All of Haines’ emergency dispatchers caught COVID but stayed on the job to answer 911 calls

a building with a police car outside
Haines Borough Public Safety Building, where the Haines Borough Police Department is headquartered. (Photo by KHNS)

All three of Haines’ emergency dispatchers have tested positive for COVID-19, but officials say they’ve elected to stay on the job anyway to field 911 calls from the public safety building.

Haines borough manager Annette Kreitzer said the dispatch office’s three-person staff tested positive for COVID-19 last week. She was alerted last Tuesday, Jan. 11, of the situation.

“Of course, our first inclination is to protect employee’s health and to protect the public’s health,” Kreitzer said.

The office fields 911 calls for police and emergency services throughout the Haines borough and coordinates via phone and radio between personnel during service calls. They also manage the Haines jail, maintain call logs and department reports and handle public records requests.

Haines Police Chief Heath Scott was out of town at the time, delayed from returning due to winter weather. But Kreitzer said she consulted with him and the dispatch supervisor on how to proceed.

“First of all, these are essential workers,” she said. “You can’t just have someone walk in off the street and do police or fire dispatch, it just doesn’t work that way. And so what you need to try to do is figure out if they are feeling well enough to work. And if they are, then we need to quarantine them and make sure that they aren’t having any interaction with any other staff, and with the public. And so that was put into place.”

Kreitzer said the team volunteered to keep working so that 911 calls would be answered locally.

“I just want the public to know that we did not ask them to continue working,” she said. “We made it clear that this is your choice. You do not have to work. You know, it was up to them to volunteer to stay on and work through. And that’s what they did.”

Kreitzer said the three infected employees felt well enough to work, but she declined to elaborate on their condition. She said they were instructed to go straight home and isolate after work hours.

Haines Police Chief Heath Scott declined to be interviewed. But in an email to KHNS, he wrote that he has full confidence in the dispatchers who are isolated in an office, asked to wear masks and clean their work station prior to the next dispatcher’s shift. He said they have closed the office to the public and ask residents to avoid stopping at the department in-person unless it’s an emergency.

Chief Scott said he’s proud of the department, and “they understand how important this work is and they accept that responsibility without complaint.”

Kreitzer said if employees had decided not to work or were unable to due to illness, the borough could direct 911 calls to state dispatchers in Fairbanks. Haines has at least one sworn police officer who is trained up.

“If they had not volunteered to work, then that’s when we would have been looking to other agencies,” Kreitzer said. “Or (we) would have brought in, we only have I believe, one other person who’s trained as a dispatcher, who is a police officer. And we would have brought him in to serve in the dispatch position.”

Kreitzer said dispatchers working from home was not an option because of the software and communication technology needed at the public safety building.

When asked what lessons were learned moving forward, Kreitzer said her office would be more prepared to take the appropriate steps to mitigate COVID-19 spread more quickly.

“Well, we don’t really know how the first case started. And so it’s hard to say, ‘Oh, we would do this different, we would do that different,’” Kreitzer said. “But I think that there is a good realization of how quickly things can move if someone becomes ill. And I think we would probably communicate much more quickly the next time.”

Kreitzer said the Haines police and emergency services employees and volunteers get tested regularly, and they are monitoring for any further transmission.

She said the Haines borough recommends but does not require COVID-19 vaccinations and masking for employees.

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