What has happened at 144 Notruf Niederösterreich, Lower Austria’s emergency call center, since the article “No Place Like Home” was featured in the Journal of Emergency Dispatch?
Well, a lot of things. The important ones first:
- We have been keeping the same high-quality level
- We have been adapting our processes to many new tasks, challenges, and new responsibilities
- We have kept our dispatch center COVID-free
COVID testing and data protection
Last year the Lower Austrian government asked 144 Notruf Niederösterreich Managing Director Christof Constantin Chwojka, “Costa,” to create solutions for the mass testing in Lower Austria. Specifically, he was directed to develop IT solutions for registration and submitting the result to the tested persons. One focus area was to be compliant with the data protection law.
Because of the success with the organization of the mass testing, the Lower Austrian government appointed Costa to the position of the governmental vaccination coordinator. Now he is in charge for the organization and distribution of the vaccine for whole federal state of Lower Austria (around 1.8 million people).
To fulfill the challenges and the expectations set for Notruf Niederösterreich we are utilizing all strategic, infrastructural, and technical power and opportunities, all possible only due to the great commitment of our highly trained and skilled workforce.
But this is only about the additional workload our company masters.
Our home office program is still running and is a standard practice in the dispatch center. To the point: We don´t think that we will ever return to a “dispatch center only” solution.
In Austria the government is now trying to implement a law regarding home office work and they are struggling with a lot of details.
Susan Ottendorfer, M.D., 144 Notruf Niederösterreich Medical Director, and I are scheduled for a presentation at NAVIGATOR 2021 with the title: “Honey, I Am Home (Office).” At this presentation we will present the latest results on our perception regarding the impacts of home office to the company, our staff, and the environment.
July 13, 2021 – 09:05am – COVID-19 pushed many people into using a home office. Notruf Niederösterreich used this situation to implement and expand the possibilities for the staff to work from home. This presentation is about operational, structural, social, emotional, ecological, and economic threats, chances, situations, and impacts of using a home office in both dispatch centers and at home.
The experience caused by the pandemic situation gave us the possibility to develop a matrix, which we can use in similar situations in the future.
First of all, we have split the teams into clusters. This means we have built fixed teams for the shifts—so if we have a positive COVID staff member we are only losing one shift team.
Besides “standard” regulations (social/physical distance, workplace, mask-wearing, etc.) we established four “clustering levels”—depending on the severity of the actual COVID situation containing specific directives at each level.
I will give you some samples to each level:
- Home office is mandatory and not optional
- At the end/beginning of a shift it is no longer a handover: It is a “shift change”
- During breaks all employees have to keep at least the minimum distance to each other
- Drinking and eating should be done at the work desk if possible
- No foreign people (presentation, visits, etc.) in the dispatch center
- “Long” night shifts (6:00 p.m. to 6:00 a.m.) still in the dispatch center
- All regulations of Level 1
- Workplaces of dispatchers will be separated
- Acrylic glass partitions between the desks
- NO volunteer work of staff (EMS, first responder, EMS supervisor, COVID tester, etc.)
Exception: all Notruf Niederösterreich staff members are allowed to do volunteer work after 10 days of the first vaccination dose independent of the vaccine.
So this I have to explain: Many of our staff are involved in the Lower Austrian EMS system as volunteer paramedics, mountain rescuers, firefighters, first responders, etc. A list of organization where our staff members are volunteering can be found here: https://notrufnoe.com/wir-sind-freiwillig-in-noe/
Our company supports their volunteer activities because Notruf Niederösterreich is very proud of it.
Due to the pandemic situation the main goal and responsibility was (and still is) to keep the Emergency Command and Control Center running and also COVID-free. That was why we had to reduce every possible exposure to COVID patients. This regulation at Level 2 was a very emotional topic because most of our staff members are heavily committed to their volunteer work in EMS.
The regulation was put in effect at the first peak in early 2020 (started March 8 and ended on June 15). Because of the increasing number of COVID patients, the Level 2 regulations were in place again from October 19 till December 31, 2020.
- All regulations of Levels 1 and 2
- Home office also during all night shifts
- For all CCA/EMD/ECN (excluding dispatchers and supervisor)
- Use of all possibilities to increase the distance between the working places in the dispatch center
- All regulations of Level 1, 2, and 3
- Supervisor shifts only possible at the dispatch center in St. Pölten
- Supervisor workplace is located in a restricted area and the supervisor is not allowed to have contact with any other staff
Of course, we have also specific regulations for each building based on the possibilities and necessities of the building.
We have regulations for staff member returning from holiday or from travels. All “returners” (without symptoms) are only allowed to be on shift for 14 days in a closed area or strictly in the home office and not allowed to have contact to other staff members.
Since last year our dispatch centers are also equipped with fast tests so whenever someone is feeling “sick” we can do a very quick testing.
Just a last remark on our home office policies: We are aware that we are facing real challenging times even with very ambitious regulations regarding our home office possibilities. We also provide solutions for the situation when staff members get the feeling of cabin fever or other problems related, but not limited, to the COVID situation. Individual help is provided in various forms starting from psychological help to special agreements to do shift at the dispatch center if necessary (also during times when home office is mandatory).
Siegfried Weinert, MSc, is responsible for special projects and serves as data-protection officer for Notruf Niederösterreich. He started his career in EMS in 1983 as civil servant EMT for the Austrian Red Cross and still serves as a volunteer paramedic.