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Indiana 911 board prepares for increase in call volume

Posted at 7:52 AM, Apr 16, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-16 07:52:08-04

INDIANAPOLIS — Indiana State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell says there is no guarantee we will see a rise in 911 calls when the COVID-19 surge occurs, but if we do see a higher call volume, dispatch centers are ready for it.

Hot spots like New York City experienced close to a 100% increase in call volume during the COVID-19 surge periods. While the Indiana Statewide 911 board does not expect a quantity of that magnitude, they are preparing for the potential of an increase in the coming weeks.

Indiana State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell is the Chair of the Statewide 911 Board. She's the only treasurer in the country that runs her state's 911 operations. Mitchell says Indiana is unique in the way its 911 system operates. The board is made up of sheriffs, commissioners, telecom companies and 911 center directors. It's their job to ensure that your call gets to the correct county so you can get the help you need as quickly as possible.

"It works extremely well in Indiana," said Mitchell, "We're able to be very nimble, very responsive to changes in technology and adapting to situations like this because of the structure that we have here."

In recent weeks, there has been a decrease in 911 call volume due to Governor Holcomb's stay-at-home order. However, the board and dispatch centers are anticipating that could change at any moment. The team has turned their attention to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact it could have on their 911 system.

"We don't want to experience what other cities have experienced, which is a backup of calls, or of people waiting for help or for transportation," said Mitchell.

One of the main courses of action by the board has been ensuring that each county dispatch center has another county prepared to take over should a center go down for any reason.

Jeff Schemmer, who is the Executive Director of Public Safety Communications for Hamilton County, says if a dispatcher starts to show coronavirus symptoms, it could mean a center may not be able to run for a length of time, especially in smaller counties with fewer staff members. That's why this backup plan is necessary.

"So if numbers start dropping as far as employees go, and then we need help picking up phone calls, we've made arrangements with other counties for them to pick up our 911 calls should that happen," said Schemmer.

Schemmer says before the pandemic each county had 'handshake agreements' with others to help out if needed, but now that it's official and counties are assigned, everything will transition smoothly if the backup is necessary.

Marion County has multiple other county dispatch centers that will take its calls if it were to go down due to its high call volume.

Schemmer says safety measures have been implemented at the local level at each dispatch center in the hopes of avoiding the need to use this backup plan. In Hamilton County, around 15 dispatchers work each shift. Typically all those telecommunicators would work in the same building, but right now, they have divided that staff. Half of them are working in the main facility, and half are working in a backup facility.

"This is to keep people from spreading germs and keep that social distance. We have the same people working in whatever building they're assigned to each shift," said Schemmer.

It's also a way to protect the dispatch center from completely closing. If a person from one facility starts to show COVID-19 symptoms, and those who work nearby are also told to quarantine, they have the other facility that can continue to take calls.

"That kind of work has been going on all over the state," said Mitchell.

Dispatchers have also adjusted some of their routines to keep first responders safe.

"When this started increasing, we added to our protocols to ask additional questions. If someone had been out of the country or if they were experiencing any of the symptoms so we could inform first responders prior to them arriving," said Schemmer.

The 911 Board is encouraging citizens to take advantage of some of the tools available in our state.

One of those is "Smart 911," a software that was implemented last year. Smart 911 can be accessed through a website or through an app. It allows you to create a profile with information like health issues or preexisting conditions. Users can also input their cell phone number and match it to their home address. Personal profiles are entirely secure in a database. Your information will only appear in front of a dispatcher if you call 911.

Schemmer says the tool has been beneficial, "80 to 83 percent of my 911 calls that come in are from cell phones, and that does not provide us the address of the individual. It doesn't tell us who they are; it just gives us a call back number, and that's if it's what we call Phase 2. This software will allow them to connect their cell phone number to their home address, so if they call in, even if they are not at home, it shows us on the map with quite a bit of accuracy where they are located. So it helps us get to an individual faster."

They're also using a program called "Brave Alert," which is part of the Smart 911 profile. Brave Alert allows users to share more information with first responders.

"So if somebody should test positive or could've potentially been exposed, they can enter that information so when they call 911 we have that automatically come up so we can give that to emergency responders," said Schemmer.

Additionally, dispatch center staff are receiving updates on needs and changes in their individual counties. Many dispatch center directors are involved in daily briefings with county leaders. One crucial update Schemmer is receiving in Hamilton County is bed counts for local hospitals. This information will be vital during the peak of Covid-19 when it comes to directing first responders who are transporting patients.

"There is the possibility of what they call diversion. This is where, if a hospital gets overloaded, the ambulance crew or fire department responding on the EMS call may not transport somebody to the hospital they normally would. So there is the potential that we'll be involved in the fact that they will notify us that a hospital is full just so we have that heads up," said Schemmer.

Treasurer Mitchell is also reminding Hoosiers of resources like to text 911. Mitchell says this can be especially helpful if someone is experiencing shortness of breath.

"We want to make sure that every Hoosier that needs help gets it absolutely as soon as possible in the best way possible. So we are doing everything we can behind the scenes. We really hope we are over-prepared, but in case this happens, we're ready," said Mitchell.

For more information on Smart 911 follow this link: https://www.smart911.com/