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911, What's Your Emergency?

During the height of the Covid pandemic, EMS crews were besieged with emergency calls, especially in the downstate New York area – so much so that NON-emergency calls were discouraged (even more than usual).

Aside from local authorities asking folks not to tie up 911 response unnecessarily, many people were simply scared of going to the hospital and possibly being confined without their families being able to visit them. Unfortunately one of the results of that delay in calling meant that some serious conditions, like heart attack and stroke, were not treated early; remember the Chain of Survival in CPR training, “Step 1: Early recognition of the symptoms of cardiac arrest and activation of the emergency response system.” Many people with cardiac emergencies arrived in advanced states which sometimes proved fatal.

However, just as there always have been various non-emergencies called in to 911, there were the sometimes nonsense calls (not just in New York). Some of the weirdest calls made to 911 in the mass of Covid and true health emergencies included calls about running out of toilet paper and asking whether it was safe to visit “non-reputable establishments”. There were several calls from people who heard strangers coughing where 911-operators did ask about contact, location, descriptions and whether the individual was still on scene — due to the nature of the Coronavirus and the possibilities, even remote, of a connection, the dispatchers did take these calls seriously.

Our 911 operators, truly an important facet in first response, had to field an overwhelming amount of questions from mostly scared callers. Folks had genuine concerns over a simple cough since Covid symptoms were linked to coughing and respiratory problems. Even where emergency calls for assistance were made for other than suspected Coronavirus, the operators asked simple questions about the possibility of Covid contact; they did this to better inform and protect emergency responders by letting them know what precautions needed to be taken.

While the 911 call centers were geared for distancing and masks due to Covid, the dispatchers are generally shielded from outside interference and exposure. Their jobs are still stressful under normal situations as they have to often calm callers and get detailed information that they can then relay to responding crews. Many 911 departments were also trained to ask Covid-related pre-screening questions of every caller. Even if the emergency was just a broken leg, for example, the 911 operator still needed to ascertain, as closely as possible, what the responding agency would be walking into and if the crew needed more than the usual PPE.

911-operators have been affected by the Coronavirus outbreak and the increased stress level, just as all first responders have been affected. Dealing with a higher call volume and public panic can affect the emotions of every call taker. The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has resources for all first responders including 911-operators. The resources include online training, critical programs, policies and grants to help with emotional crises.

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