BELOIT — Like seemingly every workplace, the Rock County Communications Center adapted to ensure operations continued through the COVID-19 pandemic as dispatchers eye the future with optimism as an expansion of the facility is on the horizon.
In 2020, Director Kathy Sukus said the center shifted its work model to allow for half of emergency dispatchers to work from a temporary location at the Rock County Highway Department.
“We really shifted everything to make sure we were making it the safest possible environment for our staff,” Sukus said. “If we are impacted, it could effect the entire county. The residents rely on our team to make sure we are ready and able to do our important jobs.”
April 11—17 in National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, and local dispatchers and 911 Center staff have been showing how flexible and dedicated they can be especially during challenging times.
Dispatchers adapted to ever-changing guidelines early on in the pandemic, from shifting procedures to even adapting a basic screening questionnaire for all 911 and non-emergency calls that required first responders to make contact with residents.
The center also received pandemic grant funding that allowed for the purchase of highly-secured remote work stations for call takers to securely answer 911 calls.
In May of 2020, all dispatchers had returned to working at the Rock County Communications Center with adjusted work stations aimed at social distancing and infection control.
Sukus confirmed the center had a small number of COVID-19 positive employees, but stressed none of the infections occurred from within the center.
“None of our shifts had a major impact there,” Sukus said. “The protocols we had in place worked and everyone is committed to them. We’re in this together and we’re a team. It really takes everyone.”
Sukus noted that over 70% of the center’s nearly 50 employees were vaccinated against COVID-19.
For veteran and beginner telecommunications staff alike, 2020 was a unique and challenging year.
Early on, dispatchers said calls for service decreased before spiking drastically as most emergency responses seemed to have a COVID-19-related element.
Dana Geister, who started with the center in 1999, has seen it all—except a pandemic.
“The year was quite different in that we were dealing with a pandemic,” Geister said. “The nature of the calls were different. We started with very few COVID-19 patients, then it was a lot of COVID-19 related illnesses. It was really different.”
Geister, a Beloit native and current resident, said everyone at the center adapted to help service Rock County residents.
“I think one of the things you tend to notice is how quickly people in the position are able to adapt to these crisis situations,” he added.
For rookie telecommunicator Amanda Rusch, who started in January of this year, pandemic safety guidelines and procedures are all she’s known while on the job.
“We do way more than I initially thought,” Rusch said. “The access to technology and the systems we have are incredible. It’s really awesome. Everyone is friendly and we’re all there to help each other out. Everyone’s been really welcoming for new people like myself.”
Rusch reminded residents to remember that dispatchers and communicators aren’t just voices on the other end of the phone.
“We’re here to help everyone,” Rusch said. “We’re part of our community and have an important role to play in ensuring quality emergency responses for residents in Rock County.”
In late summer, the communications center is set to undergo an 1,100 square-foot expansion to add the county’s IT department in the building, while also making improvements to the center for telecommunicators.
The main staging area where calls are answered will be updated to include new office furniture, along with a supervisory space that allows central access for assisting all employees. The space will also be modified to add additional training rooms and a quiet area for call takers and dispatchers should the need arise following graphic calls.
A bit further into the future, the county is also making incremental strides towards joining the Next Generation 911 system that will allow for various technological advances in emergency responses, from text and video media to be shared with dispatch to integrated mapping to share calls with other jurisdictions in Wisconsin and across the country.
“We expect that within the next three years,” Sukus said. “That’s when we anticipate the ability to connect to the state and then we can keep moving forward.”
Looking back, Sukus said she was humbled by the perseverance and dedication of the 911 communications team in Rock County.
“I am really proud of the work everyone is doing,” Sukus said. “I am so proud of the people that work here. They are constantly adjusting to daily changes and so many needs come across our desks from county residents. Everyone has handled the changes greatly and we’ve been very careful and mindful.”