A pandemic. Civil unrest. Wildfires. It’s been a historic year for San Mateo County’s Public Safety Communications 9-1-1 dispatchers since moving into the new call center at the Regional Operations Center in Redwood City just over one year ago.
The San Mateo County Board of Supervisors presented a proclamation at its April 6 meeting designating April 11-17 as Public Safety Dispatchers Week as part of National Public Safety Telecommunications Week.
This year’s celebration is a significant one, falling on the heels of the one-year anniversary of moving into the new call center and the first shelter-in-place order on March 16, 2020, when call volume for 9-1-1 dispatchers increased significantly. A high call volume continues today with 800+ calls a day, roughly 200 more calls than the communications center usually received on any given pre-pandemic day.
Calls today, however, are less about where to get tested and what businesses are allowed to stay open and more on vaccine questions, mental health crisises, and needing general medical assistance, especially as more people are on the roads since the state of California lifted its stay-at-home order statewide on Jan 25, 2021.
Dispatchers say resources like the 2-1-1 call center, www.smcgov.org, social media posts, and public service announcements continue to make a difference in decreasing the number of calls to the center.
Protocol inside the call center has also stayed the course over the past year. Increased cleaning, mask wearing, taking temperatures, and rearranging desks to enable social distancing continues to keep everyone healthy. Employees who have the ability to telework are doing so, but call takers and dispatchers remain on site. The Center is still off-limits to anyone who is not on-duty personnel or has an essential purpose to visit.
Dispatchers also say time spent on each call roughly remains the same since last year, due to the COVID-19 screening protocol that was first implemented by the call center on Feb. 6, 2020, to ask callers about recent travel and flu-like symptoms to prepare paramedics, firefighters and law enforcement partners.
Call volume was particularly high last summer not only due to air quality issues and the fires in South County, but also after the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis which sparked protests across the United States, including on the Peninsula. When the County of San Mateo imposed a nighttime curfew on June 2 to help prevent looting and civil unrest by those taking advantage of the situation, the call center fielded 1,888 calls over a two-day period.
"Last year was a very challenging year both personally and professionally for our dispatchers and call takers. Despite the volume of work and personal hardships some experienced due to COVID-19 with their own families, everyone showed up every day to serve others, and I couldn't be more proud of the resiliency and flexibility of our team," said Natasha Claire-Espino, interim public safety communications director. "They are extraordinary people. We survived 2020 which presented many historic challenges, and as the first first responders, we are ready to take on 2021 no matter what comes our way, we are here for San Mateo County."