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Transcript

Streamlining Call Center Workflows in Extreme Events

Lessons From The Blizzard of 22

The transcripts were created using Dscript. Some light editing was done for easy reading, but the essence of the interview remained.

Introduction: Welcome to the Emergency Management Network series, leaders and innovators brought to you by Buffalo Computer Graphics, DLAN, one unified solution for all of your emergency management needs.

Todd DeVoe: Good morning or afternoon, depending on where you are in this fine world. Today, we're talking about communications, reaching the communities and what it means to run more than just a hotline but a call center during crisis and crisis communications.

I have Jason Hurley and Sarah Bonk with me, both from Erie County, California…That is Erie County, New York…Jason and Sarah, welcome to the show. 

Jason Hurley: Hi, thanks for having us. 

Sarah Bonk: Thanks much for having us. We're excited. 

Todd DeVoe: I almost moved you to California. 

Sarah Bonk: I wouldn't mind sometimes, although I love our summers. I'll stay here for the summertime. There's 

Jason Hurley: It’s actually lovely right now; we don't need to be moved right now. 

Todd DeVoe: This is true. I brought my wife back one year for Thanksgiving. And as before, we were married. And it snowed, and she said, I love you. I want to marry you, but we need to live in California because I can't deal with the snow, and I'm like, fair enough.

Todd DeVoe: I miss the fall and the pleasant summers as well. But we're not here to talk about that. We're going to talk about more important stuff than this, and speaking of snow, when I was a kid in 1977, I was not trying to age myself by any means. We had a major blizzard, and as a kid, it was fun, right?

We're like, yeah, no school. And we're doing all this playing stuff, but blizzards won't necessarily be fun for emergency management. This means that you guys created a thing called the snow line. What is the snow line, and how does that necessarily work?

Jason Hurley: The snow line was thought of before the blizzard. About. The month before our once-in-a-generation blizzard, we unfortunately lost 47 people—47 in Erie County and 48 total in Western New York. We thought of what we could do for any emergency if to be a catch-all constituent service because with the event we had before the blizzard, we had seven feet of snow dumped, and I think it was six hours or something crazy.

The situation was. We were trying to get people out of the snow event itself to dialysis appointments or to get methadone treatment. But because of our emergency contracts with different agencies, like construction agencies, we had to move cars out of the way just to remove the snow.

One of the things happened when we had to tow vehicles to local university parking lots, and people would have to find their car, too, where we put it. We had this idea that we needed this kind of catch-all number during an emergency that anybody could call for, “Hey, dude, where's my car?”

What roads and services are open or closed, things like that. And that's how the thought of the snow line came about: during the event before it and trying to learn from it. Then we started up the Monday before.

Christmas, the Christmas blizzard. We were putting this all together, gathering people to be call takers, training them, and working with our public information officers on what kind of situations we might want to tell the community about and what things we might get questions about to be prepared for that way.

I got thrown into being the manager of the call taker side and dragged Sarah into it with me to help us on what I call the back end, which was how it talks to these calls. I ended up talking through D land to the emergency operations center. 

Todd DeVoe: Let's rewind for one second. This is not the blizzard of 77. We're speaking about this as a blizzard of 2022. Thank you. And then, and a couple of things about the blizzard of 2022 specifically that it wasn't that, that I'm going to, I'm going back and just reading the aftereffects reports, and things like this wasn't necessarily that the city and I know the city of Buffalo got a lot of bad press on this one.

It wasn't necessarily that the city of Buffalo needed to prepare. Snow storms happen a lot, and ice storms happen a lot back East. The amount and the double whack that Buffalo and Erie County got caused many problems when it came to this. You guys are leaning forward.

You're thinking about what we could do as a community to communicate with the people who live here so they can do things. What was the public outreach like beforehand? Here in California, we had a small earthquake, and many people called 911, which we're trying to discourage people from doing, whether we have a three-one system, opera line or whatever.

What was the public community outreach like? How did you get people to call that number when they had questions about, “dude, where's my car?” 

Jason Hurley: For the Blizzard specifically, we were having, I would say, at least two or three press conferences leading up to it, starting that week off, and saying that we're going to have this number available to, Take constituent calls, things like that to provide whatever information and assistance that we can the event it's still, and we'll get into the details of what we expected versus what kind of happened but the event, turned out to be much different than even we had still expected in terms of severe weather and in terms of what we were able to respond to as a whole county here in Buffalo, and just for background, we have almost a million people in Erie County of all different backgrounds, all different types of industries here from healthcare to construction still, manufacturing, a lot of food service, tourism is more significant here than people realize. There are many different people to reach out to, and again, building up those different communication channels to reach as many populations as possible is sosomething we all were working on.

We were working from that November event to that December event as it was. While still digging out, though, 

Sarah Bonk: right? One of the other essential things for us was that we had just learned all these skills through COVID-19 as a government and how to remain agile and responsive to the communities.

Operationally, for us, it was how we could very quickly reduce. As Jason mentioned, the dependency on 911, how do we get those folks into the proper channels, and where do they need to be? How can we, as a government, work with our partners to ensure those service networks remain open? And again, as Jason mentioned, we'll hint towards what ended up happening versus what we anticipated, but that was the idea of reducing the dependency, reducing that need and the load on 911 and getting people still where they needed to go.

Todd DeVoe: Sarah, we talked before we started here a little bit about, and maybe we'll get into this a little bit later, but I want to preload this in the conversation that we have vulnerable populations that are realistically who, and this is my take as emergency management: those are the people who we should be serving during these crises because those with COVID-19.

With the ability to care for themselves, we must focus on the vulnerable populations. And did you do a specific outreach? And you want to talk about this later. If I want to continue the conversation, did you do particular outreach to the vulnerable populations and let them know where the resources were, or did that happen afterward?

We did a lot of work in the aftermath, and it was. Unfortunately, we didn't have the time to do that outreach due to the urgent need to get the lineup running. That's why we just have time to get it when we talk about pre-planning or education for the community before the storm could happen.

The information is that this would be a resource. But I'll let Jason talk about that as well. The information we collected in that process informed us about the next steps when we went to grow out that hotline and that resource because we knew, okay, here's how it worked.

And we just walked out with it. Now, let's take that information and make me purposeful next steps. 

Todd DeVoe: Let's talk about those purposeful next steps. What does that mean? Okay, let's go back to the lessons learned from the snowstorm. You guys are pushing us out a little bit bigger now, but what lessons have you learned from the snowstorm that's made you go? Okay, we have to make these changes to communicate with our constituents.

Jason Hurley:  The first event that was the most significant thing there was getting people not to call 911 for anything other than emergencies.  again, if you have a question about whether a road is open or closed or if we still have a significant bingo population.

If bingo is happening tonight in my part of the county, what's still open, and what's not? If you had your car lost, where would you find it? What website would you use? Things like that. Whereas the blizzard, what we realized, and this is a good time to talk about, as you were just talking about vulnerable populations, is What level of preparation different populations have and how we can help prepare them moving forward, not only in just communications but actual supplies and other needs, right?

One of the big things that came out of it—and I was guilty of it, too—is telling people to have two weeks' worth of food. But when you have a large population living, day to day, in food-insecure areas, they're already in an emergency. What do you do then to start working on that?

The blizzard made us rethink the administration and different policy areas everywhere. Communication and food insecurity were big ones. Pharmaceutical med supplies, things like that, and dialysis access were also big ones. It made us step back and say many people have an emergency daily.

What do we do from here on out to have a Snow line? What else do we do policy-wise, and what do we focus on? We did everything from emergency food kits distributed throughout the following year, this year or last year through our local food shelter or food bank. Eat More of Western New York was a great partner in that. We called them Blizzard Boxes, and they essentially were about a five—to six-day supply of food for two people.

Then, we all made emergency preparedness kits and home supplies such as flashlights, duct tape, a tarp mercy packet of water, an energy bar five-gallon jug for water, etc. There were about 10 or 11 items in total. Since then, we have packaged up 5,000 of those and have been preparing to distribute them throughout our more vulnerable communities.

Todd DeVoe: I always found it particularly interesting growing up. Every time we had a snowstorm coming, everybody rushed to the stores and bought milk and bread. I never understood why it was always milk and bread, but that's what it is. The conversation you're having is, Even with the populations, how do we understand the time to rush to the store isn't 24 hours before a storm hits? Is that conversation also being had, or is it more nuanced than that?

Jason Hurley: That leads into what Sarah's working on now, which is the co-ed model, which did come out of the blizzard, which was social media and community groups are a powerful tool and necessary to response and recovery. One of the things was that using Facebook, a Buffalo Storm page had 60,000 followers within 12 hours of people checking in on their neighbors.

And then, this VOAD came out organically and was led by a couple of local nonprofits that work with vulnerable populations daily. They then reached out to the county and said, we have these calls every day at, I forget, it was Sarah's two o'clock. Can you be on them to help us share information?

And that's what Sarah has been working on since. 

Sarah Bonk: Yeah. One of the big things we learned is that we can only do it some as government, especially regarding operational needs amid a disaster. Our main objective, especially in emergency management, is life and safety preservation.

How do we, as the government, balance that operational need while maintaining the balance of those needs? Other essential elements of emergency management are recovery, mitigation and similar things. And that's where we realize those partnerships are enormous because we may only sometimes be able to fill those gaps.

When it comes to tailoring the information, we rely on those partners. Internally, we in the county are doing collaborative work with research partners. We have Dr. Basil and Dr. Sutton, and we're doing work with the National Weather Service to say, okay, what can we do to tailor our alerting mechanisms so that we have a clear understanding of what our operational stance needs to be both internally?

 And then what does that mean externally? What does taking stance A internally mean? We need to then communicate not only with our constituents but also with our communities. Part of our goals, and now that I'm working in the mental health sector, is to make sure that information is put out in a specific and understandable way that each organization that participates with us can take that information again and choose it, if you will, in terms of a menu of really disaster or crisis material that they can apply to their organizations and communities.

Todd DeVoe: Let's talk about message fatigue here for a second because here on the West Coast, we talk about earthquakes all the time, and everybody's okay, whatever. You think about the tornado warnings in the Midwest, which have just gone through many devastating tornadoes; people tend to dismiss those, the rest of the sirens.

Because they go, we've been through a hundred of them, and they've never done anything. And, we watch the wind for fun, and then in the Northeast and specifically in Western New York, we're known for snow. The Buffalo Bills had the snow game where they're throwing snow everywhere.

And it's “yeah, we grew up with snow.” How do we? Message that to say, Hey, there are severe ramifications for being on the road when the snowstorm occurs. And we look like you're talking about before. Some 40-some-odd people perish because they were on the road, right?

What's that message like? And how do your roles in receiving and sharing information play into ensuring people understand when we say stay off the road? We mean it for your health, not because we just want to say that word. 

Sarah Bonk: Yeah, and that's a great question.

It's a big question, too, with many little nuances. Still, one of the interesting things is that a comment or question around consumption fatigue or information fatigue, and they're really up to this point, there's been a real gap in the research literature about what that fatigue means, what it looks like, is it a real thing, and  I'm excited to see from a, from an academic perspective what that research starts to look like, but What we use as a tool is me research done by Dr. Sutton. You can access it for free. Everybody can use it, and it's called the Warn Room. What is public messaging template that is very clear and highlights best practices about using language that is readable and consumable at a fifth-grade level? How do you use all caps and bold to make it so that we can access particular words when you send a text-based message translated into various formats? It is a big challenge.

Sarah Bonk: It's a big challenge, and there's no failsafe to it. And that's where, when we talk about our role in the community's role, we're looking at how we can restore that balance between communicating as effectively and quickly as possible and what we can train our community to do to be ready. When we put that message out, we can count on them to be prepared like we're trying to prepare ourselves. It's tough. It's tough. 

Jason Hurley: What helps prevent message fatigue? This is when the systems put in place by the local governments work.

We had a major snow event in December this past winter. We learned our lesson from the blizzard on messaging in general and things like that. We issued a lot of warnings. New York State did an IPAWS for it. The community responded that they did stay off the roads.

And it was a record time of us being able, for our DPW crews to go out and clean up the streets and everything like that, too. It prevented message fatigue from saying no and staying off the roads. We mean it this time; please do. People did. They could get out of their house within 12 hours instead of 36.

Todd DeVoe: We have the same problems here. We have our mountains and towns, and they get snow here. And believe it or not. And many people were stuck on the mountaintop because they couldn't get off the road. They didn't have the proper chains when they went up, and we tell them every year, Hey, don't forget to bring your chains, and they don’t, and these are super dangerous roads.

It's not just getting a car accident. The possibility of people falling to the side of the mountain becomes a thing. Do you guys know of  Dr. Dennis Millete’s work? Have you heard of him? The work that's being done right now in mass communications is based on his stuff.

He wrote a book called Disaster by Design. And he was huge into messaging back in the day. And what it will. The reason I bring him up is he has a specific conversation. He's passed away. He passed away during COVID, unfortunately. The message that he brings up is using words that people will understand universally.

That being said, it was like, you're here in California. If we say, Hey, we're evacuating. You need to go north of the 405. Oh, that's confusing. Turn because of 405. If you look at a map, it's supposed to be north of the freeway as it runs, but some areas are southwest or east-west facing. Is it north of the east-west running area? You can go north of that, and you're out of this. Confusing words like this, I think if you're in the northeast, you're visiting from California, and the difference between lake effect snow or Easter or those things that people are like, I have no clue what those words mean. How do we communicate?

Todd DeVoe: Not just to the people who live in Buffalo, but how do we communicate to those visiting during those times? Christmas, for instance? You might have people from all over the country, all over the world visiting. How do we message them? And what does that mean for them? 

Jason Hurley: One of the things that is being developed, and Sarah, you probably remember more about this than I do since you're in dishes at the time, but coming up with a blizzard scale that's easily used for public messaging.

To plainly state the risks, the wind and wind chill will be how severe it will be if you're outside for extended periods. At the blizzard, the wind was a frozen hurricane. If you factor in the amount of snow coming down and the strength of the wind, it is a frozen hurricane. You would have had severe frostbite within minutes of your skin.

That is one of the things being developed right now. And I'm sorry, I forgot the name of the university. Sarah, I don't know if you remember, but it might be the University of Albany.

Todd DeVoe:  I think it's Albany, yes. 

Jason Hurley: That's developing that to help precisely with what you said, too—people who are just visiting or coming through or something like that for a holiday or tourism or something like that.

Todd DeVoe: That's a, it's funny because we think about dealing with the populations; I say we, the collective, we as emergency managers, we think about all those that are, that live within our cities and our jurisdictions. But here in southern California, we have people from all over the world every day coming here.

Todd DeVoe: Our communication has to be something they understand, and that's only sometimes in the area. That's cool. It's cool coming up with a scale for the blizzard because everybody from here thinks A time is snow; now it's a blizzard.

Sarah Bonk: It's interesting because of how weather patterns are changing. We have those new goals by FEMA, as well as emergency management and climate change initiatives. We are finding that it's becoming much more of a severe weather index. Or a severe winter storm index, as opposed to a blizzard scale, just because of the nature of the storms and the weather systems in this area shifting as time passes.

Todd DeVoe: Yeah. And we all have to be thinking about not just our winter storms, right? Especially in, in, in New York. And I have some experience, that we could. The weather could be super hot as well. We always think of New York as a pleasant summer climate.

But if you get into 90-degree weather with humidity, you also start having problems. It's not just blizzards that cause weather problems in NY. I.

This is when we think about weather messaging that has to go across the board, not just for the winter storms. Are you guys thinking about keeping the hotline? I know it's. The information line, I'm assuming now, is 365 24 hours. 

Jason Hurley:  No, it's not. 

Todd DeVoe: No? Okay. 

Jason Hurley: It's only deployed for certain states of emergencies. What type of emergency is it, essentially?

Would it be useful? We never actually brought it up before, but the blizzard, what we were expecting versus what we got, to 9 1 1, was very overcrowded during the blizzard. We were like the runoff for them for people’s cars and stuck in their h shattering.

Trying to get people like that because the temps were low and the winds were severe…homes with Children or anything like that at that time, that line became like this, like a lifeline instead of just this constituent line. Then, after the significant event itself and recovery started, it all became the call for dialysis and other medical treatment options, things like that.

Moving forward and again, because of Sarah's work on the VOAD and getting those more vulnerable populations taken care of that way. We actually would only deploy it for probably more of another snow event like that and be more prepared with the road closures and more informational because now we all have leaned into more community partners on more of the health and human services aspects as well, whether it's the local nonprofits that Sarah has been working with, but al like our local two one operation, which is the yeah.

24/7/365, during the blizzard, they worked with us to stay on message about what we were getting calls about, which was extremely helpful. From there on, we've had a great relationship about everything. In one of our recent states of emergency, we didn't see a need for the snow line because we didn't think people would be stuck and paralyzed in their homes for a long time.

It was the same duration. They were able to jump in with that informational stuff as well, which we could share with them instead of having to launch an operation of 12 to 16 people between call takers, PIO, and other support staff. We need more from our IT department to set up the online chat and information sharing amongst our call takers and even to operate the phones.

It's led us to increase our shed tools, proving that this doesn't need to be the only way we communicate with the public in an emergency. 

Todd DeVoe: Would you then use this for heat emergencies, too? Or are you just sticking with the snow?

Jason Hurley: It just depends on the emergency. It's on a case-by-case basis. We've activated it twice since the blizzard but had four or five EOC activations on various levels. Oh, a good example is the eclipse. We were going back and forth on whether or not to have it operating for that because we were expecting many people. It ended up being a cloudy day, but we were expecting many people. Could we do this?

Promote and get out to people who are in from outside the area in a timely way so that they would know how to call it and use it because we're expecting such lousy traffic and other issues, or is it better to push everybody to a 2 1 1 type thing? We ended up saying no, like we'll never be able to teach a million extra people to call 858 SNO over just calling 2 1 1 at this point.

Todd DeVoe: Do you guys see the northern lights by any chance? 

Jason Hurley: I didn't. I fell asleep, though, really early. 

Sarah Bonk: Same. 

Jason Hurley: I didn't even know about it until I could; as I was going to sleep, I couldn't see it. I went to sleep and saw the pictures the following day on Twitter. Okay, 

Todd DeVoe: I'm ust curious, just an odd question, but yeah, okay. I know I want to dive a little bit deeper into my lessons learned because, here again in California, we have severe weather when it comes to Santa and the winds and things like this, precisely fire weather issues and things and might be so something that we do open up a hotline in my counties and I don't.

It depends on what it looks like, but what lessons did you learn from opening your call center? Also, what just-in-time training do we guys provide so that the information can be concise and shared amongst the constituents in the messaging?

What could you share with me…even in Texas right now, with the tornadoes in the Midwest 

Jason Hurley: No, Sarah said earlier about being flexible and how we all learned how to do that. I also worked for the administration during COVID-19 and set up the critical call center for that.

I had some experience from that, but being flexible, setting up these systems or responses to help with this stuff. Expecting it to go differently should be everyday thinking. We set up this number to tell people where their car was and what roads were closed.

It turned into how I stay warm enough in my house while there's no power, right? We've been without power for 24 hours, and I have young kids. What tips do you have to stay warm, or am I in my car? We told them to turn their car on for 10 minutes every hour to conserve gas, but also make sure to keep themselves warm and ensure the tailpipe isn't clogged or anything like that.

When you set these things up, you must remember that the people will decide what they will use it for, and you must respond to their needs. That's what the government should be doing: responding to and meeting the people's needs. 

You might think it will be used for something or intended for it to be used, but be prepared that people will access and get to you the way that you have provided to get what they need.

Sarah Bonk: And one of the other things that worked well for us was making sure that there was a lid team from a management perspective to look at the different things.  From day one, Jason operated the “858 SNOW” line from a managerial standpoint to get staff and ensure that staff were lined up to fill in.

Then there was what you had just asked about: What information do staff need to inform the public? We were fortunate to have my staff, Self, who worked with me and our other elected officials and commissioners to hear what the community needed.

Then we all had a point of information Officer API O, who could take the information that I was providing and put it into a Google Doc, and that was how all the call takers could access the real-time and relevant information. One of the things that works well is having that ICS model and making sure that anytime you stand up an operation, you look at the elements we need to make this operation successful, even if that means providing telephonic support to people in the field, right? Tason may have needed help managing all of that. I'm confident you could have put it together if you needed to. Still, with the ability to fill me of those other positions that we're familiar with in emergency management, we were able to bridge that gap, and that's really where the experience and the expertise of emergency management come in, to say, okay, we hear that you want to fill this need.

Let's plug it into an operational picture that works and that we can deploy effectively. 

Jason Hurley: And I will say, great point, Sarah, because a big thing with the ICS structure and things like that was all of the call takers we were using, they were not EOC 101 people or anything. They are our admins, secretaries, and others like support staff from various county departments. We said, hey, you'll be answering the phone over the next hours it takes to get through this.

But because of our structure, they didn't have to be familiar with an EOC, emergency management, response and recovery or anything like that. I think that structure was hugely important. It worked by having them take the calls and then having a buffer, which essentially meant I had them enter through an online form.

It's populated in this Excel sheet, and Sarah can look at it. From her dish's point of view, her being in the policy room as well and say Oh yeah, this needs a DLAN ticket. Then, that goes straight to the EOC and other things. That's how we worked through those logistics of getting that information in real-time to the EOC and the policy room regarding what's happening from the call takers' perspective.

And I'd like to highlight a real-time example: When the blizzard happened, 911 could not dispatch emergency responders at one point, and it wasn't due to a lack of service or desire. It was just because the weather was bad. You couldn't see feet in front of you. In real-time, we had folks trapped in vehicles with no gas.

They were saying I can't get through on 911. I'm here. I'm on the corner of such and such street. I need help. I don't know what to do. And then we have folks who have yet to experience that before interacting with those individuals. And the real-time support that was necessary…that was important for my role with that mental health lens is saying, Okay, now we have folks operating as dispatchers.

We may nave pyet to planfor this. Okay. BWenow has on-the-job training in real-time training for folks turning into dispatch. And then what do we do to support their mental wellness after the fact? But it was in real-time, and I needed to coordinate on the phone. In real circumstances

Sarah Bonk: Sometimes, we were even on the phone, talking to folks and making sure that there was a sheriff's unit who could access them. We ended up filling a gap we did not intend to enter. However, as Jason mentioned, some elements worked well in that operation.

Todd DeVoe: I have two infrastructure questions for you. Was there a location where the call takers went to work, or were they remote?  

Sarah Bonk: Good question. 

Jason Hurley: This is the first time we've tried to do something remotely. We were curious to know what the people we delegated to or delegated to be call takers would be able to do when they actually came into the EOC.

Because of the event, we did everything remotely. We had workers in South Buffalo or call takers in Amherst, Clarence, and all the towns. I was out, and it's a hot topic regarding emergency management, especially remote stuff.

It works for me things, not for others. It worked for this, but we probably needed a choice. Not to work, people's lives are at stake. But I did build up again, and it was a good structure. Working with call takers, ensuring we're all using the same FAQ when people are calling and getting information from outside organizations to say the same message about what's going on.

Because of this, there will be roughly 20,000 calls in two days—yeah, 20,000 calls. 

Todd DeVoe: Wow. Okay. Now, here's the tricky question: Since they were remote, which is fantastic, first of all, that's an excellent use of technology. But we've talked a little bit about the mental health part of it.

Sarah, if somebody was having [a bad call] and they got off the phone, they'd be like, wow, I just was not prepared for this. I'm not trained for this. I don't know what to do with this. How do they reach out to you or somebody saying, Hey, I'm… This one messed me up a little bit. I need to talk about it. 

Sarah Bonk: Yep. I was proud of what Jason and I did: set a tone. And by that, we managed a WebEx chat so all the folks working on that hotline could chat. Oh, I have this question. Does anybody know the answer?

Because we wanted that connectivity. We knew quickly that. If folks were working in remote areas, we still wanted them to have access to one another. In that chat space, talking about what people could expect as a result of these calls was something that I was focusing on. Telling folks, make sure you drink a lot of water.

You may be thinking about call after call and just trying to normalize your actions. What they could expect  that if they did have questions, they could come back to me or email me on the side and just make it that everybody was on the same page, that we were all doing something we didn't expect and just level sitting with folks on a pretty consistent basis and saying, you are saving lives. I'm sorry you're in this position, but I am here, which is really difficult.

We checked in on folks there. I found, and I have had the privilege of doing variations of this in different settings, that if you come out of the gate saying this will be hard, we will address it. You foster that environment of willingness to talk about it, and people are more likely to reach out and access those services if needed.

But it was difficult. One of the best things we did was a small group of trained 9 1 1 call takers at the emergency operation center, and one of the dispatchers had a dog that they used with me. I forgot the name of the actual program, but they go into airports, and they're like comfort dogs. We brought that in during the operation when recovery started, and that initial response had dwindled.

The canine's effect on that room's morale was hugely impactful. Really, just having a mind or having somebody within the operation who can address those needs is critical, mainly because I can't expect the incident commander to be worried about people's mental wellness during a disaster.

I would love it if they did, but I realistically don't expect that of them.  That's why I am there to ensure those needs can be addressed. 

Todd DeVoe: I know that we're not here to talk about this, but I have two exciting things about mental health. I would love to see somebody who, and I might just do this alone.

Todd DeVoe: And just talking to talk, I'd love to have somebody in charge of mental health during a crisis. Like you're like a mental health officer. That's where you're at; you're almost like a safety officer, right? I think that's something that we should be looking at. Still, the other thing is, and this is if anybody who's a, like, a psych major or something that wants to do like a research paper for their master's thesis or something, or PhD dissertation, I'd love to see if there's a correlation between when they started removing dogs from the fire station and the increase in the mental health issues with firefighters.

Sarah Bonk: Oh, that would be fascinating. Yeah. 

Todd DeVoe: Yeah. 

Sarah Bonk: Yeah. When was that transition? When did that transition start? Probably 

Todd DeVoe: in the 90s. 

Sarah Bonk: Yeah, that would be interesting. And it's, yeah. 

Todd DeVoe: Yeah, because, like, I won't 

Sarah Bonk: derail us because I could talk for a while about that. 

Todd DeVoe: It's because we're having a conversation about bringing dogs back into the firehouse right now.

And I think that's a good idea. You talked about bringing the mental health logs in. They are definitely proven to show a physical decrease in stress. And Ihat's a aool thing.  I'm glad that you guys did that with your canines. Like I said, if anybody out there is looking for a PhD or master's thesis, that'd be a really good research piece.

I'm a public policy guy, not a psych guy. Lessons learned that we talked about that a bit, which is awesome. You can do stuff remotely; you don't have to bring people into a physical location. And that's awesome. On the call-taking side, how did you do the training for them?

And then what was the ft? Can you talk about the software? That is what you use to keep everybody on track. And you said WebEx is one of them, but I'll keep everybody on track and in conversation. And if you knew, like, when they're on when they're off and that type of stuff. 

Jason Hurley: That actually was something. We didn't have many capabilities because I was concerned that we were developing this literally the Monday before the event.

I wanted to avoid any scenarios that might work with our IT department. I told them to just give me what they know will work for now. I didn't have access to see who was logged in at any moment. This is all we have done since it was fixed on multiple levels.

It was just, really, by a trust or, I would text somebody, or they would text me and say, Hey, I'm logging in, or I'm logging out, stuff like that, and just keep track that way. I kept a master schedule of people on four—to six-hour shifts again because this was stressful.

I tried to shorten short shifts for many people, again, like none of them were 911 call takers, dispatchers, or anything like that. They're all day-to-day admin-type people for the most part. And anecdotally, we had 911 call takers during the emergency breaking down,  with all the types of calls we were receiving, back to the mental health stuff again that, that was one thing that we have since all done is set it up instead of just using Webex to log in on one significant essentially traffic way that would all go to people's personal cell phones or work phones if they had one, now you log into a virtual call center. A call center manager function allows you to see who's logged in, who's on a call, how long that call is going for, and things like that through Cisco.

That has been extremely helpful. Another thing was that I had to use Google Docs to create the forms I needed to get call takers to access or create the necessary information: name, phone number, address, types of situations. I also made the drop-down menus for our largest topics: dialysis, cars, shelter-in-place type questions, and things like that.

We have worked with Buffalo Computer Graphics since then. Now, there's a DLAM form that creates a sub-incident within the incident. Sarah, you can help me with the technical side of it because I'm still learning, honestly. Now, you have the EOC able to see these calls coming in real time on what priority level, but it's not interfering and creating all these DLAN tickets that are now watering down the whole screen. Light?

We've initiated that since then, too; how can we better capture this information? We know it will live there forever if it's in DLAN. We can always revisit it. We can always pull it back up. Things like that. Without the EOC manager asking why I suddenly had 6,000 tickets,

Now we can create the sub-incident; they all live there forever. And it's a record of two calls on the tech and logistics side of how things worked and then the training; honestly, it was all on the fly by me. It was we; I worked with our PIO for several hours that week.

A few other people have topics we think we will see. Obviously, we ended up not using any of those and created an FAQ in real time about what we were getting calls about finding really good info graphics on how to tell people how to stay warm in their cars or in their homes. Like I was saying, again, we're all consistent.

We started with eight call-takers and ended up with around 40 shifts. I was literally just getting people on to one virtual meeting for 30 minutes and running through the types of things that they need to do, what they will hear, who's comfortable with that, and who's not comfortable with that, and going from there.

It's all on the fly in terms of training. Now, we do a training where you log into Cisco Jabber, WebEx, and DLAN. This is how you use all these tools. Now, this is the type of information we expect to get.  

Todd DeVoe: Do you want to add anything to that? 

Sarah Bonk: No, that was a beautiful explanation.

One of the other things is ensuring we do that training annually. Jason is good at leaning into preparedness month in September and using that as our pre-winter warm-up. While they may not always be disastrous, we often will stand up an EOC just to ensure that we're addressing these storms effectively, and you never know.

Jason is there to ensure that those trainings happen and that staff are ready to go as early as the snow can fly. Hopefully, that will stay that way. 

Todd DeVoe: Okay, we're coming here to the end, but they have a super, super important question for you guys. Yeah.  Are the Buffalo Bills, are we going to go to the Super Bowl this year?

Sarah Bonk: Jason, I'm not answering that. That's you. 

Jason Hurley: Every year is our year. Come on. When Josh Allen's your quarterback, you always have a shot. 

Sarah Bonk: And I'm too much of a nerd to pay attention. Shout out. I hope the guys do great, but I need to pay more attention. 

Todd DeVoe: You guys need to think about that because you might have to plan for a Superbowl parade or something, 

Sarah Bonk:  don't even say the parade word. Don't even say it's the worst nightmare. 

Todd DeVoe: It's been a dream of mine since 1970 for the Buffalo Bills to win the Super Bowl. We got close to the nineties and maybe. 

Sarah Bonk: the new stadium will bring us luck. 

Todd DeVoe: Yeah, that's a good point. All right. All right, guys. Thank you very much for your time. And if anybody wants to get ahold of you, how can they find you? 

Jason Hurley: My email is Jason dot Hurley at Erie dot gov J A S O N dot H U R L U I E Y at Erie dot gov. As I said, Sarah and I have presented at a conference and shared our information with our association of counties nationally and in the state. We're happy to help anyone who wants to learn from us, whether through our lessons learned or helping implement anything like that. Sarah. 

Sarah Bonk: Absolutely. People can reach me at sarah. bonk at erie. gov—that's S A R A H. B O N K at erie. Gov., I am happy to chat about mental health, disaster management, recovery, or whatever questions folks have.

Todd DeVoe: Thank you very much for your time. I know you guys are super busy. You have to get back to work! 

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The Emergency Management Network
The Emergency Management Network Podcast
This podcast features strategies and advice from today’s leaders and experts in emergency management. Its purpose is to empower and enrich current and future leaders.