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People answering 988, 911 calls could work from home


Several emergency and crisis services have struggled to find enough people to meet the needs of everyone in need of help. Enter work from home.

DENVER — Agencies providing emergency and crisis services, like so many other businesses, are struggling to stay well-staffed. Like other industries too, they have turned to remote work to facilitate recruitment.

Let’s see how it works in an emergency situation and how a caller’s personal information is protected.

How many people work remotely?

Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners manages Colorado Crisis Services.

CEO Bev Marquez said 70% of their workforce is working remotely and 15% of workers are in a hybrid situation. The option to work in person is still there.

Why work remotely?

Working from home became necessary during the height of the COVID pandemic, when the need for mental health help skyrocketed. As this need grew, so did the demands on staff. This has led to recruitment and hiring difficulties.

With the launch of the national 988 hotline earlier this month, Marquez said he anticipates more calls and the need to grow to an even larger staff — from 193 to 240 — for the first fiscal year.

All of these factors combined are why Crisis Services said it has started working on long-term plans for remote work to stay competitive.

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How it works?

To protect the caller’s privacy and personal information, Marquez said employees send photos of HIPAA-compliant workspaces.

They use noise canceling headphones and set up an office where others cannot hear their conversation or see their computer screens, preferably in an area with a door.

Having a good internet connection is key. Since Crisis Services does not cover the costs of home internet upgrades for their employees, those who cannot meet the requirement have the option of working in person.

“It seems to be working well for our quality, our retention, and then to rebuild the number we need on the front line,” Marquez said.

Marquez said it allows them to recruit statewide and expand their candidate pool, especially as other states recruit in Colorado for their 988 employees.

It’s not a problem now if they didn’t want to move to Denver, didn’t need to be in Denver or couldn’t afford to live in Denver, Marquez said.

She said making sure people connect with the organization, connect with each other and work on effective training is a work in progress. The problems they have faced are mostly related to technology.

Emergency and crisis services are hard work. Supervisors will check in with employees regularly. This includes paying attention to those who repeatedly call in sick and making sure they are okay, as well as putting other infrastructure in place to ensure their team is taken care of.

What about those calling 911 in Denver?

The Denver dispatch center is so understaffed that some people are put on hold when they call 911.

Not all call positions can be work from home.

“911 is a tough job to do remotely,” said director of emergency communications Andrew Dameron. “A lot of technology needed, a lot of security. They go into the national criminal justice database, that kind of stuff. Hard to do at home.”

At the same time, Dameron said they needed to change their recruiting. To do this, they found a way to distance non-emergency communications technicians.

“Fifty-five to 60 percent of Denver’s total 911 call volume actually comes from our non-emergency line. These are calls where police may be needed, fire may be needed, emergency medical services emergency may be needed, but it’s not a life or death emergency,” explained Dameron.

In order to manage all these calls that were until now routed to the 911 operators, they created a non-emergency communications position. This position can be performed from home.

Currently, nine people are working remotely and Dameron hopes to hire six more.

He said these dispatchers take calls on a separate phone system, document the information and work with 911 call takers.

“My car was broken into over the weekend,” Dameron said. “I don’t have any suspicious information. I don’t know exactly when it happened. But the window is broken and my CD drive is missing. It’s something that should go to the non-emergency line. Not an emergency life or death. So these people in this kind of situation should not call 911.”

He said recruiting is always a big challenge, both in Denver and across the country. Still, these new positions did two good things for the team.

First, he said, having them increases the chances that a 911 call taker will be ready and available when the next emergency call comes in and not already be on a non-emergency call.

The other is that having the second group helps reduce burnout.

“The 911 attendants go from one emergency call to the next, 10 to 12 hours with a few breaks,” Dameron said.

The dispatch center is so understaffed that sometimes people call 911 and find themselves on hold. It can range from 30 seconds to a few minutes. Dameron said to stay on the line. If you hang up and call again, you go to the back of the queue.

The city trusts its remote workers to set up their offices appropriately. They are also working to hire more in-person staff and double their training capacity this fall.

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