Three dispatchers from Southwest Emergency Dispatch Center are back from two weeks in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but they aren’t sporting tans or talking about spending time on the beach.
Instead, they spent the two weeks working 12-hour shifts on St. Thomas and St. Croix, where the coronavirus had infected 93 percent of 911 operators, leaving both islands desperate for help.
“Both centers were decimated by COVID,” said Erin Iorillo, a dispatch supervisor for SWEDC who answered the call for aid. “They were really struggling.”
The trip was originated by the federal Emergency Management Agency and organized locally by Chagrin Valley Dispatch, another regional dispatch center headquartered in Bedford, which got wind of the situation and was able to free up seven telecommunicators for the journey. They asked members of SWEDC, which is based in Strongsville, to join them, and three employees volunteered.
Iorillo and dispatchers Becky Naymik and Christine Eddy only had about four days to prepare before the trip, which ran Jan. 4-19.
“None of us could have done this without the support of our families,” Iorillo said.
The islands were so short-staffed that the few healthy employees literally locked themselves in over the holidays, eating, showering and sleeping at the dispatch center.
That meant the 10-member team from Ohio was plunged into their new jobs with no time for training.
“It was pretty much, ‘here’s how you answer the phone’ and that was it,” Iorillo said.
The staff, though, was patient and kind.
“The people we worked with there were wonderful,” Naymik said. “I don’t know what I would have done if they weren’t so helpful.”
The Ohio contingent did find themselves facing some unfamiliar situations.
“I had my first call about a sinking vessel,” Naymik said. “I had to work with the Coast Guard to help find it.”
Also problematic was that the islands don’t use addresses to identify homes, so dispatchers had to get directions to guide responders to nearly every call.
The most challenging thing? Even though people on the islands speak English, the creole dialect was tough to decipher.
“All I could do was ask them to slow down and please repeat what they said,” Iorillo said.
Iorillo and Naymik, along with three Chagrin Valley dispatchers, were assigned to St. Croix, while Eddy was on St. Thomas. And while Iorillo and Eddy were on night shift (9 p.m. to 9:30 a.m.), Naymik worked days, meaning she barely even saw daylight.
She was still happy to volunteer.
“If it was happening here, I’d hope someone would come help us,” Naymik said.
Iorillo said she looked at the challenge as a once-in-a-lifetime learning opportunity.
“I learned a crazy amount of stuff there,” she said. “And I think it’s good to have a good rapport with another dispatch center.”
The women all came away with new friendships they believe will last a lifetime, not only from the islands but also with their colleagues at Chagrin Valley Dispatch.
“Everyone was just like one big team,” Naymik said.
The dispatchers’ salaries will be paid through federal government programs.