911 dispatcher working from home (FirstNet.gov)

How 911 dispatchers can work from home

In Alexandria, Va., 911 dispatchers are taking calls and handling operations from their homes using FirstNet’s network, hotspots and smartphones.

The remote dispatchers are using a laptop, headset and smartphone, FirstNet hotspot, a mobile router and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software, according to a FirstNet blog post. The hotspot ensures remote dispatchers will not lose connectivity “if all hell breaks loose,” said Renee Gordon, the city’s director of Department of Emergency & Customer Communications. 

Although there had been concerns about moving dispatchers to remote work, the COVID-19 crisis spurred officials into action. “We’ve had this equipment but never used it, and it’s been in the back of our minds that we need to explore this technology,” Gordon said. “We did a lot of testing. Probably why others aren’t using it is because it’s scary. What happens if the call drops?”

After three phases of planning and testing, the remote capability went live March 6. For the first month, the remote workers answered non-emergency calls from home until they were sure the system worked well enough to handle 911 calls as well.

Home-based dispatchers access the department’s CAD system remotely via a connection to a laptop set up at their normal dispatching position at the 911 center. “It’s the same as what they have in the center, just a shrunken-down version,” said Bob Bloom, the public safety systems administrator. “They have RapidSOS, Smart911 and all the buttons at their fingertips. We put a talk group for 311 and 911 on the phones so it’s like being back in the center where you can share information.”

The remote call-takers and dispatchers work their regular 12-hour shifts, handling the same call volume as they did before the coronavirus outbreak. “Overall, they seem pretty happy with it,” he said. 

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