BRECKSVILLE, Ohio — Ten local 911 operators are in St. Thomas and St. Croix for the next two weeks, but the group isn't there to enjoy a tropical vacation.
Instead, the men and women from Chagrin Valley Dispatch Center (CVD) and Southwest Dispatch Center are temporarily dispatching for the Virgin Islands.
The islands, known for glistening blue water and beautiful beaches, have been hit hard by the COVID-19 omicron variant.
According to Virgin Islands government officials, the positivity rate has soared from less than 5% in late December to nearly 25% as of Jan. 4.
The U.S. territories activated the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC) to ask for help with critical dispatching needs.
Most of the 911 operators in St. Thomas and St. Croix have been infected with the virus, causing the islands to lose their ability to dispatch emergency services.
"It wiped out 90% of their 911 dispatchers, so we still need somebody there to answer the call for everyday emergencies that don't stop," said Matthew Reinke from the CVD Bedford center.
CVD sent seven dispatchers to the islands, and three more dispatchers from the Strongsville-area also made the trip.
"We're doing 12-hour shifts, so have 12 on, 12 off. We're working 9 to 9," Reinke said during an interview over Zoom. "We're certainly aren't on a vacation. We're working hard."
The group is part of a Telecommunicator Emergency Response Task Force (TERT). It marked the first time Ohio has sent a TERT team to help with a faraway crisis.
The dispatchers came from various centers and different shifts to reduce the risk of a dispatcher shortage in Northeast Ohio with COVID-19 cases rising locally as well.
"What we did was we spread the load out over all of our centers in the area and all shifts within those centers, so that everybody back home could still operate normally while we got the chance to help out our fellow dispatchers," Reinke said.
Local taxpayers will not foot the bill for the trip because the cost for assistance will be reimbursed by the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to CVD Director Nick DiCicco.
Brenda Wadle, a 911 dispatch supervisor in the Brecksville, center admitted she jealous she didn't get to make the journey, but said the effort illustrates the special bond between dispatchers near and far.
"We are always reaching out whether it by raising money for Shop with a Cop or something as drastic as going and sitting in paradise and doing work for them in a critical need," Wadle said.