Bellingham’s IT department wrestles with the effects of the Covid-19Jun 02, 2020 02:00PM ● By Pamela Johnson
Karen Jasinski-Dutil, a graduate of Bryant University and the town’s Information Technology Director, has been working in IT for more than 20 years. Although she serves multiple town departments and offices, she took time to answer the following questions for COA newsletter editor Dave Dunbar. (She can be reached at [email protected].)
How has the arrival of COVID-19 changed what you do for the town?
The arrival of COVID-19 has forced us to determine how, when they can’t be in their offices in the same capacity as they were prior to COVID, we can still provide the municipal employees the same resources and support we give them on a daily basis within their offices. Our goals during this crisis are 1– to provide remote access to our users, the goal being a seamless transition from physically working in their offices to remotely working from home without disrupting their day-to-day work, and 2–to coordinate state and local information and provide means to get this information to the public in an effective and timely manner.
COVID forced a lot more work to be done online; can you measure this increase in the town departments?
Some sort of “remote access” has been provided to members of just about every Municipal Department. All users can access their email from any location. We have provided phone forwarding to some users so that calls to the Municipal Center would be answered during normal business hours. Several users now have remote access to the same resources they would have if they were sitting at their desks.
Within the municipal departments, I would say the DPW saw the biggest need for remote access. Considering the amount of work they do on the roads and parks, and on the water and sewer systems, we needed to be sure they could continue to be able to respond to any issues or requests that members of the community had.
Regarding the public’s access, I would say Inspectional Services had a big increase in their workload. Once the COVID crisis started, we had just gone online with the new permitting system. Homeowners/contractors can log on to the Building Permit App online and request a building permit, an inspection or just about everything else the Building and Health Department offers. This has been a great service to the public because they can do everything from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
The addition of Zoom Video Meeting software has allowed us to abide by the Public Meeting regulations as well as allowing the town boards the ability to continue their work. Several departments also use the software to communicate with their staff since they no longer see them all together on a daily basis.
As restrictions gradually lift, do you see challenges ahead, and what might they be?
As restrictions lift and employees start returning to work, I could see possible issues with people in close working spaces. It’s possible that work stations, hardware etc. may need to be moved to provide the proper physical distancing regulations. There is also the possibility of another surge. If that happens, we would have to implement remote access, so we will need to be prepared to quickly shift our support and resources back to the remote environment. We may also need to implement a hybrid system, with some resources needed for remote services and others needed for the “normal” in-house needs.
Any stories of town workers going above and beyond to solve problems?
Since I’m unable to go to people’s homes to set up their work stations, there have been a few users who had to channel their inner I.T. person to get connected! I’ve had several email conversations, phone calls and screen-shares to walk some people through the setup to configure their home pcs into their new work pcs.
I definitely have to give a shout-out to Town Planner Jim Kupfer. When we made the decision to use Zoom for video conferencing and as a means to hold public board meetings, Jim dived right in and learned how to best use the software. He has been the designated “host” of most board meetings and has really been pivotal in allowing us to give the public access to view and participate in public meetings. It has really been a team effort since this epidemic started. Pam Brodeur, our Public Safety Network Administrator, has been outstanding during the crisis. Since police and fire personnel are unable to work from home, Pam has been able to keep the crucial applications running. Town Administrator Denis Fraine and CFO Mary MacKinnon have been working around the clock with state and local officials to keep the municipality running amidst the crisis. Every department head has stepped up to the challenge and figured out what they need to do in order to keep their department running. It has truly been amazing how everyone has come together, shared their thoughts and ideas and without hesitation continued to move forward in order to serve the citizens of Bellingham.