby at home during busy periods, reducing the need to bring them in for an entire shift, all without affecting response times. After years of testing, remote dispatching helped one experienced employee move across the country to work remotely, allowing the center to retain a highly skilled call taker who rents a dedicated, secure office space with high-speed internet to ensure proper connectivity.

Moving forward, remote work is likely to prove useful during emergencies or when covering shifts on off-hours, and it also saves dispatchers time and money on commuting costs. Even more importantly, it offers a unique opportunity to expand the talent pool of highly qualified dispatchers who may not be within commuting distance of a centralized communications center. As remote dispatching reduces the need for comms center infrastructure — and the associated large overhead costs, such as building maintenance, utilities and expensive equipment — it could also provide police departments with the additional budget they desperately need to get more officers on the street and allow more flexibility in their own work shifts.

As for dealing with potential regulatory, security and communications challenges, the communications center installs — and frequently audits — all equipment and hardware in the homes of dispatchers and call takers with the latest security parameters to avoid unauthorized access. The center uses virtual private networks, or VPNs, to run all software on virtual servers so nothing sensitive is saved on an employee’s home workstation. In addition, communication between remote and non-remote workers poses no challenge. Regardless of whether they’re sitting two feet or 20 miles apart from each other, comms center workers all use the same app to communicate with each other and first responders while simultaneously taking calls.

With today’s mapping technology, there’s less pressure for dispatchers to be intimately familiar with every neighborhood in their coverage area. Dispatchers can know what’s going on in any given neighborhood thanks to the powerful technology they use every day.

Working for a 911 center is a mission-based job that, while demanding and stressful, provides an incredible sense of purpose. Remote dispatching expands the ability to draw more purpose-driven people into this line of work, benefitting public safety — and countless lives — in the process.

About the author

Bill Campbell is senior vice president for Hexagon’s Safety, Infrastructure & Geospatial division, leading the Americas region and the global public safety business.