911 dispatchers brave COVID-19 risks to help protect responders on front lines

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- While many of us can work away from our offices and practice social distancing thanks to laptops and cell phones, there are many still working that don't have that safe luxury.

"We don't have the option of working from home, unfortunately," Grayson Gusa told ABC11 on Wednesday.

Gusa is the president of the North Carolina Association of Public Safety Communications Officials or APCO.

COMPLETE COVERAGE OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC

His organization works on behalf of the 2,700 911 dispatchers in our state who fielded 7.3 million calls last year.

And now, they are preparing for the worst times any of them have ever experienced.

"Almost feel like we're sitting in the calm of the storm," Gusa said. "We know it's coming, and we're doing all we can now to be prepared but just not sure when it's going to hit."

And while they wait, they brave leaving their homes each day to go to work.

"Typically, the 911 centers are very closed spaces so social distancing is not feasible," Gusa noted.

A few of the 119 cities and counties that host 911 centers are fortunate to have backup centers and have spread employees out into them.

But crowded or not, the telecommunicators faithfully go to work.

"To be in this job, you have to be dedicated," Gusa said. "This isn't a job you take for the money or the glory because we're often the ones who only make the news when something bad happens or a call goes wrong."

And one of the reasons they are so dedicated is to help their colleagues on the front lines, the EMT's, firefighters, and police officers who come face to face with the disease.

Back in February, 911 dispatchers began screening sick calls including asking people about their recent travels.

Now they're screening almost every call and the guidelines for the questions are constantly changing as the new coronavirus spreads.

"The travel question is not even necessary since there is widespread community spread in the United States at this point," Gusa said.

That's a stark reminder about how they are at risk leaving their homes and how their families are at risk when they return.

But still, they work.

So, while thanking all the healthcare heroes and the first responders, don't forget these folks.

As Gusa put it, "911 telecommunicators are truly the first first responders."
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