Emergency dispatch has never been more essential.
With mandates requiring tens of thousands of city residents to remain indoors in attempts to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the staff at the Santa Barbara Police Department’s Public Safety Dispatch Center continue to answer the call of duty — albeit with some procedural adjustments.
Lorena Renteria has served as the voice on the other line for the past 23 years. She’s experienced quite a bit over the time and knows just how vital her job is.
“We are the first line of communication when somebody is in an emergency,” Ms. Renteria told the News-Press. “Even though there’s this pandemic, people are still going to have other types of emergencies.
“Somebody has to be there to answer that 9-1-1 call, and especially those of us who have been here a long time think ‘what if that was my loved one or family member on the other line?’ I would want them to have somebody pick up that phone immediately, get them help as quickly as they can and just be that caring, reassuring voice that gets them through it.”
Ms. Renteria, who has served as a dispatch supervisor for the past nine years, said that dispatchers have had to be flexible and willing to adjust on the fly during the pandemic. The call center has also recently altered its line of questioning to those phoning in for assistance. Dispatchers are now working to determine whether the call constitutes an emergency situation that would require an officer to respond in person. If so, they follow up with questions regarding possible exposure, much like the line of questioning one receives for other services.
“Have you or anyone in your household come in contact with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 30 days? Have you had a fever, difficulty breathing or a cough? Or have you traveled out of the country in the last 30 days?” Ms. Renteria explained.
While some have overlooked or just flat out ignored government mandates when it comes to health measures, Ms. Renteria said that local residents have been very cooperative.
“Everywhere they call they’re getting the similar screening,” she said. “When we explain to them that the reason for officers calling them versus responding and coming to their door is both to limit exposure to them and the officers, they’re very understanding. We’ve found that the community has been very understanding of that situation and we’ve found are more cooperative than not.”
If a certain situation does not require an in-person response, callers are advised to file police reports online or call the police department to speak directly to an officer.
While Ms. Renteria and her staff aim to keep the police department in the loop, dispatchers also have to communicate with the county dispatch center when it comes to fire and ambulance response if the situation merits.
With so many people staying home and refraining from a night on the town, that doesn’t necessarily mean that incidents aren’t occurring.
“Criminals just don’t stop being criminals in a pandemic,” said Katie Houseknecht, who has served as a dispatcher for the past nine years.
“There seems to be less nuisance calls — you know, calls about people having loud music,” she said. “Obviously people shouldn’t be having parties at this point, so those calls are few and far between.”
While health mandates and restrictions have been rapidly changing and evolving, so too has the schedule for the dispatch center. A change in hours or work days is not uncommon during an emergency, however when a staff calls out sick, it no longer means just one or two days out of the office.
“We’ve had to adjust our days,” Ms. Renteria said. “Some people are working more than their four-day work week, some people are working 12 hours versus 10 hours. We’re just adjusting as we need to.”
There are also health guidelines to adhere to, as dispatchers don’t have the ability to telecommute from home. Social distancing has become commonplace. Bottles of bleach and rolls of paper towels are at a surplus within the call center, and dispatchers are advised to keep their own keyboards or computer mouse to limit extra contact.
“We’re trying to keep up with whatever the new information is and what the new recommendations are to keep everybody safe,” said Ms. Renteria.
“It’s at a national and worldwide level,” added Ms. Houseknecht. “It’s not just our small community dealing with this, it’s the entire world.”
Both Ms. Renteria and Ms. Houseknecht acknowledged the importance of their work, not just during a global crisis, but all the time.
“If my grandma was calling for help, I’d want somebody competent and efficient and caring to take care of her on the phone and help her,” said Ms. Houseknecht.
Ms. Renteria said that, above all, she reminds herself to be prepared for whatever situation comes about.
“You can’t get complacent and just think every single call is where we have to explain ‘we’re only responding to emergencies,’” she said. “You still have to be ready to pick up the phone and when somebody says ‘I’m having a domestic problem,’ or ‘there’s a guy running around with a knife,’ that you are prepared to handle that call the best you can.
“Those things, not necessarily those examples, but things are still happening even though people are quarantined, not going out or not going to work. You’re still going to have those emergencies. Life still goes on.”