PPD Commissioner Danielle Outlaw holds up one of the temporary masks being used by dispatch workers

As Philadelphia police officers try to practice social distancing on the streets, the civilian staffers fielding 911 calls are working in cramped conditions with limited protective gear.

On Wednesday, Police Commissioner Danielle Outlaw addressed complaints that have swirled among more than 240 police radio dispatchers about hazardous conditions at the department’s headquarters.

While staffing levels have been reduced, up to 43 dispatchers remain taking calls alongside one another in the same room at any given time, Outlaw acknowledged. They’re currently provided “makeshift” face masks that resemble lobster bibs, after N95 masks were found to muffle voices to the point that dispatchers couldn’t do their jobs, according to the commissioner.

The cloth masks are among a long list of grievances among workers, whose identities Billy Penn is withholding to protect their jobs. In the police radio room, located on the second floor of the Roundhouse at 8th and Race streets, fears of an outbreak are rampant. One person there has tested positive already and four others are being tested, according to one police radio worker. The city will not confirm numbers of infected workers.

“It’s very tense,” the dispatcher said. “Everybody’s scared. If someone in here has it, we all take it home.”

Sanitation supplies are provided to workers, Outlaw said. But another dispatcher showed Billy Penn an image of a bottle of hand sanitizer in the Roundhouse that expired in 2017. Manufacturers warn the alcohol content dissipates after three years, rendering it ineffective.

The union that represents these dispatchers says it has secured better protective gear. The volume of workers in the call center has been reduced to “bare bones” minimum to avoid close quarters contact, the union says, and officials are working with the department to ensure safer working conditions during the chaotically unfolding situation.

The technological setup at the department’s 911 call center prevents working remotely, according to the commissioner.

“In a perfect world, I would have been able to pick all of them up, move them to a completely different place, have them work remotely,” Outlaw said, “but that’s just not the reality.”

It is unclear how many civilian dispatchers — or uniformed police officers — have tested positive for the COVID-19 coronavirus to date.

Philadelphia officials have declined to release specifics about city employees, citing privacy concerns. According to Outlaw, there are also fears that disclosing case numbers might incite panic and more call-outs within the department.

Outlaw did reveal that less than 1% of the department has tested positive. Top brass say they’re not concerned about staffing levels at the moment. Outlaw herself has been tested and does not have the virus, she said.

Addressing concerns about protective gear for the dispatchers, Outlaw said N95 masks were made available to dispatchers early on in the outbreak, but they weren’t feasible for taking phone calls. The loose cloth mask, she said, is a temporary measure until the department can find a suitable alternative.

“These cloth masks are something in between, they’re intended to protect someone else,” Outlaw said Wednesday, demonstrating the mask on a Zoom call. “I’m preventing anything from coming out of my mouth when I’m unable to socially distance.”

Outlaw said workers are told to take their breaks off the floor to limit the number of people in the same room.

She also said there’s one person per console and dispatchers are spaced apart so they’re not sitting as close as they usually do — though two sources who spoke with Billy Penn later refuted that description. Some trainees are still working at the same consoles as  trainers, they said.

“Again, it’s not ideal and we’re working with what we have,” the commissioner said.

Frank Halbherr, the president of AFSCME Local 1637, which represents radio dispatch and other civilian workers in the PPD, said the union ordered better face masks for the workers, and they have already arrived.

Halbherr said he’s been “up all night” tending the concerns of his members. From his view, management is doing its best to adapt to the crisis.

“No one was ready for this thing,” Halbherr said. “I’ve spoken to the inspectors in police radio on a daily basis. In this instance, I believe we’re all in the same boat and we are trying to make it as safe as possible.”

Max Marin (he/him) was Billy Penn's investigative reporter from 2018 to 2021. A graduate of Temple University, he has produced award-winning journalism on local politics, criminal justice, immigration...