What’s different about 911 calls during the COVID-19 emergency?

March 26, 2020

A dispatcher in front of computer screens

COVID-19 has changed the way we work, eat, learn, play, relax and live in general. Occasionally you hear about something the pandemic has changed that you’d never have thought about. Public safety answering points (PSAPs) or 911 dispatch centers may be one of those things.

When you dial 911, your call goes to a PSAP, where a dispatcher asks you questions about your emergency and gets you the right kind of help as quickly as possible. Several days ago, the Department of Public Safety’s Emergency Communication Networks (ECN) division sent out a bulletin to the managers and supervisors of Minnesota’s 103 PSAPs. The bulletin detailed extra questions 911 dispatchers can ask callers when it becomes apparent that the emergency is medical in nature. The questions will both help first responders stay safe and make sure the patient gets the proper type of help.

Now, when a medical call comes in, the dispatcher will ask variations on the following questions:

  1. Does the patient have a fever, trouble breathing, or a cough?
  2. Has the patient been in contact with anyone who has a respiratory illness?

Dispatchers can pass the answers to these and the other questions they ask along to the first responders to make sure the patient gets the care they need.

Now more than ever, it is essential to save 911 calls for true emergencies – COVID-19-related or otherwise. Fortunately, Minnesotans seem to have already received the message. Minnesota State Patrol PSAPs, for example, have seen a significant drop in calls in the past month. Whereas in the third week of February, State Patrol PSAPs saw a total 911 call volume of 4,322, they had only 1,765 in the third week of March.

If you have general, non-emergency questions about COVID-19, you can call the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) hotline. Its hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and you can reach it by calling 651-201-3920 or 800-657-3903, but MDH suggests visiting its COVID-19 website first before you call. You will find many resources and information that is updated regularly.