COVID-19: 1 Year Later – Crisis Program Response
One year of pandemic response at Distress Centre Calgary
This is part one in our multi-part series exploring Distress Centre’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, one year after we first activated our business continuity plan and went remote for the safety of our staff and volunteers. It hasn’t been an easy journey; we’ve encountered many challenges and 2021 continues to challenge us. But within that struggle there have also been moments of joy, accomplishments and achievements to be proud of.
This story looks at the general lead-up to the pandemic and our crisis program’s response. Please be aware of our “Dos” and “Don’ts” when using any data from this story.
January and February 2020
In early 2020, we were preparing for our big office move, from our space on 8th Avenue that we’d worked out of for nearly 20 years, to our new home just a few blocks away on 8th Street. Distress Centre staff and volunteers had been preparing for this move for months and we anticipated that it would be one of the defining events of 2020.
We moved on January 31, 2020. What we didn’t realize at the time was that we had already responded to our first COVID-19-related contact, which occurred on January 26th.
“On February 4th we opened the doors to our new location and had no idea what the next few months were going to look like, “said Jerilyn Dressler, Executive Director at Distress Centre Calgary.
In early February, Distress Centre began discussions with social workers from the local Chinese community. They wanted to discuss the rising concern around the new COVID-19 coronavirus. By early March, it was becoming clear just how widespread the impact of COVID-19 would be.
In 2019, our Director of Operations, Robyn Romano, had worked with carya, the City of Calgary and other critical service providers to create a business continuity plan to activate during an emergency. At the time we were preparing for the next fire or flood.
“In no way, shape or form were we expecting to respond to such a global crisis that impacted everyone in the world,” said Jerilyn.
Distress Centre’s leadership team formed the COVID-19 response team on March 9th, 2020.
When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic on March 11th, 2020, we tailored our business plan for the pandemic. By Friday March 13th we had put measures in place, such as limiting outside visitors and increasing our cleaning measures. We postponed our volunteer training (it was the first training group we’d had at our new office), and began planning for staff and volunteers to work remotely, while also preparing to ramp up our services, anticipating increased demand due to the stress and uncertainty the pandemic brought on.
“We noticed that the more headlines we saw in the paper and the more that people were getting worried about COVID-19, the more likely it was that volunteers were not going to be able to make it to their shifts,” said Mike Velthuis Kroeze, Crisis Program Manager at DC.
“We had been talking about using remote responders for the last couple of years,” said Jerilyn. “Our plan was to work on it in 2020, we had a six to 12 month plan. The team made it happen in a week.”
''We had been talking about using remote responders for the last couple of years. Our plan was to work on it in 2020, we had a six to 12 month plan. The team made it happen in a week.'' - Jerilyn Dressler
On March 17th we closed our office. By March 18th, we were operating completely remote.
“We were very fortunate that our phone and IT company [Altitude Communications and LAN Solutions, respectively] recognized the critical nature of our services, and they really prioritized us,” said Mike. “We were in daily contact, just trying to iron out the bugs and make sure it was actually going to work. The lines were never down. It makes me so proud of what we were able to do. We stopped operations at noon on the 18th of March, and we already had people at home ready to pick up calls.”
“There were definitely a lot of technology bumps in those first few days,” added Robyn. “A lot was not working, but the reality is even with that, we didn’t lose anything. We have continued to grow, adapt and be flexible this whole time and keep responding to that demand.”
The impact on our volunteer program
When we went remote, we went from a model of using mostly volunteers to respond to crisis contacts (other than overnight hours) to a 100% staffing model while we worked out how to operate remotely with volunteers.
Volunteers are truly the heart of our agency so it was important to bring our volunteers back as soon as we could, but only if we were prepared to support them.
“We were totally on staff for the first 12 days,” said Mike. “Then we started to bring in remote volunteers to help with online services as well as answering the Canada Suicide Prevention Service. Volunteers weren’t answering local calls until May.”
DC’s Contact Centre Coordinators (CCCs) oversee the volunteers and staff who are answering crisis contacts and provide support and guidance on high risk calls, as well as feedback and debriefs after calls. After a tough call, the volunteer or staff will debrief with the CCC on shift. Remotely, this same support is still present, but it is given by phone.
In the contact centre, staff and volunteers would be able to chat and check in with each other when they aren’t on a call. Remotely, they chat in a group IM instead to stay connected with each other.
We began to gradually re-enter our office in June 2020, which allowed us to have volunteers on-site again. Distress Centre now has a mix of on-site and remote volunteers, but unfortunately our volunteer pool has shrunk considerably in that time. We knew we had to get our volunteer training back on track to build that pool back up.
Our in-person training was transitioned to nearly entirely online. The virtual training launched in June and has received largely positive feedback.
“I’m so proud of the way that we managed to get our recruitment and training operating virtually within two months of transitioning to remote work,” said Mike. “The amount of time and effort that went into creating the online training modules and prepping our staff and leadership volunteers to run virtual role plays was quite significant. The entire team pulled together to make this a success. The feedback from so many people about the level of preparedness of the new trainees was absolutely phenomenal.”
ConnecTeen, Distress Centre’s youth peer support program, was uniquely impacted by the pandemic. Though there was no disruption in services, we were unable to offer peer support in the first weeks of remote operations. When we began bringing on remote volunteers in April, only ConnecTeen volunteers aged 18 and older could come back at first.
“We wanted to find a way to ensure that our younger volunteers received at least the same level of support from staff [as they normally would],” Mike said. “While we were hoping to bring CT volunteers back into the building in October, we found a lot of parents weren’t interested in having their kids’ risk being at the agency. In late October, we began to have younger volunteers work remotely but have connected them by Zoom to a CCC and their peers throughout their shift. This provides them both with support but also an opportunity to socialize with each other.”
The ConnecTeen program is running in this way to the present day.
Since initially going remote in March, Distress Centre’s crisis program has been flexible in responding to the changing nature of the pandemic. We continued our gradual re-entry back into our office until the mandatory work-from-home order was announced by the Alberta Government in December. Since then, only a handful of staff and volunteers have remained on-site.
It’s been a full year since going remote, and our volunteer numbers are still not what they were, requiring us to have staff cover shifts that would have previously been covered by volunteers.
Mike says that one of the biggest challenges Distress Centre continues to face is providing support for the volunteers and staff working remotely.
“The subject matter of the calls and emotional toll this can have on those answering contacts has been pretty significant,” said Mike. “When we were all in the contact centre it was easy for a CCC to sit with a volunteer and support them after a tough call in a way that isn’t possible when someone is working from home.”
In February 2021, Distress Centre was awarded AAS Accreditation from the American Association of Suicidology. This involved adopting a new suicide risk-assessment in August 2020, despite not being able to run in-person training. A review after 90 days indicated that the number of active rescues required declined despite a significant increase in the number suicide-related contacts.
Suicide-related contacts have risen continually during the pandemic. There was a 41% increase in suicide-related contacts from January 26th-December 31st, 2020 compared to the same period last year and a 28% increase in January 2021 compared to January 2020.
It is not clear yet what the future holds, though we are hopeful that we’ll see some return to normality within 2021.
For the crisis program, the biggest challenge going forward remains supporting staff and volunteers.
“We need to continue an emphasis on supporting the people on the front lines. Both the responders but also the Contact Centre Supervisors,” said Mike.
''The people who dedicate their time and energy to supporting our community are not immune to the impacts of the pandemic themselves. (...) We need to continue to take care of ourselves and each other so that we can be in the best possible place to support our service users.'' - Mike Velthuis Kroeze
“It’s so important to remember that all of the people who dedicate their time and energy to supporting our community are not immune to the impacts of the pandemic themselves. Our team has gone through loss, pain, and frustration in their own lives and it’s so important for us to always remember that we need to continue to take care of ourselves and each other so that we can be in the best possible place to support our service users.”