Staff at Manitoba’s Brandon-based provincial 911 centre — who answer emergency calls from across the province, excluding Winnipeg — are now working out of two separate locations and are preparing for a possible spike in calls and strains on staffing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The centre, which is based in Brandon’s fire hall No. 1, now has some of its staff working at its backup centre, also in Brandon.
On average, the call centre takes over 400 emergency calls from the public each day, according to Robert Stewart, Brandon’s director of emergency communications — and it’s preparing to handle more.
“We’re doing a lot preparation right now, but there’s not a lot stuff to put in place,” Stewart said. “We haven’t noticed an increase in call volumes drastically, but that’s because [COVID-19 is] not rampant in Manitoba at the moment.”
He said the centre began preparing for the arrival of the novel coronavirus, which was first detected late last year, months ago.
“As soon as it got bad in China, I think we all looked and went, ‘Hey, that could be us. Let’s start doing some planning around this,'” Stewart told CBC News via FaceTime on Wednesday.
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The centre is responsible for answering 911 calls and dispatching fire departments for almost 200 communities, rural municipalities and First Nations in Manitoba. It’s also tasked with taking calls and dispatching for the Brandon Police Service, Manitoba First Nations Police and several smaller police departments, including those in Altona, Morden and Winkler.
Ambulance calls are transferred to Manitoba’s Medical Transportation Coordination Centre, which is also located in Brandon.
The 911 centre serves an area with a population of about 500,000, Stewart said.
It generally has seven or eight people on staff at a time, he said, who are now asking callers additional questions in light of COVID-19.
“We ask if they’ve travelled, we ask if they are high-risk,” and if anyone in their household has COVID-19, Stewart said.
“It’s primarily a situation of first responder safety. We want to make sure the people that we are dispatching out to these events are safe and are informed as to what they are stepping into.”
Keeping staff safe
The other part, Stewart said, is keeping the facility’s staff safe.
“We’ve taken the social distancing thing to heart here,” he said. “I have half my staff working at the backup centre.”
The backup centre, located in another city-owned building, is also fully functional, he said.
For now, Stewart said staff handling police calls will work in one building, while staff dispatching firefighters will work in another.
“We try not to mix those staff at all. We try to keep them mutually exclusive,” he said.
“That way if somebody gets sick, they don’t spread it to an entire team, and it gives everybody the opportunity to spread out and do that social distancing.”
Stewart said contingency plans have been developed to ensure someone is always at the centre to answer calls to 911, no matter how dire the pandemic may get.
Although the centre hasn’t seen a spike in calls, some people have called 911 to report that they’ve seen others out and about who they think should be self-isolating.
“We’re getting some of those,” said Stewart.
For now, those callers are being referred to public health — 911 is not the number to be calling with those complaints, Stewart said.
“Luckily, the people of Manitoba recognize that 911 is an emergency phone number as opposed to … a non-emergency number.”
Stewart, who worked with the British Columbia ambulance service during both the SARS and H1N1 pandemics, said he feared 911 would be fielding more of those non-emergency calls.
“When I worked the SARS outbreak, for example, in British Columbia, the number of phone calls we got from people that were driving through certain areas of Vancouver — claiming that they think they got [SARS] because they saw somebody who might have it — was shocking,” he said.
“But we’re not seeing that as much with this. I think maybe people are better informed than maybe we were in the beginning with SARS.”
Stewart applauded the City of Brandon, which operates the 911 centre, for taking an early lead on preparing for the pandemic.
“I think we’re ready on both fronts.… We’re ready from a 911 perspective [and] an increased call volume perspective,” he said.
“I think we’re as ready as we can be.”
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