[Updated 2:30 p.m Nov. 17, 2020: Shortly after this piece was published on Tuesday afternoon, the city of Bloomington announced that two additional dispatchers, for a total of four, have been diagnosed with COVID-19.]
On Monday, the city of Bloomington reported three additional employees had been added to the tally of city workers who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since the pandemic hit Monroe County, bringing the total to 20.
Two of them are dispatchers who answer 911 calls at the central emergency dispatch center that serves the area both inside and outside the city.
According to Monday’s press release, one dispatcher was tested last Friday (Nov. 13) after being in quarantine for five days after first showing symptoms. Close work contacts of that employee have been alerted, according to the release.
The other dispatcher was tested Wednesday (Nov. 11) and was quarantining since first having symptoms the day before. No close work contacts were identified for that employee, according to the release.
In light of the ongoing challenge to fill open positions at the dispatch center, which is already understaffed, The Square Beacon asked Bloomington police chief Mike Diekhoff how the department will approach covering for the two sick dispatchers.
Diekhoff said the department will still be able to maintain adequate coverage of the center.
Part of the strategy that could be used is a contingency plan involving Indiana University’s police department, which has its own dispatch center, Diekhoff said. A combination of moving staff from one dispatch center to the other, and simply transferring phone lines, is part of the contingency plans that have been in place for years, he said.
As an example of a partial implementation of that contingency, Diekhoff gave the temporary relocation of dispatchers to IU dispatch while the central dispatch facility was being disinfected after the two dispatchers received their positive COVID-19 diagnoses.
In mid-October, a dispatcher sounded the alarm on Reddit about a staffing “crisis” at the 911 center, saying that the center had lost nine of its 25 staff members in the previous 3 months.
Mandatory overtime was being imposed on dispatchers to make up for short staffing, according to the post on Reddit.
Based on the data available in Bloomington’s online financial system, The Square Beacon was able to confirm that of the 25 full-time telecommunicators who received a paycheck at the start of the year, at least seven didn’t receive a paycheck for the first payroll distribution in November.
Based on payroll data, dispatch center staffing as of early November looks like it’s sitting at 24. [Updated 3:30 p.m. Nov. 17, 2020: Diekhoff told The Square Beacon that there are six open positions, four out with COVID-19, and 15 working dispatchers.]
Asked about the dispatch center’s’ staffing situation in October, Diekhoff told The Square Beacon that he did not consider it a crisis, but allowed that it is a problem. “We are working on it… It is a problem, because we’re not fully staffed—it’s just like the police department. We’re not fully staffed, which creates stressors on everybody.”
In the context of a recent community effort in Bloomington to reconsider local approaches to policing and public safety, dispatchers could wind up making judgments about what resource to send to a call. It’s possible that non-sworn, social workers might be asked to respond to some kinds of calls.
When asked in October about the ability of the dispatch center’s ability to respond in a different way to some kinds of calls, Diekhoff told The Square Beacon, “I believe our dispatch center will be able to handle whatever changes are suggested in how we assign calls.” Diekhoff added, “In some ways it might be easier and require less monitoring of a situation. In others it might require more.”
Diekhoff wrapped up by saying, “We will have to see what recommendations come forward and how that will impact [dispatch] operations, but I am confident they will be able to rise to the challenge of change.”