Metrolinx Emergency Operations Centre moves to the virtual world amid COVID-19 response

Command team overcomes cyber challenges to fight the pandemic, including keeping updated information flowing to customers and staff. In this column, Incident Command Team member, Anne Marie Aikins, brings us up to speed – including emotions that come with working from a distance.

Working during a time of COVID-19, means adapting – including figuring out how people working on the same important cause, can connect remotely.

I’ve shifted drastically, and suspect you have as well.

This is especially true for those at the forefront of the battle, including Metrolinx’s Incident Command Team (ICT). As Metrolinx’s senior manager for media and emergency information officer for COVID-19, I’ve written about their work before, including our daily meetings in the Emergency Operations Centre (EOC). For that story, just click here.

The ICT has been in place since January, developing and implementing a COVID-19 strategy.

But like the work of many of our transit passengers, as well as other Metrolinx staff, the ICT has moved their work to the virtual world. I thought you might be interested in an update of what that looks like now that it’s a remote watchdog – as well as my own takeaways.

An image showing a virtual meeting.

Anne Marie Aikins – like many others around the world – counts on virtual meetings when connecting with teams. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

First, a reminder. The role of the EOC is to coordinate Metrolinx’s essential services, anticipate needs, respond to issues in real time, support executive decision-making and ensure there is a quick liaison with emergency management, transit, public health and government partners.

The team originally did great work to ensure safe health – there was a safe distance from others as we made our way to the EOC and from each other during the day. We disinfected ourselves and equipment obsessively and constantly checked temperatures. However, the risk became too great — especially once community transmission was confirmed.

So we began to test key functions remotely. While it was more difficult without the support of each other, team members knew bringing in the right electronic equipment and IT support was key.

Now members – including myself – work from a distance.

At first, perhaps like many of you, I had to sort through tough feelings.

I felt like I had abandoned our heroes on the frontlines, including transit safety officers, bus operators, train crews, station attendants, maintenance, IT and cleaning staff. They don’t always have the luxury of keeping their distance but are keeping our transit system operating so we can get essential workers to their frontlines.

We try to shed a light on some of our brave staff, the wonderful acts of kindness during this crisis and the people depending on our service to get them to their lifesaving jobs in the battle zones. Go here for one of those stories.

Like so many others, Metrolinx staff are braving through extraordinarily difficult and uncertain, ever-changing times. I am grateful their leadership is there with them, supporting the frontlines. And CEO Phil Verster is right there, too — six feet away, visiting their worksites on a daily basis to keep their spirits up.

Image shows Phil Verster talking to a staff member.

Metrolinx CEO Phil Verster visits frontline transit staff. (Metrolinx photo)

Everyone who now works remotely – the world, it seems – knows how odd the sense of distance from workmates is.

I was worried I’d miss seeing deputy commander Vito Mangialardi and giving him stink eye for his daily, groan-worthy pandemic puns. I’d miss the document queen, Anna Empey, who ensures every moment of this crisis is recorded from beginning to end, including the debrief and recommendations we will produce following this unparalleled event. I’d miss having bus and rail operations, safety, stations and human relations leads on the team right there so I could get answers quickly.

An image of deputy commander Vito Mangialardi.

Deputy commander Vito Mangialardi. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

And even though it was only ever by phone at meetings, I’d miss Transit Safety director ‘Chief’ Bill Grodzinski, who has a compassionate eye watching over the system.

Chief has helped me understand the risks during global crises like this when 90 per cent of our customers are no longer taking transit and so many people are living through economic and emotional devastation. Crime, mostly mischief but sometimes much worse, often flourishes under these conditions and his transit safety officers are there watching our backs.

An image of Anna Empry at her desk.

Documentation Unit Leader, Anna Empey. (Anne Marie Aikins photo)

After a few rough days getting used to the self-isolation, I – like others – found my rhythm in the chaos.

Very quickly, the regularity and formality of our meetings made the day fly by. Urgent daily tasks are being accomplished just as quickly. Media interviews are as frequent from my tiny condo to the home offices of journalists.

Spontaneous brainstorming sessions with the team happen with just a little more organizing and creativity. Modern technology — even with the occasional hiccups — has made self-isolation less isolating. Using a variety of formats, video meetings allow you to connect with your colleagues from their homes (including their babies, pets and interesting backdrops).

I’m in awe of the staff with young children managing through the intensity of their work days and keeping their families safe, schooled and entertained – all at the same time.

Every day brings something new — staff testing positive for COVID-19, changes needed to schedules to ensure we accommodate healthcare workers, and adapting to changing public health guidance as they learn more about the virus. We’ve even had four babies born to colleagues in the past few weeks — our own baby boom came during a crisis, rather than nine months later.

Around home offices, lives continue. We’re just suddenly connected by internet codes and cell phone bars, rather than chatter around desks in an office.

The days can be emotionally and physically overwhelming but the team and all of my talented colleagues in communications and across the organization are right there supporting each other and all of our work in the EOC.

Eventually, we will slowly recover from the COVID-19 emergency of 2020 — but most predict we will be forever changed.

What will those differences mean to public transit in the long run? We’re beginning to think about that. But truthfully, we can only speculate at this point.

After all, we’ve experienced pandemics, but have never truly been here before.

I am hopeful employers will be less hesitant to embrace the idea of employees working from home even some of the time which will reduce congestion in the downtown core. I’m hoping we can be more open to adjusting typical work hours so transit customers can better utilize off-peak trips. Many of the changes we’ve implemented on our system to help keep people safe and healthy will no doubt be incorporated into daily routines.

I do hope we stay as kind to each other.

I feel grateful to be, in a very small way, part of helping get us through this horrific experience.

I am also acutely aware that I am able to stay safely at home during this pandemic because so many others are out there on the frontlines keeping our communities moving and safe.

We need only look to the tragic death toll in New York and all the lives lost in the transit community there to remain laser focused on the tasks at hand here in the Greater Toronto and Hamilton Areas.

And stay safely at home doing my job.

Story by Anne Marie Aikins, senior manager media and emergency information officer for COVID-19.