Recently, the team at Rave Mobile Safety hosted a webinar discussing the top public safety challenges of the past year, how the challenges were overcome, and what new practices evolved out of overcoming the challenges.
The webinar starts with Rave’s Noah Reiter introducing the agenda and the two panelists who feature throughout the webinar – Angela Stewart, the Emergency Communications Operations Manager for Burke County, North Carolina, and Dan Morden, the Central Dispatch Director for Gratiot County in Michigan – both of whom run large scale emergency dispatch operations 24/7.
Noah then asks Angela and Dan about the primary challenges they have experienced over the past twelve months, and it is not surprising they are dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic – Angela explaining that the nature of operations changed due to her center becoming the EOC for the county, while one of Dan’s biggest challenges was convincing people in his mostly rural jurisdiction that the pandemic was a genuine public health crisis.
Both panelists acknowledged that the nature of calls to 911 changed due to factors such as fewer cars being on the street, more people spending time at home, and stores being closed. However, changes also had to be made to how calls were handled to minimize personnel exposure to COVID-19. Many more requests for assistance were managed over the phone, while those that involved property visits were subject to pre-visit screening protocols.
The two panelists also discussed new practices that evolved out of the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly in relation to staffing. Dan – who at one stage experienced below minimum staffing levels due to infection and self-isolation – had to implement contingency scheduling and establish mutual aid agreements with surrounding counties, while Angela had to develop an on-call schedule to maintain a minimum of five call dispatchers at all times.
Other Public Safety Challenges Experienced by the Panelists
While the COVID-19 pandemic was ongoing, the two panelists experienced several other public safety challenges – not least the 2020 presidential elections and subsequent disturbances by groups of individuals who did not believe the result. Dan commented in the webinar that, in the immediate aftermath of the election, messages from the governor’s office were treated with skepticism, so his office used 911 public communication channels to build trust and restore peace.
Angela’s office also used public communication channels during post-election protests to support public safety. She found that sending county-wide, multi-channel messaging through the Rave Alert platform enabled people to more easily avoid areas in which civil disturbances were taking place and gave them a route through which they could report crimes connected to the civil unrest. However, this wasn’t the only uses for the Rave Alert platform during this period.
As the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic struck, both Dan and Angela were able to use the platform’s messaging capabilities to inform staff and the general public when new rules were introduced, when testing stations were open, and when vaccines were available. The opportunity to get information out quickly and accurately via SMS was “fantastic” according to Angela, while Dan commented being able to send multi-modal messages via a single platform was an advantage.
Both panelists also mentioned the mental toll events were having on staff at the dispatch centers and first responders and that morale is at an all-time low. Burnout has become a big problem with staffing, and although the issue is easing with the increased availability of vaccines and a fall in the rate of infection, the wellbeing of staff – and particularly their mental health – is something Dan and Angela will continue to prioritize through 2021.
Emergency Communication and Public Safety Trust
Noah continues the webinar by raising the topic of emergency communication and public safety trust – the subject of a survey conducted by Rave in February 2021. Noel comments that the findings of the survey support what each of the panelists have mentioned about communications from some public sources not being trusted by the public, unless they relate to issues the public is more concerned about – such as the weather. He asks each of the panelists if this is their experience.
Angela agrees wholeheartedly that weather alerts are taken more seriously by the public in Burke County, where violent thunderstorms and extreme tornados are a frequent event. Angela comments that her office not only uses Rave Alert to send county-wide severe weather alerts to communities, but also to let residents know her office is aware of fallen trees and power outages to prevent the dispatch office being overwhelmed by a flood of incoming 911 calls.
Dan, nodding in agreement with Angela’s comments, adds that Gratiot County uses Rave Alert as a conduit for weather warnings issued by the National Weather Service. He believes people take more notice of the weather alerts because the National Weather Service is a non-partisan organization that bases its warnings on science. Furthermore, whereas people were doubtful about the threat of COVID-19 in the early days, people have experienced the consequences of severe weather.
Noel feels the takeaway from what’s been discussed in this section is that public agencies should know who their trusted channels are and leverage them for the most important announcements. Alternatively, he suggests, public agencies should run important announcements through as many channels as possible because some people will believe the output from some channels, whereas other people may need the reassurance of receiving warnings from multiple non-partisan sources.
Attendee Poll Reveals Top Public Safety Concern
To start the next section of the webinar, Noah asks webinar attendees to take part in a quick poll to determine the top public safety concerns. The choices attendees are requested to select from were:
- Severe weather and natural disasters
- Responding to individuals with mental/behavioral health issues
- Protecting soft targets such as schools and malls
Dan is not surprised attendees rate responding to individuals higher than severe weather, because severe weather happens and there is not a lot we can do to mitigate severe weather events; whereas as a community there is plenty we can do to help individuals in crisis. In Gratiot County, he says, the emergency office frequently uses Rave Alert to distribute the details of mental health helplines, as one early intervention can eliminate one more call to 911.
Angela feels that, in her jurisdiction, overdoses are the top public safety challenge of the moment. Although she accepts some overdose cases may be attributable to mental health issues (Burke County has recently introduced a mobile health crisis team), Angela believes the issue previously existed, but has been exacerbated by the pandemic due to people losing their jobs, having less money to support their families, and spending more time at home.
Getting Public Attention Can Also be Challenging
Due to the amount of content packed into the webinar, there was only time for one question at the end of the discussion. The question related to the strategies the panelists are using to get public attention with everything that’s happening right now. Angela said she found the multi-modal capabilities of Rave Alert enabled her team to get consistent messaging distributed through SMS, social media, and roadside digital signage.
Dan added it was also the content of the messaging that mattered inasmuch as if you warn the public that a storm is on its way, it’s just a piece of information for them to absorb; whereas if to advise the public to prepare for an incoming storm, it is an actionable message that will attract greater public attention. Dan suggests that, in messages of this nature, people are looking for direction from a trusted source.
You can watch the full webinar today.