Taking 911 Calls in the Age of Coronavirus

Illustration for article titled Taking 911 Calls in the Age of Coronavirus
Illustration: Elena Scotti (Photos: Getty Images, Shutterstock)
Sick DaysSick DaysWelcome to Sick Days, a collection of stories from readers on how the current covid-19 health crisis is changing the way they work and the futures they can expect in these uncertain times.

Welcome to Sick Days, a series documenting how jobs are changing during the coronavirus pandemic, as told by workers themselves. This week, we hear from a stay-at-home parent, a seamstress in a theater, an IT worker, a music school teacher, and a 911 operator.


If you’d like to submit a story, use this Google form and provide as much detail as you’re able; read this post to learn more about the project. Gizmodo has verified the authors’ identities, and submissions have been edited for length, grammar, and clarity.

Anonymous, 911 operator, East Coast

The speed at which things went from joking, to serious, to life-altering was staggering. Within a week, our operations center went from business-as-usual to the center of epidemic response in our area. There are press conferences given from our center every day, and the building has been flooded with health authorities, elected officials, the national guard, members of the press, and other experts.

The change in the types of calls we’ve fielded has been noticeable. The number of medical calls are up, and non-medical calls are down. We’re required to ask screening questions for covid-19 on any call where a responder could come into contact with a member of the public, and an alarmingly large number of callers have had contact with someone showing symptoms.

Stress levels in the dispatch center are through the roof. A lot of the people who work here are the only member of their families who are not able to stay home, and knowing that they are the ones most likely to get their families sick is taking a toll. The room we work in is surrounded by walls of TVs that display local and national news talking about the pandemic all day, and we can see the daily meetings and press conferences happening in adjoining rooms. It feels like we’re surrounded by the virus on all sides.

We’ve been required to only enter the building through certain doors, to take our temperature every day before coming to work, and to only use certain bathrooms, ostensibly to protect our health and keep us separated from the new influx of people in our center. However, the dozens of experts/soldiers/media/elected officials/etc. in the center have not been given the same requirements, and are using the same common spaces, bathrooms, and entrances we use, so these countermeasures are essentially useless. All the dispatchers and call-takers work together in the same space, sharing the same equipment. Whenever one person in the room gets sick, it immediately spreads to other people in the room. It’s only a matter of time before someone working here gets covid-19.

What’s been incredibly frustrating for us is that there has been almost no clear communication from higher-ups on how we are to provide essential emergency response while protecting ourselves. We’ve asked what the plan is for when someone in the dispatch center gets sick; who would need to be tested, how the center would be disinfected, how necessary time off would be handled if the affected person didn’t have enough sick time, etc. We have not received any answers. We’ve requested hazard pay, which 911 centers in surrounding counties have received, but have not heard a word in response. We’ve asked what mitigation strategies are in place for those of us having mental health issues because of the stress, or what we should do if a member of our family gets sick, or if we will be compensated for the day we are required to take off if we need to be tested, and we’ve not gotten any answers. We’re running out of supplies to disinfect our shared work stations. Our shift supervisors are doing what they can, but they aren’t getting any answers either.

Kate, IT worker at a healthcare research nonprofit

While our company has supported ad-hoc WFH for a while in cases of bad weather (everyone has laptops, we have a VPN, etc.), the company actually dragged their feet on instituting an official “everyone WFH now” policy when the covid-19 stuff really started blowing up. In late February through early March, just as every other company was suddenly trying to figure out how to set up VPNs, how to order 1,000 laptops, etc., company leadership was being very vague about whether or not we could WFH company-wide (to the point of getting snarky and passive-aggressive with employees who raised the issue).

They actually began scheduling a number of all-staff, in-person meetings during the end of February for everything from a new marketing announcement to company culture pep rallies (nothing like packing 100+ people into one small auditorium to keep those exposure cases low!) It was frustrating because at the same time, we were advising healthcare organizations on covid-19 best practices including what to do if your non-essential staff are all working from home or self-isolating!

Company leadership did finally announce that as of last week, everyone is to work from home through April. People need special permission from their managers and HR to be in the building and only at certain times (we do medical device evaluation at the office labs, for example). There was a mad dash of people grabbing whatever they’d need out of their cubicles, wiping everything down with Clorox wipes, etc. For my team at least, we’ve always been able to do our jobs anywhere there’s a stable internet connection. If it were up to my manager, my team would be 100 percent WFH long ago. So we’re still able to be productive and efficient while juggling childcare disruptions, being on top of other family members, etc. Several of us are at-risk ourselves or live with at-risk people (elderly parents, chronic conditions, previous cancer diagnoses, etc.) so it was really stressful that our company dragged its feet on something that we were already in pretty good shape to implement. I want to think that our company will be okay, economically, as callous as that might sound. But it is possible that if subscriptions drop, or clients disappear (because a hospital system goes under), that layoffs could then happen.

Compared to other people, I know I’m *very* lucky. No one in my family is showing symptoms, I haven’t lost my job, I can do my job from my bedroom, but I have several family members who are in essential positions directly interacting with the public, like law enforcement and healthcare. I’m worried they will be exposed and get very sick because some of them have underlying health issues. I’m worried my elderly parents will, despite best efforts, die from this. I live with them and have tried to get them to stay home as much as possible but they are strong-willed, stubborn Boomers who get cabin fever. And honestly, even if they were the most perfect self-isolating, disinfecting people ever, they could have already contracted it. Or they could suffer some non-covid ailment like a stroke or tumor, and not be able to get lifesaving care if our health system crashes (and let’s be honest, it probably will).

My siblings’ children will most likely miss out on graduations, proms, sacraments, etc. It’s important to keep everyone safe but I feel bad that they’ll miss out on these milestones. My state of being is “super fucking anxious” at the best of times so any hope I had of ever getting off Ativan has now gone out of the window. It occurred to me today that I truly don’t know if my mental health will survive this. I try to put myself on a news diet but you can’t stop existential dread from making a house call at 3 a.m.

Kay, live theater costumer, Seattle

My workplace shutdown almost two weeks ago, when Governor Jay Inslee issued a statewide mandate banning events with more than 250 people. We had all known it was coming. At the time, we were building costumes for a production of Sister Act that was supposed to open for previews that Saturday. That evening, someone in the governor’s office leaked that the mandate was coming, and the following day—Wednesday, following his press conference—we were all sent home with no warning.

The rest of the week was confusing—we got intermittent emails from various people at the theatre. No one knew if they would try to livestream the show for no audience, if it was really canceled, if we would be paid. By Friday evening, we had heard from the directors of the theatre that the run of Sister Act had been canceled, and there would be no livestream of the show due to licensing agreements; there would be no productions of the show at all.

Luckily, we were paid through the end of the following week. I am luckier than most of my coworkers, as I don’t have any children at home, and my partner is a software engineer at Amazon who is able to work from home—so even with the loss of my income, we are still going to be able to pay bills. Most of my coworkers are in their 50s and 60s and have kids or partners who also work in entertainment —and the entire industry is shutdown. Everyone that I know is laid off.

I haven’t been able to file for unemployment yet. I’ve been unable to access my online account and the phone lines have been too tied up for me to talk to anyone who can help me. As of right now, the next time I am expected to go to work is late July. They have already announced a round of layoffs at the theater. I don’t know who will be next.


K, 38, stay-at-home parent, Washington, DC

My son is 4 years old, and he’s normally in school from 9:00 to 3:00 on weekdays. Now he’s home all the time.

My husband is working from home upstairs in the guest room. My son can sometimes keep himself entertained, playing with Hot Wheels or coloring, but usually he wants me to play with him. We’ve been playing a lot of board games. He also enjoys when we pretend to be characters from Paw Patrol, but I try to steer him to things that I think are fun. We have a couple toys he got as gifts but forgot about, but I’m trying to ration those out so we don’t run out of “new” things. We haven’t been doing any sort of schoolwork. I feel like he’s learning a lot, though.

From board games, he’s working on addition and logic. We read a lot of books. Sometimes he asks me to make “activity cards,” which means things like mazes and riddles. Twice a week he has speech therapy, which we now do by video chat. My husband suggested we get an app like ABC Mouse, but I don’t think an educational app like that is worth the extra screen time. He’s already watching more TV than usual. I take a nap after lunch every day, and I let him watch a movie or show while I do that —I’m grateful we have Disney+! He’s not allowed to take a nap because when he does it’s really hard for him to fall asleep at night.

It’s hard on me to have him here all day every day. Even on weekends, when my husband isn’t working, I don’t really get a break, because there’s nowhere for them to go. I’m jealous of the people online talking about binging Netflix! Once a week I have psychotherapy, by teleconference, and it’s nice to not be disturbed during that time.

I think my son might miss his friends even more than I miss mine; he’s used to being with them for hours a day at school, and he can’t text or email them.

He’s too young to know what’s going on, so at least he’s not stressed about it. I, on the other hand, often just feel like crying. I feel like I have nothing to look forward to. No concerts, parties, holiday gatherings, trips. It’s depressing.


David, music school owner, Canada

I run a medium-sized music school. We run one-on-one private music lessons for over 250 students each week. Our students are diverse, from very young kids to 70+ retirees. Naturally, this means we see people in close quarters in enclosed spaces. Covid-19 has turned our world upside down. We can’t reasonably work with a parade of different people coming through the school every day, to say nothing of social distancing when working with instrumental lessons.

We have moved to online-only lessons for every discipline we teach. It’s hard, but it’s doable. Most of our students and families have been very supportive of the initiative. However, there have been some who flat-out refuse to even try.

There’s a huge time crunch, as I have two children, 9 and 7 (and the younger one has some special needs). Meanwhile, we are incredibly lucky that my wife works remotely anyway, so her job didn’t change. However, her job does have 9-5 hours which means I have to take care of my children while she works. Meanwhile, I’m trying to run my business while teaching my students. Now, I have to teach six days per week just to ensure I don’t lose any of my students, as well as deal with the house and hopefully not having my marriage disintegrate in the process.

We are beholden to technology, which is iffy at the best of times. Right now, internet traffic is surging, and our lessons often cut out due to Skype or Zoom being overwhelmed. Some of my staff are older people without any technological background, so I have been having to train them on not just how to teach remotely, but how to work with the technology I helped set them up with. Remember trying to help your grandmother with her VCR? Something like that, but your livelihood depended on it.

Finally, we have people who were/are resistant to any change at all. We have lost several students already because they “didn’t sign up for online lessons” and are philosophically opposed to it. Of course, we have some families who have lost their income and have to make cutbacks. It’s only been a couple of weeks, so the real damage to the business will probably appear more in the coming weeks.

Personally, there’s a huge difference between doing my job in person and doing it remotely. A lot of working with students is built on relationships, trust and time spent working together. The rhythm is very different in the lesson, I can’t make physically corrections which makes me concerned about my students not injuring themselves with RSIs [repetitive strain injuries].

I worry about the teachers who work with me at the school. I worry about their families. One of my staff has his first child recently, two months ago. His wife is also a teacher at my school, but is obviously off from work due to the baby.

Our work is precarious. We’re musicians and freelancers. None of us have a salary; we only make our living if we can give our lessons. I operate on thin margins; I want my staff to earn a living wage.

To make everything worse, I have a terrible landlord who would never give me an inch on anything, and guaranteed he won’t care that the business is taking a hit. I don’t know how we’re going to weather this. I’ve gotten lots of letters of support from our families, but unless we can get a bailout, it’s going to be very scary. Sadly, as a not-a-billion-dollar company, I doubt we’ll get one. Right now, all aspects of my business fall through the legal cracks. We’re floating along right now, but who knows how long.


Senior reporter. Tech + labor /// bgmwrites@gmail.com Keybase: keybase.io/bryangm Securedrop: http://gmg7jl25ony5g7ws.onion/


Dr Emilio Lizardo

That’s a lot of calls.