Nobody’s here: How to stem the impending public safety staffing crisis

Two options include work-from-home dispatchers and using data to drive staffing decisions


By Bruce J. Moeller, PhD

It is not just a fear. There is science behind this.

The fields of epidemiology and infectious diseases are offering fire and EMS leaders a basis for their fears, based on a body of science that helps us understand what is lurking around the corner.

The county’s public safety radio and technology division has prepared an innovative solution: Allow those who are trained and able to do so to work from home – that’s right, radio dispatchers working from home! (Photo/Getty Images)
The county’s public safety radio and technology division has prepared an innovative solution: Allow those who are trained and able to do so to work from home – that’s right, radio dispatchers working from home! (Photo/Getty Images)

In the article “American Hospital Capacity and Projected Need for COVID-19 Patient Care,” published in Health Affairs, the authors estimated that over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, in the U.S. alone, 98,876,254 individuals will be infected, 20,598,725 will likely require hospitalization and 4,430,245 individuals will need ICU-level care. Under this scenario (and let’s face it, that is a responsible way to plan for this), you may show up to work one day and find out nobody else is there.

In emergency services, that’s not much of an option.

I have been talking with some colleagues who have come up with some interesting solutions to that potential crisis. It seems like a good time to share at least two ideas.

1. 911 and dispatch: Work from home

In my most recent government job as executive director for public safety services in Pinellas County, Florida (pop. 970,637), I was fortunate to have some very smart people running our mission critical programs. Among them were the people responsible for the countywide primary PSAP, fire-rescue dispatch, and the technology that supports it.

If you run a 911 dispatch center, you already know that staffing has been an ongoing problem, with annual attrition rates of 15%-20% being common. The dispatch managers we speak with are increasingly concerned that today’s problems will become unmanageable as existing staff become infected with COVID-19 and, at a minimum, become quarantined at home for 14-days or more.

The county’s public safety radio and technology division has prepared an innovative solution: Allow those who are trained and able to do so to work from home – that’s right, radio dispatchers working from home!

Born from their experience of placing a dedicated dispatcher in a mobile command center during special events, they assembled several radio dispatch “go-bags” with laptop, radio, headset, associated equipment and detailed instructions. Though isolated, a trained radio operator could handle dispatch/radio services from their home if needed.

This contingency has been assembled, tested and personnel trained. Pinellas County is fortunate, as its CAD system is owned and supported by a team of in-house technology specialists, allowing for greater responsiveness and the rapid customization needed for this initiative.

2. Frontline operations: Anticipate needs

The very risks that threaten our ability to staff the 911 center will also affect frontline first responders. Many agencies have specific performance requirements – often response time targets defined by contract or adopted under an accreditation process. As the pandemic expands, so will the workload and time on task needed to complete a single patient interaction. Coupled with a decreasing staff pool, the overall results will likely lead to a degradation from current performance levels.

Our normal work with agencies often includes an assessment of the relative contribution each station or unit makes toward the overall workload and achievement of performance targets. Some of agencies are using this same analysis, which can be used during times of extraordinary stress to make smart resource decisions, like how best to use the available staff to deploy the most productive units.

If you’ve done this analysis prior, simply review your prior work to help make decisions that have the least impact on current operations. If you never completed this type of analysis, look for resources now that can help you develop alternative scenarios based on available staff and anticipate demand driven by the emerging threat within your community.

Keep communicating

It has been stated that necessity is the mother of innovation. Some folks have a gift for seeing opportunities. Others (including myself) must rely on others to provide inspiration. After many years leading various organizations through major incidents, I recognize the tendency to narrow one’s focus – perhaps even becoming myopic – to the point of failing to keep in touch with colleagues and professional organizations who may offer the inspiration we seek. I have fallen into that trap several times.

To avoid this dilemma, share what works for you. Share what may not work for you, but that which you believe is possible in another setting. And finally, keep in touch with those around you, and allow the inspiration to find the innovation you to address our fears.

About the author

Bruce Moeller is a senior consultant with Fitch & Associates with extensive experience in both the fire service, and city and county management. He served as fire chief in multiple departments, including Broward County, Florida, and later was city manager in Sunrise, Florida, and executive director for safety and emergency services in Pinellas County, Florida. He can be reached at bmoeller@fitchassoc.com.

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