How Penn first responders are dealing with the coronavirus on the front lines

COVID-19 presents challenges faced by first responders, including PennComm dispatchers and police officers.

Image: Division of Public Safety

Penn’s Division of Public Safety (DPS) supports the campus and surrounding area—the Penn patrol zone—24 hours a day, seven days a week through seven departments with 182 personnel, 121 of whom are University of Pennsylvania Police Department (UPPD) police officers.

The DPS dispatchers, who work in the PennComm emergency communications center, answer more than 94,000 calls a year. The division also includes more than 550 Allied Universal security officers patrolling on and off campus and within buildings.

Division of Public Safety meeting with officers wearing face coverings
Vice President Rush addressing officers during a socially-distanced police roll call. (Image: DPS)

Vice President for Public Safety and Superintendent of Penn Police Maureen S. Rush says DPS has continued to focus on serving the community during the pandemic.

“In the Division of Public Safety, our motto is, ‘It’s all about relationships,’” she says. “From the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the women and men of DPS have put the needs of the community first. They are providing security throughout the patrol zone, ensuring that life safety systems are working across campus, touring the inside of Penn buildings, taking calls for service, and providing support and resources—including free walking escorts.”

Rush says the team has continually shown their commitment to the community members, especially for the safety and welfare of health care workers at the two COVID-19 testing sites and Penn hospitals.

“In turn, we have felt the love and care of our community,” she says. “Donated meals, donations of personal protective equipment, calls and thank-you notes are just some of the ways our team has been sustained since March. We are very grateful to be able to serve the Penn and University City community during this critical time in our world.”

Penn Police: Cultivating relationships in the community

An 18 year-veteran on the UPPD force, Lieutenant Nicole McCoy says several aspects of her job have changed during the pandemic, but the fundamentals of the job have not changed.

Lt. Nicole McCoy standing in front of a Penn police car with a face covering on.
18-year veteran on the UPPD force, Lieutenant Nicole McCoy. (Image: DPS)

“We are going to respond 100 percent of the time regardless of what the situation is,” she says, “so I am constantly reminding my team to take the extra step to be safe in how they respond.”

The biggest challenge, McCoy says, is making sure that her officers are safe on the job and that the people they come in contact with are also safe. She says every officer is responsible for maintaining cleanliness of their squad cars, body cameras, and radios.

“Wearing our masks, having hand sanitizer, and washing our hands often—that’s the most important thing—and that’s what’s different,” says McCoy, “just trying to remember all of those little things that we would normally run out the door without doing.”

The demand for response hasn’t changed due to the coronavirus, but rather, has shifted as the change to virtual coursework means that fewer people are outside, says McCoy.

Penn Medicine is hosting drive-up COVID-19 testing sites, on Market Street between 41st and 42nd streets and at 59th and Locust streets at the Sayre School. Penn Medicine personnel are supported by Penn Police and Allied security officers, who assist with traffic management, securing the site and its contents, and providing guidance and safety to those approaching and utilizing the site.

COVID-19 testing site on Penn campus with nurses and Penn police under a clear tent and folding table set-up
COVID testing site at 41st St. and Market. (Image: DPS)

“We are working to support the medical workers and make sure they are not overwhelmed at the test sites,” says McCoy.

Penn Police officers have been consistently patrolling the University City area throughout the last six months. McCoy explains that they are more visible because there are not as many people on the streets.

“While the nurses and doctors are taking care of the staff, there are police officers out on the streets making sure that everything else is safe,” she says. “Our job every day is to prevent harm to our community, and especially now, support our nurses and doctors.”

Currently, says McCoy, the top priority is keeping people safe.

“It’s about explaining to people what safe is,” she says “Why you should wear a mask, why that’s crucial, why you should social distance.”
The department has enough resources and is well-equipped. So, while they are not in need of extra masks, McCoy says the community support in terms of gratitude has been a positive force.

“The phone calls, the emails, and the pictures thanking us these last six months have been amazing,” she says. “We work hard to establish relationships throughout our community and to have those relationships returned with just a note saying, ‘We know you are there and we really appreciate you,’ feels amazing.”

UPPD has also been coordinating its efforts with city officials and other first-responder departments.

“Our emergency preparedness department works tirelessly with the Philadelphia Fire Department, Philadelphia Police, and Penn Medicine to make sure we are all on the same page with the latest CDC requirements, rules, and precautions,” says McCoy.

First responders face tough work conditions even without the threat of a novel virus. Emergency personnel have among the highest rates of illness and injury of any job, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports.

“First responders have a certain level of physical strength they have to upkeep, but to be emotionally and mentally strong throughout the crisis is an added challenge,” McCoy says.

She says the hardest part about her job currently due to the coronavirus is the social distancing. She says people think police officers spend their days chasing suspects and answering radio calls, but the majority of her day usually involves interacting with the public, checking inside buildings in and around Penn, and being social around the community.

“I’m struggling because I’m a very social person,” she says. “I like to smile at everyone and you can’t see my smile through the face mask. So, I’m trying to practice smiling with my eyes.”

PennComm Dispatch: Working for the greater good

Johnathan Moore works as a dispatcher and tele-communicator with the PennComm Dispatch. He has been with DPS since 2012 and says he takes being part of the frontline support during the coronavirus as a sense of duty.

Dispatch photo of Johnathan sitting at desk fielding calls wearing a face covering
Johnathan Moore works as a dispatcher and telecommunicator with the PennComm Dispatch. (Image: DPS)

“It’s more like a responsibility for me to be here during this unfortunate situation,” he says. “Just like police and health care workers, we also know what we signed up for. I have a sense of pride just knowing that I am helping the greater good. I want to be here at work to help any way I can.”

Moore shares McCoy’s sentiment in that the major challenge facing him as a dispatcher during the pandemic is having to wearing his mask. “No one can see you smile,” he says.

Even though dispatchers are not outside, he says they still have to follow similar guidelines to make sure they are staying healthy for the people around them.

“All dispatchers have PPE,” he says. “We make sure we are constantly cleaning our consoles thoroughly between shifts. We are all walking around with personal hand sanitizers. We are always cleaning.”
Moore’s job as a dispatcher has also shifted in the way calls are handled due to the coronavirus.

“People will call in and we give the public information on how to take preventative measures,” he says. “We too have a coordinated protocol that is followed and set in place when responding to any type of these health situations.”

In the last few months, Moore says he has found that the pandemic can bring spirits down, and he takes pride in being the self-proclaimed jokester of the department.

“My coworkers and I find ways to lift everyone’s spirits during this challenging time,” he says. “Everyone that knows me, knows I am the one who likes to make jokes in the room, make people laugh, and keep everybody on the up and up.”

You may reach DPS at any time by calling the PennComm emergency communications center at 215-573-3333 or www.publicsafety.upenn.edu.