9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Leadership in Dispatch

Taken from 911 Magazine, August 2006
Written by Jerry Carlton, Lt. (Ret.) who served with the Reno Police Department; Tehama County Sheriff's Department; Lyon County Sheriff's Department and the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Division of Investigation.

"That's the wrong way, move over, I'll do it!" yelled to swing shift supervisor.

"Don't worry, it's no big thing, no one cares anyway," whispered the day shift supervisor.

"Listen, this is the problem and I'll give you a couple ideas to help overcome it," said the graveyard supervisor.

Dispatchers seldom make mistakes. And if you believe that, then the moon is made of cheese. We all make mistakes, some simple, some quite serious. It's the supervisor's responsibility to see that mistakes are held to a minimum, mistakes are corrected and the mistake doesn't happen again.

Seldom, these days, does one see the "...move over, I'll do it!" supervisor. Leadership styles have changed to kinder, gentler method for getting the job done. Some may think the old autocratic methods of the 60's and 70's were the best, but in the long run, the more understanding types are taking over. The "...no one cares anyway," attitude still exists but only under the cover of darkness when management is not around. A special type of person is needed to supervise emergency service dispatchers.

Almost all public safety organizations, having dispatchers, develop job descriptions covering the essential functions of the positions. Santa Barbara County, California EMS, lists 19 essential functions. Lubbock, Texas advertises for Public Safety Dispatchers with no essential functions listed but rather just a qualification list.

Like most organizations, Lubbock, Texas is willing to fill positions with individuals whom they believe have the qualifications necessary for the job. So just what type of individual makes a good dispatch supervisor? Obviously the ability to perform the essential functions but the supervisor must have other qualities.

Arguments stating that supervision is inherent have encountered arguments stating that supervision is learned. Both are true. Leaders are sometimes born to lead; others after training are trained to lead.

Types of supervision differ with individual characteristics. The "move over, I'll do it," attitude reinforces lack of confidence, keeps the subordinates low self-esteem and makes the subordinates dependent. Seldom do we see this type of supervision in an emergency dispatch center. Fortunately this type of supervision is fading. If there is an upbeat to this type of supervision it is that the supervisor maintains control and is responsible for the actions of the subordinates. That was the old style autocrat.

A new dispatcher, having lots of enthusiasm but not much actual ability, needs direction. Each new task has to be explained, shown and tried. After one task is learned another task is explained. Not wanting to temper enthusiasm, the supervisor may use a unique form of supervision. It is a combination of autocratic and a relative new style, holistic. The holistic style of supervision treats individuals as team members. Once the team comes together, as in an emergency dispatch center, all the energies of each unique individual are channeled to accomplish together what each individual could not.

Leah began her criminal justice career as a part time dispatcher/correctional officer in a rural community with a scant population of about 5,000. Her first supervisor, Ken, had a profound effect on Leah. "Ken, was good, he was right on top of things helping me get through," Leah explained. "One night, I couldn't figure out how to page out the ambulance. There was a problem with an elderly woman, Ken came to the office, helped me through the problem and showed me the way I should have done it."

Small rural communities often have one dispatcher on duty per shift with no direct supervision. Supervision of dispatchers in these small rural communities is normally limited to one person, who more than likely wears several supervisory hats. In Leah's case, the supervisor who had the answers responded from home. Dedication, you bet. Does dedication alone make a good dispatch supervisor?

In a larger semi-urban area, the city fathers received complaints concerning the lack of professionalism against the swing shift dispatchers. The emergency services dispatch center was responsible for 911 calls and dispatching police, fire/rescue and ambulances. The counsel directed the head of emergency services to look into the complaints and correct the problem. The complaints were not unfounded; swing shift was running amuck change had to be immediate.

Mike, the swing shift supervisor, was caught off guard. He had no reason to think that swing shift was operating any differently than the other two shifts. He sat in his office, rarely mingling with dispatchers, allowing them to do what they wanted, how they wanted, as long as each call was answered.

Francis, a 15-year dispatch veteran was promoted to supervisor and given the task of shaping-up swing shift. The two dispatchers and two call takers were apprehensive of the new supervisor. At first Francis employed an old style of leadership. She trusted no one, oversaw each emergency call and eliminated the decision making process from individual dispatchers. Although the dispatchers and call takers were well trained, Francis refused to give trust to the group until she was satisfied the group was competent. Once Francis saw the potential of each she began refresher training, including people skills. "My team," is what Francis called swing shift. Individuals within the team thought of "My Team" as an extension of Francis' ego.

Then things began to change. Francis backed off on the overseeing every call. Instead of telling the dispatcher what to do, she used the magic question, "What do you think?" Francis became less involved with general operations and built a trust. She frequently asked for advice and opinions from subordinates and she shared responsibility. The dispatchers and call takers no longer felt alone or insignificant. The dispatch supervisor, most importantly kept the dispatchers and call takers informed of changes coming from the top. She, in turn, passed on suggestions from the team to management, many of which were eventually implemented. This high volume of communication created a climate of trust. Dispatchers and call takers were excited to come to work. Francis empowered her team and while keeping the quality and professionalism of the job foremost. No more complaints were voiced to the counsel.

Ken and Francis both used similar styles of management. Ken was willing to give extra time to a rookie dispatcher. Francis empowered "her team" and shared responsibility for the team's performance. Both provided leadership in similar manners. This style of leadership, holistic, gave the employee not only the confidence to complete the tasks but more important allowed each employee to feel needed and useful.

Whether it's supervising emergency service dispatchers or assembly line workers making widgets, the team approach is proven effective. Synergism occurs when the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. In other words, by building a team in the emergency service dispatch center, that feels their existence is useful, the supervisor will get far greater results than any single individual could give. Once the team comes together, each team member will look after each other, ensuring professionalism, creativity, dedication to duty, and the desire to give the public the best possible service.

What's Your Shift? Tips to Creating an Effective PSAP Schedule

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine December 2006
Written by Bob Smith

Scheduling is a hot topic in public safety communications. If you subscribe to any of the industry-related listservs, such as the APCO Exchange Forum, you'll see questions about scheduling pop up time and again. As of press time, the APCO Exchange Discussion Board is averaging 20 postings a month regarding scheduling. Even more surprising, approximately 20% of the postings annually concern scheduling, ranging from people looking for help with scheduling for small comm centers to schdeduling for comm centers with part-time people to eight-vs. 12-hour shifts to special-event coverage.

As with almost everything else in this industry, scheduling problems have no silver-bullet fix. The solutions depend on location, agency size and type (e.g., consolidated, fire-,EMS-or law-enforcement-based), call volume, geography, etc. However, there are a few consistent factors to consider.

First, services provided by public safety agencies are obviously not restricted to Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but operate around the clock, along with the military, hospitals, public utilities and a large portion of the manufacturing industry. The operations of these industries must go on long after the sun has gone down. This means comm centers must be just as prepared to answer an emergency call at 3 a.m. as they are at 3 p.m.

It's interesting to note that in addition to these traditional 24-hour services, many restaurants, grocery stores and gas stations have extended their hours of operation to accommodate the needs of individuals working at night. This has created a cycle: More businesses are open 24 hours. More people are going about their business 24 hours a day. Thus, the number of businesses open to be robbed or experience other emergencies has increased and the number of people on the highway at 4 a.m. has increased. Because of these increases, we add more 24-hour employees and services. And so on and so on...

We're all aware that during any given 24-hour period the call volume is extremely high at some times and relatively low at other times. Once you've identified a trend, you can arrange your schedule based on these periods. The formula is simple: Higher call volume means more people on duty. Right? How does that affect your scheduling? Let's say, for example, your agency works eight-hour shifts: 7 a.m. - 3 p.m., 3-11 p.m. and 11 p.m. - 7 a.m. Then let's say you've noticed that an extremely high number of MVA's occur between 4 and 6 p.m. on weekdays when more people are getting off work and heading home. You've also noticed that the number of disturbances goes up between midnight and 4 a.m. when the local drinking establishments close. Compensating for these regular increases in call volumes might be as simple as adding an 11 a.m.-7 p.m. shift and a 7 p.m.-3 a.m. shift. This puts an extra person (or two) on duty during peak call times.

Whether you're looking to revamp an existing schedule or create a brand new one, keep the following in mind:

Determine if you'll be using an eight-,10- or 12-hour schedule (or maybe even a 24/48 schedule). This is the first decision that needs to be made. You'll need to check with your agency's human resources personnel, your budgetary and finance personnel and any collective bargaining units or unions. Also take the time to consult your staff members. Having their buy-in and keeping them involved from the very beginning will help ensure a smoother transition. You'll never please everyone, but the more effort you make to involve them the better.

Recognize that no amount of scheduling magic will make up for insufficient staffing. To ensure your staffing levels are adequate, check out the APCO Project RETAINS (Responsive Efforts to Address Integral Needs in Staffing) Toolkit -- the product of the most extensive, in-depth research ever conducted into the issues that affect recruitment, hiring, processing, training and retention of public safety communications personnel. (For more information, visit www.apcointl.org/about/911/.)

Address part-time vs. full-time schedules up front. If you have part-time personnel, are they dedicated to a specific number of hours or do they work on an "as needed" basis?

Plan for contingencies. Keep in mind the little things -- blizzards, hurricanes, tsunamis, festivals or any high-profile event -- that would cause an influx of citizenry. The service we provide must be maintained regardless of circumstances, so have a plan for calling in off-duty personnel. Have a policy for adding personnel in advance of certain events, and allow for flexibility in switching people from one shift to another. It's also good to create some redundancy in staffing and skills on each shift.

Be prepared for that dreaded phone call -- the one that tosses all the work you did on the schedule out the window and throws a monkey wrench into the whole works: "Jones called in sick for the midnight shift." Again, create a policy for calling in off-duty personnel, one that gives shift supervisors authority to call people in or keep people over even if it means using overtime.

Don't reinvent the wheel. There are thousands of comm centers around the country, each with personnel and a schedule. Network, contact your neighbors, post a message on the APCO Exchange, and read messages posted by others. Your peers and co-workers are some of the best resources you have. Use them.

The Cycle of Domestic Violence

Stage I: Tension-Building

During this stage, the victim is often subjected to minor battering incidents, verbal abuse and psychological humiliation. Typically, the victim behaves in a nurturing, compliant way in an effort to stave off the violence to come. The victim will deny her fear and minimize the threat posed by the abuser, and may go out of her way to try and keep the peace during this period, avoiding anything that may set the abuser off on a tirade.

The abuser becomes edgy, critical and irritable, gradually becoming more abusive. The abuser knows that this behavior is wrong, and fears that the victim will leave. The victim, by obedience and submission, legitimizes the batterer's belief that he or she has the right to abuse in the first place. The batterer gets increasingly jealous and verbally abusive.

Both the abuser and victim can sense the impending loss of control and become more desperate, which only fuels the tension. No longer able to tolerate her terror, anxiety and anger, the victim may actually be pushed to the point of provoking the inevitable just to get it over with and relieve the fear. Many battered women feel that the psychological anguish of this phase is the hardest to bear.

Stage II: Acute Battering Episode

The batterer does not begin by wanting to hurt, but to control the victim. Often, the batterer will fly into a rage and become violent for no apparent reason, or a stated reason that seems petty or irrational. Anything can be a catalyst for an explosion. The beating may continue even after the victim is already severely injured. When the beating does stop, the abuser is likely to experience a drop in tension, which is psychologically reinforcing.

The abuser in this stage is extremely irrational and will often turn on anyone who intervenes, while the victim frequently experiences a disassociation from their bodies and a heightened tolerance for pain.

Stage III: The Honeymoon

Activity in this stage explains a great deal about why women stay in an abusive situation. After the brutality comes loving contrition, and a period of profound relief for both partners. The abuser is remorseful and apologetic, or, at the very least, nonviolent, and may beg forgiveness, swearing that it will never happen again. The abuser will go out of his way to be kind, tranquil, and loving, while promising to change, and will bring his wife gifts, shower her with attention and romantic gestures.

The victim sees the person she married and committed to, the person she loves. She desperately wants to believe what the abuser says. Because batterers tend to emphasize their dependence on their victims, the victim ends up feeling responsible for the batterer and for her own victimization. Even though the victim appears free from immediate danger during this time, she is not free from fear and anxiety. She does not have to be facing an immediate assault to experience a completely reasonable fear of the next violence.

As the cycle repeats itself, denial plays an increasingly important role. The victim may also believe that this really will be the last time, that the abuser will change, but unless something changes, such as intervention by someone outside the home, the cycle will start again, and the abuse will almost surely become more severe.

Battering is a pattern of behavior used to establish power and control over another person through fear and intimidation, often including the threat or use of violence. Battering happens when one person believes they are entitled to control another. Assault, battering and domestic violence are crimes.

Why do Men Batter Women?

Many theories have been developed to explain why some men use violence against their partners. These theories include: family dysfunction, inadequate communication skills, provocation by women, stress, chemical dependency and economic hardship. These issues may be associated with battering of women, but they are not the causes.

Removing these associated factors will not end men's violence against women. The batterer begins and continues his behavior because violence is an effective method for gaining and keeping control over another person and he usually does not suffer adverse consequences as a result of his behavior. Historically, violence against women has not been treated as a "real" crime. This is evident in the lack of severe consequences, such as incarceration or economic penalties, for men guilty of battering their partners. Rarely are batterers ostracized in their communities, even if they are known to have physically assaulted their partners. Batterers come from all groups and backgrounds, and from all personality profiles. However, some characteristics fit a general profile of a batterer:
  • A batterer objectifies women. He does not see women as people. He does not respect women as a group. Overall, he sees women as property or sexual objects.
  • A batterer has low self-esteem and feels powerless and ineffective in the world. He may appear successful, but inside he feels inadequate.
  • A batterer externalizes the causes of his behavior. He blames his violence on circumstances such as stress, his partner's behavior, a "bad day," alcohol or other factors.
  • A batterer may be pleasant and charming between periods of violence, and is often seen as a "nice guy" to outsiders.
  • Some behavioral warning signs of a potential batterer include extreme jealousy, possessiveness, a bad temper, unpredictability, cruelty to animals and verbal abusiveness.

Why Do Women Stay?

All too often the question "Why do women stay in violent relationships?" is answered with a victim-blaming attitude. Women victims of abuse often hear that they must like or need such treatment, or they would leave. Others may be told that they are one of the many "women who love too much" or who have "low self-esteem." The truth is that no one enjoys being beaten, no matter what their emotional state or self image.

A woman's reasons for staying are more complex than a statement about her strength of character. In many cases, it is dangerous for a woman to leave her abuser. If the abuser has all of the economic and social status, leaving can cause additional problems for the woman. Leaving could mean living in fear and losing child custody, losing financial support, and experiencing harassment at work.

Although there is no profile of the women who will be battered, there is a well-documented syndrome of what happens once the battering starts. Battered women experience shame, embarrassment and isolation. A woman may not leave battering immediately because:

  • She realistically fears that the batterer will become more violent and maybe even fatal if she attempts to leave;
  • Her friends and family may not support her leaving;
  • She knows the difficulties of single parenting in reduced financial circumstances;
  • There is a mix of good times, love and hope along with the manipulation, intimidation and fear; and
  • She may not know about or have access to safety and support.

Barriers to Leaving a Violent Relationship

Reasons why women stay generally fall into three major categories:

Lack of Resources:

  • Some women have at least one dependent child.
  • Some women are not employed outside of the home.
  • Some women have no property that is solely theirs.
  • Some women lack access to cash or bank accounts.
  • Women who leave fear being charged with desertion, and losing children and joint assets.
  • A woman may face a decline in living standards for herself and her children.

Institutional Responses:

  • Clergy and secular counselors are often trained to see only the goal of "saving" the marriage at all costs, rather than the goal of stopping the violence.
  • Police officers often do not provide support to women. They treat violence as a domestic "dispute," instead of a crim where one person is physically attacking another person.
  • Police may try to dissuade women from filing charges.
  • Prosecutors are often reluctant to prosecute cases, and judges rarely levy the maximum sentence upon convicted abusers. Probation or a fine is much more common.
  • Despite the issuing of a restraining order, there is little to prevent a released abuser from returning and repeating the assault. Despite greater public awareness and the increased availability of housing for women fleeing from violent partners, there are not enough shelters to keep women safe.

Traditional Ideology:

  • Some women do not believe divorce is a viable alternative.
  • Some women believe that a single parent family is unaccpetable, and that even a violent father is better than no father at all.
  • Some women are socialized to believe that they are responsible for making their marriage work. Failure to maintain the marriage equals failure as a woman.
  • Some women become isolated from friends and families, either by the jealous and possessive abuser, or to hide signs of the abuse from the outside world. The isolation contributes to a sense that there is nowhere to turn.
  • Some women rationalize their abuser's behavior by blaming stress, alcohol, problems at work, unemployment or other factors.
  • Some women are taught that their identity and worth are contingent upon getting and keeping a man.
  • The abuser rarely beats the woman all the time. During the non-violent phases, he may fulfill the woman's dream of romantic love. She believes that he is basically a "good man." If she believes that she should hold onto a "good man," this reinforces her decision to stay. She may also rationalize that her abuser is basically good until something bad happens to him and he has to "let off steam."

Environmental Concerns for the Law Enforcement Dispatcher

Written by Capt. George Deuchar (Ret.); Director of Training, PowerPhone Inc.

In addition to everything else that a dispatcher has to concern him/herself with, environmental concerns is being added to the list. I am not suggesting that dispatchers join the crusade for clean air and water (although a worthy cause); however, I do strongly believe that, with every emergency or in-progress call you handle, you must pay attention to the environment the caller is in at the time. With each call that you handle, you should ask yourself, "Is the caller in the safest environment possible?" You must then make an assessment based upon the information you are receiving. If the answer to the question is "no," then you must work with the caller in making their environment a safer one.

In the simplest of terms, and for the purpose of example, let's consider the following scenarios:
  1. A caller reports that there is an uncontrollable fire in the kitchen of his home. Is he in the safest environment possible? Obviously not, leading us to advise the caller to get out of the house (if our information includes a safe escape route).
  2. A caller reports that she has just arrived home from work and found her front door open with signs of forced entry. Is this the safest environment for her to remain in? Probably not. When we do not know for certain that the suspect/burglar has fled the area, we need to suggest that she leave her residence until a police officer arrives on the scene.

Consider the caller that dials 911 and advises that her husband is suicidal. She continues, adding that he has locked himself in the bedroom and has access to firearms. She has been calling to him from outside the bedroom door, and he will not answer. Is the caller in the safest environment possible? A definite "no" is determined by a quick assessment of the situation and the dispatcher is faced with the challenge of getting her to a safer environment. One question that should follow your assessment is, "Are you calling from a cordless phone?" Obviously, there are several other questions that need to be asked once we get her to a safer location. Upon confirming that she has access to a cordless phone, take advantage and get her out of the unsafe environment--perhaps the front porch, back deck, front or back yard, or even a safer room in the house. At this point, anywhere would be better than in the room with her husband, or standing outside the bedroom door. The benefit of utilizing the cordless phone is that you can remain in contact with her until responders arrive on the scene. This allows her to provide you with constant updates regarding her husband's status. This simple technology, available in most department stores, can tremendously assist us with very serious calls.

I am not sure that we are ready to replace "911, what (or where) is your emergency?" with, "911, are you calling from a cordless phone?" Nevertheless, it is an option that should be considered when striving to place your caller in the safest environment possible.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Customer Service is Key to Communication

Guest Commentary taken from Emergency Number Personnel Magazine March 2009
Written by Martin Nealeigh, Investigative Supervisor for a family services agency in Texas. He served seven years as an emergency communications operator before working as a probation officer and as a child abuse investigator.

As your agency addresses issues of personnel and training, it should also be addressing customer service.

As a former dispatcher I am all too aware that often the worst call you can receive in an emergency communications center is a call from either someone who works, or has worked, as a dispatcher. This knowledge has actually made me reluctant to call on a few occasions, but the dire situation witnessed required that my reluctance be overcome. The sad fact is that in the dozen or so 911 calls I have made in the 12 years since I last fielded an emergency call myself, I cannot help but analyze the quality of how the call was handled by the person in the emergency call center. A few weeks ago another occasion presented itself in which I placed an emergency call to local law enforcement due to an automobile accident that I had come across on the interstate. Yet again, I found myself critiquing the work of the call taker.

Before I go further, I must say that I have no illusions of having been the perfect dispatcher. In fact, my memories of my work are littered with recollections of things I would have done differently in the light of a new day. The challenges faced by those behind the console today are staggering and the proliferation of wireless communications, while a lifesaver, is also a challenge that would stymie the most proficient dispatcher of a decade ago. Having acknowledged my own shortcomings and the challenges of those fielding calls today, I believe that I speak from an expert's perspective about the quality of call handling. Something that often seems lost, and was certainly lost in my work, is the customer service aspect of the work of the emergency communications center call taker.

Why worry about customer service? After all, if you are calling 911 you need the help of emergency services certainly more than they need your call, right? Well, in part this is true. For that matter, what is customer service in terms of the work performed by an emergency communications center? Customer service, whether at your local outlet or a national retailer, a small town grocer or an emergency communications center, revolves around one key...communication. Effective customer service requires that the customers not only communicate their needs, but also that the parties providing the response to those needs listen closely and respond clearly in order to elicit greater clarity of understanding of the needs that must be addressed for the customer. Again you may ask why make such efforts when there is only one place to call in an emergency? The answer is simple, if the public (your customer) develops a perception that you are not focused on them, then calls that should be made will not. Those that are made will lack the information necessary to provide to you and those responding to the call for help with the necessary information to properly prepare for, and address, the emergency at hand.

So now let's go back to the emergency call that I recently placed. Traveling along a very congested stretch of interstate, traffic suddenly stopped. A ladder had fallen from the back of a passing truck. Although an alert motorist had stopped in time to not hit the ladder, the tractor-trailer behind them did not. Emergency assistance was clearly needed for those in the car and with phone in hand, I placed the call. The local agency that took the call was no doubt unundated with calls from passersby who had witnessed the accident. Such is often the case and in this instance the call taker was quick to "handle" the call immediately inquiring if I was calling about the accident on the interstate. I explained the location of the accident I had observed and was assured that help was responding. The problem is that by answering the call, "XXXX 911; are you calling about the accident on Interstate XX?" the call taker has set up a situation that would fail to clearly identify multiple accident locations if such were the case. Further, in failing to listen to the information coming in from the caller, the call taker has already decided what the content of the call would be before even allowing the caller to be heard. Beyond these obvious areas of concern is the underlying tone of the call which can lead a caller to second-guess reporting information in the future, believing that surely others will make the call.

It is easy to fall into the mindset as a call taker -- believing that you know what the caller is about to tell you based upon your own experience and the information that is coming into the emergency communications center, especially during critical incidents. Nevertheless, staffs that are trained to carefully listen to, as well as question, the callers are better prepared to react appropriately not just in those incidents that turn out just as expected, but also in those incidents that are anything but common.

Customer service is not just the responsibility of the call taker, but extends all the way through the layers of agency management. Communications center managers have a critical role in the work of putting forth a customer service approach to how the staff handles calls. In emergency services it can be easy to place a customer service approach in the back of the minds of those doing the work. It is something that many agencies do not spend much time addressing in training. Even if they do, customer service often is misinterpreted as simply being courteous. In emergency communications, customer service extends well beyond common courtesies and is a key element in the successful retrieval of information from the most important tool that emergency personnel have access to -- the citizen on the scene.

As your agency addresses issues of personnel and training, it should also be addressing customer service. Much of the work performed by emergency personnel is assessed, not just on the outcome of the situation. This critical incident analysis starts with incoming calls for service and active listening -- it will save lives just as surely as will asking the right questions.

Working Channels: A Practical Guide to Improved Radio Communications

How often do you hear radio traffic which you would categorize as something less than profesional? How many times have you had to repeat a message two, three, four times? Or more? When was the last time you had training on how to talk on the radio? How many times have you been instructed on prioritizing messages, or communication methods? Are communications problems routinely critiqued as a part of a Post-Incident Analysis Program? Do you employ a method to learn from mistakes?

Despite all of the new technology available to emergency responders, communications problems remain. The bottom line is: Better performance cannot be expected until we properly train and equip personnel, implement good policies and maintain accountability.

Equipment Considerations

How many communications workers and police officers have become accustomed to listening to distorted-sounding dispatch information over speakers with sound quality that can barely be understood even by seasoned veterans?

A thorough assessment of options, weighing costs, function, and specific known factors, prior to purchasing communications equipment will minimize complications later. There is no substitute for first hand research. Time spent visiting various jurisdictions to observe what they are using will be well worth the effort. Find out what they like and don't like about their equipment.

Training the Users

Pros and cons can be identified with whatever verbal format is used by an agency; the most important consideration is not which one is used, but that everyone uses the same method. Inconsistency in this area leads to problems. Whatever format you use, practice it. Dispatchers need to be trained in the same format as field personnel and must practice it regularly. Everyone has to use the same communications model, and be held accountable for it in order to realize successful communications.

When a message is transmitted, it is the receiver's responsibility to let the sender know their message was understood. This should be done, particularly when emergency situations dictate, by a brief summary statement.

The sender is also responsible to ensure that his/her communication reached its expected mark.

The person initiating communications, particularly in a high pressure situation, can easily lose track of their messages if they are inundated with radio traffic. If the communicator does not remain attentive, important information can be lost. Dropped or lost messages, those not received and acknowledged by the intended receiver can lead to guess work, confusion, freelancing and a compromise in personnel safety.

Various techniques are effective for keeping track of radio traffic. Here are a few suggestions:
  • Adequate staffing for volume of communications. There never seems to be enough personnel when "the big one" hits, but running too lean on staffing is a risky proposition. Use an aide or assistant to work one or two radio frequencies under the direction of an incident commander.
  • The use of playback is available on some systems for repeating certain transmissions, this can be a useful tool in reducing unnecessary radio air time.
  • Advising senders to "stand by" with non-time-critical messages can buy valuable time in some cases.

Prioritization of communications and selecting the most appropriate method for transmitting information is another aspect that can take years of experience to learn. Today's emergency responders have cellular phones, fax machines, mobile data terminals and alpha numeric pagers at their disposal in addition to mobile and portable radios.

Plain Communication

Proper enunciation is also a vital element in making communications work. The terms "available" and "unavailable" can sound deceptively alike via radio, therefore it is imperative that the sender enunciate precisely.

Microphone Etiquette

We don't often take the time to recognize the differences in microphones, but there are differences. Directional mikes are intended to minimize extraneous outside noise. If the person transmitting is looking in another direction or holding the microphone too far away, the message likely will be ineffective. Microphones keyed when the sender begins the message will usually cut off a portion of the message. These types of issues, basic as they are, need to be reviewed. After a working familiarity is gained with equipment, communications will show advancement.


Effective radio communications is essential to providers of emergency services. Failure of communications causes an unacceptable level of risk to public and personnel safety. If problems exist with systems, equipment, policies or personnel that compromise our service delivery, they must be corrected. Every person involved in emergency communications provides one link in the chain, and ever link must be intact for optimal effectiveness. Agencies must provide high quality training and equipment for the users. And, in the final analysis, each and every person has a responsibility to identify weaknesses and attempt to correct deficiencies. Our ultimate goal, of course being to implement improvements that will benefit emergency responders, dispatcher and our customers, the public.

Improved Communications

Plan ahead, then transmit. Know what you want to say before you say it. Attempt to be concise and specific, while being as brief as possible. Some messages can wait until later instead of being transmitted in the heat of battle when air time is at a premium.

Take personal responsibility. Make it a matter of professional pride to be a responsible communicator. Follow through on your messages to be certain they are received and understood.

Critique your performance. Incident tapes can be invaluable as a training tool. Listening to them with a critical ear will usually lead to improved radio communications.

Insist upon a clear message. If you don't understand an order or a message, ask the sender to repeat or rephrase it. If you still don't understand, make it known you do not understand - a life may depend on it.

Defeating Stress and Burnout

Taken from PowerPhone Stress Management Seminar Supplement

What is Burnout?

Burnout is a syndrome of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, involving the development of negative self-concept, negative job attitudes, loss of concern and feelings for others.

It is brought on by severe or chronic stress directly related to the job.

The most significant factors contributing to stress and burnout for dispatchers are: 1) they work with people - often they have to make decisions which have major consequences in the life of others; their work is in areas of the county where pain, crime, poverty and despair are most evident; 2) they work within a large bureaucratic organization; to a large extent any bureaucratic organization is self-serving, rather than oriented toward the purposes for which it was established, thus it is herarchical and slow in responding, affecting its workers.

There are many stressors inherent in dispatching. If they are not handled appropriately by the dispatcher, they lead to burnout.

These include:
  1. The physical stress of working at a job characterized by sustained low level vigilance, periods of inactivity and high activity when responding to a call.
  2. The situations to which dispatchers respond are what others consider emergencies. Throughout this activity, the dispatcher must uphold the image of the department, that is, he/she is not allowed to show natural human emotions, such as fear, anger, frustrations.
  3. Disruption of schedule and work routine.
  4. The expectations persons entering Public Safety have of what their job will be and the reality they find are quite different from the TV image, and filled with dangers.

Other stressors which impact on dispatchers include: physical work environment, lack of communications from the department, lack of feedback from supervisor, lack of public appreciation of dispatching, lack of support system, and unresponsive establishment.

Symptoms of Burnout

The first symptoms of burnout are feeling tired, exhausted, anxious, having eating disorders, headaches, backaches, sleep disturbances, coupled with job dissatisfaction, inefficiency at work, accident proneness, and increased escape activites such as overeating, drinking, drug abuse, smoking and caffeine. The person becomes cynical, develops negative feelings about self and others.

The process of burnout evolves slowly. Starting with the above symptoms, it gradually evolves and the symptoms become more severe. It depends on how the dispatcher handles the risk factors, on his/her perception of stress, family pressures, and other problems.

As the process evolves, the dispatcher becomes a threat to agency morale and the efficiency of the department. Without intervention of some kind, the dispatcher will gradually deteriorate, depleting his energy resources, lowering the resistance to disease, suffering social isolation, and leading to eventual collapse or even suicide.

Coping with Burnout

Burnout, as already stated, is an inappropriate coping process that is related to one's own perceptions of one's work. As long as negative or threatening perceptions prevail burnout is increased and reinforced. Counteracting burnout by resorting to alcohol and/or drug abuse, heavy smoking or caffeine addiction aggravates the process and leads to severe physical, mental and emotional diseases. The first step towards improving the situation and combating burnout is to become aware of what is going on in one's own life. The following techniques, used on a daily basis, are useful to prevent burnout from developing:

  1. Detached Concern - handle a call in a detached, objective manner, while maintaining your human concern for the people involved. Do not make their problem your own problem.
  2. Intellectualize - make the situation less personal, minimize your own involvement, do not become a victim of your irrational beliefs, such as: *The idea that you must be thoroughly competent at all times to maintain your self-esteem; the idea that it is a catastrophe if a call does not work out as you would like it to; the idea that your unhappiness is due to the system and that you have no control over it.
  3. Compartmentalize - keep your work as distinct as possible from your personal life.
  4. Rely on fellow dispatchers - do not attempt to go for it alone, obtain help from others on specific calls.
  5. Create and use a support network - share your experiences and resources to prevent bottling up your negative feelings - they will either eat you up inside, or result in an explosion.
  6. Seek counseling or help from your supervisor, Employees' relations, and other agencies or clergy.

In your personal life you can take steps which will reflect positively on your burnout and help you cope more effectively. Choose the option which works best for you.

  • Listen to your body and heed early warning signals - develop a healthy life style.
  • Engage in more pursuits that you enjoy - give yourself something to look forward to.
  • Develop hobbies. Get involved in PAL, Little League, or similar groups, in your church.
  • Engage in physical exercise - schedule it into your daily routine.

Although dispatchers are at a high risk for burnout, the condition can be avoided with proper preventative maintenance. Take time to understand what is causing stress, and the quality of your life inside and outside the communications center will improve.

Are You Burning Out?

Look back over the past six months. Have you been noticing changes in yourself of in the world around you? Think of the office, the family, social situations. Allow about 30 seconds for each answer. Then assign it a number from 1 (for no or little change) to 5 (for a great deal of change) to designate the degree of change you perceive.

  1. Do you tire more easily? Feel fatigued rather than energetic?
  2. Are people annoying you by telling you, "You don't look so good lately?"
  3. Are you working harder and harder and accomplishing less and less?
  4. Are you increasingly cynical and disenchanted?
  5. Are you often invaded by a sadness you can't explain?
  6. Are you forgetting? (appointments, deadlines, personal possessions)
  7. Are you increasingly irritable? More short-tempered? More disappointed in the people around you?
  8. Are you seeing close friends and family members less frequently?
  9. Are you too busy to do even routine things like make phone calls or read reports or send out Christmas cards?
  10. Are you suffering from physical complaints? (aches, pains,headaches,a lingering cold)
  11. Do you feel disoriented when the activity of the day comes to a halt?
  12. Is joy elusive?
  13. Are you unable to laugh or joke about yourself?
  14. Does sex seem like more trouble than it is worth?
  15. Do you have very little to say to people?

Total the results. If you score:

  • 0 - 25 You are doing fine
  • 26 - 35 There are things you should be watching
  • 36 - 50 You are a candidate
  • 51 - 65 You are burning out
  • Over 65 You are in a dangerous place, threatening your physical and mental well-being.

The Aspiring Supervisor: Understanding the Opportunities & Challenges, While Avoiding the Pitfalls

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine January 2007
Written by Alicia Ihnken, Interim Director for APCO Institute

So you want to be a supervisor. Receiving a promotion is a good thing: it presents many opportunities for personal and professional growth. A promotion also brings its share of problems and trials. Whether you've recently been promoted to a supervisory position or are hoping to become a supervisor, you'll face many transitional challenges for which you may not be prepared. To ensure a smooth transition, you should examine your opportunities, understand the challenges and learn how to avoid the pitfalls.

Exploring Opportunities in Your Own Agency

First, let's examine the opportunities. Almost any agency can present opportunities for advancement, although some may be harder to find than others. You may have to wait for an opening, or you may have to create your own position. You might also have to look beyond your agency to find an opportunity that's right for you.

No matter how large or small, public safety agencies have certain common factors that govern promotions. High turnover, budget constraints and even the corporate desire for expansion or exclusivity are a few commonalities. Either turnover or expansion can result in the creation of supervisor positions and present opportunities for advancement.

The first objective for you as an aspiring supervisor is to know and perform your current job well. If you don't have a firm grasp on your existing position, you most likely won't have the necessary base of knowledge, skills and abilities to be promoted.

Second, learn everything you can about the position you're seeking. Read the job description in your agency's "Rules and Regulations" or other employee information guide. Some agencies publish job descriptions online, which can be a valuable resource. This also give you the opportunity to see what other agencies expect of the position. If you can't locate a job description, consult your human resources department. You can also find out more by speaking with those who already hold the position and with their subordinates.

After you've learned as much as you can about the position you're seeking, take a good look at the required knowledge, skills and abilities and see how you measure up. Make a checklist with three categories: meet, exceed and need improvement. Then, grade yourself to get a good indication of what you have to offer and what you need to work on. This process can also help you when it comes time to fill out an application and/or update your resume. The better you prepare before you apply, the better your chance for success.

Creating Opportunities

If your agency has no current opportunities, you still have options. You can wait for an opening, create your own opportunity or look beyond your own agency. If the turnover rate at your agency is low or there's little possibility of expansion, start investigating what unmet needs your agency may have. This requires taking a look at every job description to see what is supposed to be done by that position and comparing it with what is being done. What duties are not delineated? What duties are not being performed because other duties take up too much time? Is the training division a shambles? Is there a need for a full-time computer (or information technology) person?

Once you determine what your agency really needs, take another look at your abilities and see what you have to offer. This can be difficult and time-consuming, but it has the possibility of culminating in a job tailor-made for you and your agency!

If--after examining the possibilities within your own agency--you don't find a good match, don't be afraid to branch out. Is there an affiliated agency with more opportunities? Is there another agency that might be hiring from the outside for a supervisory or management position? One cautionary note: The grass is not always greener elsewhere.

Determine your best course of action, whether it's leaving the familiar, continuing to learn all you can about your current agency, waiting for an opportunity or creating your own.

Developing Your Professional Career

You may be in the process of researching a position, be waiting for a position to open up or already have applied to a position, so what do you do while you're waiting? Regardless of whether or not a promotion is on your horizon, developing your professional and personal life is important. Seeking out courses and informative seminars is an excellent way to bolster your qualifications.

Knowledge is power, so be assertive in your quest.

The Next Steps

Let's say you've done your research, continued your professional development and succeeded in earning a promotion. You've outshined the competition, and now the position is yours. You're a supervisor. Congratulations!

Now comes the hard part. Your relationships and your responsibilities will change. In addition to all that, you'll be walking a fine line while you attempt to "prove" you were the right choice. These changes can lead to trials and tribulations, but if you learn the common pitfalls and how to avoid them, you'll be ahead of the game.

Relationship changes: With any change in title comes inevitalbe changes in relationships. You leave your familiar set of peers and join a new set. This may be one of the hardest transitions to make.

For quite some time, you've been part of a group with similar pay, work hours, interests and job responsibilities. Even if your relationships have been confined to work hours, these relationships will be greatly affected because of your promotion. This may cause your co-workers--and you--to question your loyalties. Your former co-workers will expect you to make changes on their behalf, and your new peers will expect you to see their point of view. This can make it difficult to remain friends with your former co-workers. For example, if you're going to supervise a friend you had prior to your promotion, you may want to look into a shift change for either you or your friend. This does not mean that you can't keep your old relationships; it does mean that you must remain objective. You must decide the type of interaction you will have and ensure it doesn't affect the execution of your new responsibilities. One way to help ease this transition is to examine how your relationships might change with a promotion while you're still in the exploration stage.

No matter what discussions you have with your friends about your promotion, it can be very difficult to maintain both professional and personal relationships. In all cases of argument, hurt feelings and resentment, be the better person and do not succumb to pettiness.

Another trap to avoid in this change of relationship is trying to be popular. In the effort to be liked, some new supervisors are tempted to make promises about implementing change. Be careful. Even if you were given certain assurances, during an interview perhaps, practice care when communicating this to your subordinates. In many agencies, change comes slowly, and if you start making grand promises, you may end up looking like a failure when those changes either take longer than expected or don't happen at all. While it may make you popular in the short run to make grandiose promises or give friends preferential treatment, it will catch up with you, and ultimately you will fail as a supervisor.

As a supervisor, you will most likely need to make decisions that could positively affect some and negatively affect others. This will not win you friends. The key is to maintain objectivity and keep lines of communication open so your subordinates understand the reasons behind any decisions or changes you make.

Don't confuse popularity with respect. You don't have to be popular to be a good supervisor, but you must have the respect of those you supervise. The only promises you may want to make are those of character. It is one thing to promise that you will do your best and quite another to guarantee hourly breaks and paid lunches. It's better to prove yourself by your actions, not your words.

Responsibility changes: Even if you're convinced you won't change after a promotion, you will change. You may have been a dispatcher, a calltaker, a records clerk or served in any number of frontline positions, but you will change because your responsibilities will change. You need to know how to plan, negotiate and delegate. Now the decisions you make affect more than just yourself. You are responsible for more than just you. Just as you will be doing different things, you won't be able to do the same things you did. This can be difficult, especially for those who get promoted because they're good at what they do.

For a position that has been recently created or never-before filled, the first person to hold it often sets the precendence for the role. Make sure you have a job description and know what's expected of you. Don't rely on the spoken word. If there's not an official job description, take measures to have one formalized.

During any transition where you are learning a new role and new responsibilities, it can take time to develop confidence and stability. Most agencies provide for a probatioinary period to allow for that adjustment. Don't take that time for granted. It's during your probationary period that you should learn as much as you can as fast as you can about how to do your job. At the same time, however, don't make excuses for yourself (e.g., "You'll have to forgive me; I'm new."). Instead, decide upfront to handle difficult situations with grace and patience. It's fine to admit you don't know something, but better to have a plan in place to ensure you learn about it.

Asserting your authority: With this change in responsibility comes authority. This may have been one of the reasons you applied for the position. Up until now, you've been on the outside looking in and have most likely formulated your own opinion about how things should be run. Keep in mind that you must be careful in how you assert this newfound authority. You might have the authority to dictate when your staff goes on break or who to schedule for overtime or order to stay late. How you handle these situations, with grace or petty ruthlessness, is a true test of a good supervisor. You must understand your authority and decide how you will act before a situation arises.

One challenge with a change in authority is learning the difference between perceived authority and real authority. Make sure you know your true authority. Real authority comes from your job description and assignments from your supervisor. Perceived authority comes from your subordinates' perspective. What you thought your supervisor had the "power" to do may or may not have been accurate. Likewise, your subordinates may assume you have the power to make decisions that may or may not be supported by your actual authority. If you really don't have the authority to tell a subordinate to leave for the day, but do so anyway, they will most likely comply (perceived authority) and it will be you who gets into trouble. If you start out in your new role by being conscientious about what is truly your responsibility and under your scope of authority, it will keep you from overstepping your bounds.

The way you assert your real authority can also get you into trouble. Just because you may now have the authority to tell people when they can and can't go on break does not mean you can abuse it. Having a problem with one of your subordinates does not give you the right to deny them the same consideration you would give anyone else.

Don't Give Up

It won't be easy. As you adjust to your new relationships and responsibilities, you may think, "What have I gotten myself into?" This is a natural reaction similar to "buyer's remorse." It will take time for people to accept you in your new role. Any transition can be difficult. Think about when you were the new person. How did you conduct yourself? What worked and what didn't? What did you learn from that experience that will help you now? Your core being has not changed, but, over time, your attitude and demeanor may have. Make sure you have a firm grasp on what the position requires and how you will proceed with issues before they occur.

Don't rely on word of mouth for making decisions. It's OK to rely on others' expertise during your transition, but eventually you'll have to stand on your own and prove you were the right choice. Remember, you would not have been promoted if you did not have the right stuff.

If you do your research, continue to develop yourself professionally as well as personally and plan ahead for how you will deal with issues and assert your authority, you'll have the tools to make the successful transition into a model supervisor.

911 Dispatchers Feel Stress of Being First Responders

Article taken from madison.com August 24, 2007
Written by Chris Rickert

Sue Buechner still remembers the suicidal man's name: Roosevelt.

He was in his 20s and had barricaded himself in a bathroom at his mother's house with a gun when his frantic family called 911.

Buechner - who was new to her job with DU-COMM, a 911 dispatch center serving several communities in DuPage County, Ill. - instructed the family to keep the line open as they tried to calm the man, without success.

"Six weeks on the job, I was listening as a guy committed suicide," she said. "I figured if I was going to quit, I would have done it then."

Sometimes having to rely on distraught or less-than-forthcoming callers to determine the seriousness of a situation, police and fire dispatchers are responsible for making initial assessments of sometimes chaotic calls and getting the necessary help - police, firefighters, paramedics - to the scene as soon as possible. They are often the first line of help in an emergency, even if their work is largely invisible to the public.

But two highly publicized incidents this summer have put dispatchers' work - and its stress-inducing nature - in the spotlight:
  • On Independence Day, dispatchers with Dane County and Middleton Police used sophisticated cell-phone signal tracking techniques to locate a pickup that had been driven off a cliff and into a quarry, killing a 22-year-old man and injuring five others in their early 20s;
  • And on July 15th, a reportedly suicidal man was shot by police after he brandished what turned out to be a pellet gun at them. Information relayed to the 911 center moments before he died indicated the gun was not real.

"I think there is a big information gap in the criticality in a 911 call taker," said Wanda McCarley, president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, or APCO. "Dispatcher is one of the most stressful jobs out there."

"Don't Hang Up On Me"

The six young adults in the pickup truck that went over the edge of the Yahara Materials Meinholz Quarry, falling some 70 feet, went there to set off fireworks.

The driver of the truck died in the crash and five others were hurt, some critically. Buechner, who took the initial 911 call, didn't know that at the time. First, she had to contend with a bad cell connection and an upset young man trying to tell her where they were and how badly he and his friends were hurt.

"We went off the quarry. There's people trapped in the vehicle. I need help, please!" the teen tells Buechner, who joined the Middleton Police Department 2 1/2 years ago and has been a dispatcher for about 6 1/2 years.

Per Middleton's operating protocol, Buechner tried to transfer the call to Dane County, which would dispatch rescue workers, but the cell signal was lost.

She called back and got a busy signal, then tried again, got through and questioned the caller more specifically about where they are and what happened. But the line went dead again.

Buechner was trying to call back a third time when the man called from a different cell phone. In the background, people could be heard yelling.

"Hello," the caller said. "Don't hang up on me!"

Listening to the Tape

"I still remember a lot of bad calls," Buechner said recently. But she generally doesn't like to listen to recordings of them after they're over. They can be very emotional, she said.

She did listen to the July 4th recordings again, and knows she and the emergency workers on the scene did everything they could - were, in fact, able to rescue five people from a crash that could have turned out much worse.

Middleton police officer David Kasdorf, who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, echoed that sentiment and said emergency responders rely heavily on dispatchers to tell them where to go when the call is coming from such a remote location. In this case, the cell tower the 911 call was routed through was near another quarry, and authorities briefly thought the crash was there.

"It's amazing that anybody came out alive," he said.

Buechner regrets one thing she didn't say during the call--an omission the average listener most likely wouldn't notice.

"At some point he said, 'Don't hang up,'"she said, but she didn't respond. She realized later that at the time, there was other radio traffic she had to handle.

Still, she thinks, "My God, why didn't I say something to comfort him?"

Could Have Done Differently

Crystal Daley, a dispatcher with the Dane County 911 center, also thinks about the thing she could have done differently during a call from the ex-wife of the man Madison police shot to death on Camden Road on July 15th.

Ronald Brandon, 48, called 911 that day and calmly reported a man wielding a gun. It turned out Brandon was the man, and when police got there, police say he made a threatening gesture with his weapon - later found to be a pellet gun - and police shot and killed him.

Investigators believe Brandon's death was a case of "suicide by cop" and have said police and dispatchers handled the incident properly.

In an approximately three-minute 911 call, Brandon's ex-wife, Susan, told Daley that Brandon made the call from her home and that the gun was a pellet gun. Daley typed the information into the computer system and relayed it to other dispatchers, who then relayed it to police.

But the information got to officers too late.

After Ronald Brandon was shot and as Susan Brandon screamed and cried over the phone, Daley explained to her, "Regardless of what kind of gun he had, he must have brandished it at the officer."

She meant it as a way to give a distraught woman some information about what had just happened, Daley said. But, "whether it was the truth, it just wasn't a nice thing to say to a family member...I could have just been like, 'I'm sorry this happened.'"

District Attorney Brian Blanchard has said that even if officers had been told of the report that the gun was a pellet gun, there's no guarantee the information would have changed the outcome because it wouldn't have been clear at the time which of the two callers was the more credible.

Still, Daley said the Susan Brandon call was "probably one of the worst calls I've ever taken."

"Hope to never get it again," she said.

Feeling Helpless

Several dispatchers interviewed for this story said one of the consistently stressful things about their job is knowing just about everything that's going on at a scene but not being able to take a more direct role in doing something about it.

"Sometimes they feel kind of helpless," said Middleton Police Lt. Noel Kakuske.

That can be especially true when the dispatcher has experience as a firefighter, paramedic or some other emergency worker, as many do.

Then there's the second-guessing. Like Buechner and Daley, Sauk County dispatcher Mary Bellis initially worried she hadn't done enough to try to save the life of Weston High School principal John Klang, who was shot to death last year by student Eric Hainstock. Bellis took the first 911 call about the shooting.

"I had a lot of guilt for a while...thinking there was something I could have done to help the principal," she said. Looking back now, she said she knows she did everything she could.

Not knowing the outcome of a call can be "frustrating" as well, said Paul Logan, a 14-year Dane County dispatcher and president of the state APCO chapter.

Many also said incidents involving children are particularly difficult.

Dealing With The Stress

To help cope with these and other stressors, emergency services departments hold "debriefings" after particularly serious incidents.

The sessions are a way for all the people involved in an incident to find out what the others were doing, but also serve as forums for mutual support.

For Buechner, a debriefing on the quarry crash allowed her to see it from a "different perspective." She realized that while the incident was tragic, rescue workers were still able to save the lives of five people.

After the Brandon shooting, Daley was part of a debriefing session with police and others involved. Two counselors were also brought in to speak with the workers, she said.

"It's nice to have all the pieces put together," Daley said. The Dane County 911 center also held a session for its employees after the incident, kind of a "team-building" session, she said.

A sense of closure can be key, too, in relieving some of the stress of the job. Logan said dispatchers sometimes follow up with police or others to find out what happened with memorable calls.

Nearly three years after leaving his position as a dispatcher with Dane County, Dan Dyer said talking about the Red Caboose Day Care shooting on March 9, 2004, still stirs us some of the feelings of stress he experienced in 25 years on the job.

That incident, in which police shot to death a mentally deranged man wielding a knife at a day-care center, was one of the most serious calls he handled, he said.

He left to take a position in the county treasurer's office in part to get away from the stress of being a dispatcher.

High Turnover

Turnover among dispatchers has traditionally been high, according to McCarley.

At Dane County 911, the county's largest dispatch center - with about 511,000 incoming calls a year, including 174,000 911 calls - it's been running between 15 percent and 17 percent annually, according to Chas Klauer, a communications supervisor there.

But the stress of dealing with difficult calls isn't the overriding reason people leave, he said: Some simply don't know what they're getting into with a job that requires alot of night and holiday work and a workload that can vary significantly from one day to the next.

As McCarley put it, "It takes a lot of courage to stay in your chair...during some of the situations that they encounter."

Your Most Valuable Resource

Editorial taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine June 2006
Written by Toni Finley, Managing Editor

You've heard it a million times. You may even have said it. Say it with me now, in the first person, and listen to the truth in the words: "My employees are my most valuable resource."

But do you live it?

Many studies have shown that it costs much more to replace an employee than to retain one. The costs are higher in our industry than in most others, as we must recruit widely and frequently, test extensively and conduct exhaustive background searches on potential employees.

Finding people who truly are suited to the comm center is a coup and we would be foolish to throw these people away over trivialities like shift conflicts or childcare issues, for instance. We have to find ways to accomodate the lives of our employees and their outside worlds if we want them to dedicate their worklives to our centers.

We expect these uniquely qualified women and men - veritable needles in a haystack - to work any and all hours, holidays and weather conditions, often as mandatory overtime, and with little or no notice for schedule changes. Hurricane coming? We expect them to come to work as emergency personnel when others are evacuating with their families and pets. Blizzard? We expect them to drive on icy roads to the center when the rest of the town is shut down. Wild fires? We expect them to abandon their homesteads and work as the flames encroach on their neighborhoods.

And what do we do for them?

Do we fill all available staff positions so mandatory overtime is minimized? Do we grant shift swaps, so our employees can work the shifts their internal clocks are suited to best? Do we schedule days (or half-days) off so they can attend graduation ceremonies or weddings or school plays? Do we ask them what they need to make their workplaces good places to work? Do we listen to the answers and act on them when we can? Or do we take a "cry me a river" attitude when employees ask us to consider that they are spouses, parents, care-givers, PEOPLE...not just telecommunicators?

With the documented staff shortages in our comm center and the special considerations we must give to hiring, given the nature of our business, we cannot afford to alienate, discount or dismiss our staff when they are already bending over backward to make their lives fit our needs. I urge you to take the time to consider the matter deeply. In a world where your personnel are indeed your most valuable resources, you can't afford not to.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Domestic Violence

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine July 2006
Written by Sandy Campbell, APCO Institute Curriculum Writer

Domestic violence calls are challenging for calltakers in any communications center. The telecommunicator picks up the line, hearing the all-too-familiar background sounds of screaming, bickering, name-calling or the frightened voice of a small child reporting, "My mommy and daddy are fighting." Words which, when spoken by a small child, can soften the hardest of hearts. Without proper policy and procedures or adequate training in domestic violence call types, telecommunicators are left to their own judgment.

Domestic violence response remains one of the leading causes of law-enforcement line-of-duty deaths in America today and reinforces the need for additional training in proper call-handling procedures.

Telecommunicators play a vital role in receiving and processing reports of domestic violence. Domestic violence calls are life-threatening, volatile situations for victims and emergency responders, and telecommunicators must be knowledgeable regarding:
  • Domestic violence facts and statistics
  • Common myths (able to identify and dispel)
  • Federal, state, and local laws
  • Agency policies and procedures
  • Critical responder-safety issues

The legal definition of domestic violence varies widely form state to state, but generally it includes violence toward or physical abuse of one's spouse or intimate partner. Domestic violence victims may be married, living together, separated, divorced or may share a child in common. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, "a significant number of states include current or former dating relationships in domestic violence laws."

Typical criminal domestic violence incidents may include:

  • Verbal abuse (shouting, name-calling, degrading comments)
  • Threatened physical harm
  • Physical abuse (pushing, shoving, slapping, hitting, choking)
  • Stalking and/or intimidation
  • Sexual assault and/or rape
  • Serious bodily injury and/or homicide.

Additional forms of domestic violence, while not criminal, may include emotional, psychological and financial abuse. Domestic violence victims often are isolated from their friends and families by their abusers and their finances are controlled or withheld, leaving them feeling helpless and trapped in the abusive relationship.

In 1994, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Under the act, all federal domestic violence violations are felonies. VAWA provides many resources and protection services for domestic violence victims (women and men). The VAWA act was reauthorized by Congress in January 2006.

Domestic violence is ultimately about control or dominance over one's intimate partner. There are many myths that perpetuate misconceptions about domestic violence. Some of the more common myths are listed below:

  • Myth: Domestic violence is not a problem in my community. Fact: It is estimated that 8.5 million Americans are victims of domestic violence each year and there are no geographical boundaries.
  • Myth: Domestic violence only affects certain lower-income, racial or minority groups. Fact: Victims of domestic violence come from all walks of life. Victims from upper-income groups typically have more available resources. Lower-income victims rely on public-service agencies for assistance and are tracked through such programs.
  • Myth: Domestic violence victims are always women. Fact: Domestic violence is not gender-specific, commonly affecting men, children and even family pets.
  • Myth: Domestic violence is a result of drug or alcohol abuse. Fact: Substance abuse remains an excuse for many abusers, but does not cause imbibers to abuse their intimate partners.
  • Myth: Domestic violence stems from anger-control issues. Fact: If anger-control issues were the cause of domestic violence, abusers would batter individuals other than their intimate partners.
  • Myth: Domestic violence victims are heterosexual. Fact: Sexual orientation is not a determining factor in domestic violence.

When processing domestic violence calls, as with other life-threatening calls, the safety of the caller is paramount. Basic information-gathering techniques should be observed and all pertinent information relayed to responding units.

During the information-gathering stage, any sudden change in the caller's behavior may indicate the abuser's presence. Having the caller respond to "yes" or "no" questions by using codes (i.e., push a telephone button once for yes and twice for no) may be a method to obtain additional information.

Telecommunicators, through words and tone of voice, must reassure victims that help is on the way. If the victim calls back, before responding units arrive, to cancel the request for assistance, the call should not be disregarded and responding units should be updated, not cancelled.

The exact location (e.g., the room inside the residence where the incident is occurring) can be significant information, as guns frequently are kept in bedrooms and knives stored in kitchens. Handguns are used commonly in domestic homicides, so weapon availability is always vital information.

If available, previous records for the address should be reviewed for any prior domestic violence reports, along with arrest records and temporary or permanent personal protective or restraining orders.

As mentioned earlier, responses to domestic violence reports pose an increased safety risk to responders and, like caller safety, these risks must be a primary concern for telecommunicators. Repeat calls and victims who change their stories can cause frustration for law-enforcement officers. Over time, this can lead to apathetic attitudes that can prove dangerous for the victim and the officers. Receiving repeat calls for assistance from the same address does not ensure the situation will be the same each time. Every domestic violence incident reported requires a law-enforcement response and, if availabe, two officers should respond whether the threat is immediate or remote.

Telecommunicators should perform safety-status checks of on-scene responders as they would with any high-priority incident. Emergency medical services (EMS) may need to respond to reports of injuries along with law-enforcement units. Several EMS agencies require badges as part of their uniform attire and EMS personnel can be mistaken for law-enforcement officers, leaving them susceptible to possible attacks.

Domestic violence incidents require a coordinated response and EMS units should stage in a safe area, away from danger until law enforcement has secured the scene. The same applies to firefighters acting as first responders. Remember to consider the safety of the victim and responders throughout the entire call.

Getting a better understanding of domestic violence will give you confidence in identifying and handling crisis calls from victims and their children. Always consult your agency's policy and procedures for information on how you should handle domestic violence calls.

The Flip Side of Liability

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2006
Written by Jennifer Hastrom, APCO Contributing Editor

Recently, I was in an in-service training where we did calltaking scenarios. This was a little nerve-wracking for me. As a part-time law-enforcement radio operator, it had been more than six years since I actually took a call.

After my trial by fire, though (they took pity on me and gave me a law-enforcement scenario), it was actually fun and I think we all learned something. The instructors clarified EMD-classification points and gave out a few law-enforcement calls that fell into gray classification areas, so the discussion was lively throughout.

One scenario in particular brought out an interesting point. It involved the instructor playing a young child (old enough to read, but not much older) calling in to report her father was going into anaphylactic shock as a result of an allergic reaction to a bee sting. When the scenario started, the father was in fairly severe respiratory distress and getting worse.

During the scenario, the calltaker elicited that the patient had been given a prescription to use if stung, but his condition had deteriorated so quickly he had not been able to use it. The caller (the child) had access to the medicine.

Following the protocols, the scenario calltaker read the instruction telling the child to administer the medication as per the instructions printed on it. The instructor playing the child protested that she was too afraid to do it. Ultimately, the scenario ended with the medication untaken.

The instructor asked us for input on how the medication issue might have been better handled. Someone suggested, and the instructor agreed, that the calltaker could have helped the child handle it better. The calltaker protested that doing so wasn't listed on the protocols and that he'd been warned time and again not to stray from them.

The instructor told him that having the child read the instructions off the bottle and then talking the child through administering the medications would, ultimately, be following the protocols, as the intent of the protocols was to get the medication inside the patient.

The calltaker protested, saying he couldn't be sure the kid was reading the bottle right. And then he brought out the dreaded "L" word: liability.

The instructor, who is also our certified EMD instructor and QA manager, told him that he wouldn't be held liable if the child read the medication wrong. (After all, isn't calltaking an exercise in making the best possible decisions based on the information given - right or wrong, true or false?) In fact, if he could save the man's life by doing so, he'd be more likely to be held liable for failing to do so than for making the attempt.

He reiterated his point about liability and said he wasn't willing to risk it.

What I blurted in and said was, "If you want a job without liability, go pick up garbage for a living."

What I thought was, "And if I ever call 911, I hope I get someone else on the other end."

In his defense, he's new to the job, and, as at many agencies, new employees here are given a hefty dose of warnings about liability. And our EMD training preaches staying with the cards, verbatim. It takes quite a while to develop a true sense of when, if ever, to ignore those two messages.

Being successful at this job entails managing liability. That can't be denied. And I am not saying that liability doesn't matter or that policies should be ignored (without extremely compelling reasons) or that this sort of judgment comes without considerable experience. Given the short time this calltaker has been with us, his answer, while wrong in real-world terms, is the answer he should have given.

But this job entails realizing and accepting that you can't avoid all liability. This job is about risk, every time we pick up the phone or key up the radio. Truly accepting the liability, while delivering superlative public service, requires a constant weighing of risk against gain, and, when necessary, falling squarely in the corner of the caller. It means serving the callers' interest ahead of our own. As with romance, parenting or a number of other situations that require selflessness, it is risky. But taking the risk - or, rather, acting despite it - can be the right choice and can carry rich rewards: people saved, disasters averted, lives touched.

Managing Stress

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine February 2006
Written by Tony Harrison, President of Public Safety Group

Stress is unavoidable. For the public safety communications professional, stress is even more pervasive than for others. You are required to work in the middle of the night, holidays, disasters and other times when people lock themselves in their houses. There is no way to eliminate the stress of your job or your home. The key is to find stress management techniques that work for you.

Stress has been defined as our response to anxiety-producing events, our reaction to change and the non-specific response of the body to any demand made on it. No matter what definition you use, stress involves our response to an event. When an event happens, information about that event is directed to our brains from our senses of sight, vision, hearing, touch and smell. Once that information is gathered, our brain must assign meaning to the event. That's when the event becomes stressful or non-stressful.

There are basically two types of stress, positive and negative. Positive stress helps us reach our peak efficiency. Then, once a challenge is met, we relax and enjoy our achievement. An example of positive stress at work is a busy Friday night. We achieve our peak efficiency and do our best work when it is busy, but once the rush is over, we relax and enjoy a job well done.

Negative stress is when we stay geared up or don't relax once a challenge is met. An example of negative stress may be mandatory overtime. The constant work requires us to be geared up all the time, allowing us no time to relax.

Positive and negative stress also occur at home. For example, positive stress at home may involve a busy weekend with the kids, although some people find this an example of negative stress. The important point is that stress is positive when you can relax and enjoy your achievement. It is negative when you stay geared up all the time.

The Fight-of-Flight Response

The fight-or-flight mechanism evolved to save our lives during an immediate physical threat. Today, it can give us an adrenaline high or help us deal with perceived emergencies.

Your body reacts to the meaning your brain has assigned to an event. If you receive a shooting call and your brain perceives it as a threat to your body, your body will react and start the fight-of-flight response. There is no doubt the call is an emergency, but the call does not require a figh-or-flight response for you to respond appropriately.

Another example is when your relief calls in sick, which will require you to work an additional four to eight hours. Many times this will cause you stress and problems at home, but it does not require a fight-or-flight response. Many dispatchers have become adrenaline junkies, starting the fight-or-flight mechanism of their bodies several times a day to deal with emergency calls and new policies of administrators who we feel have no real idea about our job.

When you begin the fight-or-flight response, there are physical changes in your body. Here is a list of physiological changes:
  • Hair shafts stand erect.
  • Pupils dilate to sharpen vision.
  • Breathing tubes open wider for deeper breathing.
  • Digestion slows.
  • Perspiration increases to keep the body cool.
  • Muscles receive more blood, readying the body for vigorous action.
  • Blood vessels on surface of skin contract to reduce bleeding.
  • Blood sugar increases.
  • Blood pressure rises.
  • Heart beats faster.

You can see that the body is not designed to do this several times a day. The fight-or-flight response will hamper your ability to dispatch. As your body pumps additional blood to the major muscle groups, it takes blood away from the extremities, including your fingers. Dispatching requires a great amount of manual dexterity, which is reduced during the fight-or-flight response.


The first stress-management technique for those of us who start the fight-or-flight response for the adrenaline high is to stop when possible. The next time you get an emergency call and you feel the fight-or-flight response kicking in, take a second to stop yourself and remind your brain that it is safe. This may be difficult to do. In the middle of a shooting call, you may feel you don't have time to worry about your brain, because you must react to the call. But you are a master of multitasking. You can take the call while telling your brain that the fight-or-flight response is not needed.

One of the first steps to managing stress is to realize when we are under stress. Many of us constantly feel the effects of positive and negative stress. Because of this, it becomes difficult to realize when we are under too much stress.


When confronted with extreme amounts of negative stress, our bodies try to warn us. Many times these warnings go unheard by us. The first step in stress management is to recognize when we are under stress. Once we recognize we are under stress, we can employ techniques to fight it. The bodies' stress warnings will be different for each of us, but here are some common warnings:

  • Muscle tightness
  • Headaches
  • Muscle soreness
  • Heartburn
  • Upset stomach
  • Irritability.

You must learn how your body reacts to stress and, when under stress, to employ stress management techniques that work for you. Here are several techniques. Find the ones that work for you.

Change Your Perceptions

One of the most powerful stress management techniques is to look at the meaning your brain assigns to an event and see if the meaning is unrealistic or if you can change that meaning. Stress begins when your brain assigns meaning to an event. If we can change that meaning, we can manage stressful events.

For example, when you drive home today, most of you will confront the following: another driver will do something stupid, pull in front of you or drive slower than you'd like. Your reaction could be to simply relax, knowing that it is no big deal. Or it could be to yell, scream profanities and wave at the person with only one finger. Or your body could react with, "Oh, no! I am going to hit this person."

If the latter is your reaction, it is a good bet your body will start the fight-or-flight response. To reduce stress, we should look at the first two responses. It is possible for us to change our perception of this event. If someone pulls in front of you and no one is hurt, who cares? With this philosophy of "no harm, no foul," your stress levels will stay down. When you get mad, yell and scream, you create stress in your life. Your brain gives the meaning to the event that the other driver was careless or reckless and could have hurt someone. Tell your brain to say it is no big deal. Maybe the person just did not see you. You choose how upset you will be.

Another example: you report to work one day and find your supervisor has written a memorandum that you believe is stupd, unenforceable and worthless. You get angry, your blood pressure increases, your voice rises and there goes another day at work. Why not change the meaning to reduce and manage the stress of the event?

Many times we expect people to do things and be people they cannot. We expect a boss who has never worked in the communications center to understand the work. We expect that boss to make informed, intelligent decisions. We expect family members to be "normal." The problem is these are our expectations. When we change our expectations to be more realistic, we manage the stress in our lives.

Expect bosses to write memorandums from time to time with which we do not agree. If you can convince the boss that the new policy is not workable, do that. If you can't, then you have to live with it.

The great Indian scholar Shanitdeva said, "If there is a way to overcome the suffering, then there is no need to worry. If there is no way to overcome the suffering, then there is no use in worrying." This philosophy can help us work in the communications center. So many times we become stressed about things we have no control over. The next time your boss issues a "stupid" memo, remember this and manage your stress.

The Burden of Perfection

Many of us gladly accept the burden of perfection. We expect ourselves to be the perfect dispatcher, spouse or parent. The problem is the burden of perfection is a no-win situation. It becomes a source of stress. What if we make a mistake at work? Someone could get hurt. What if we make a mistake in raising our children?

We all make mistakes, no matter how good we are. None of us is perfect. Instead of trying to be perfect all the time, why not try to be the best we can and accept mistakes for what they are: mistakes? Make realistic expectations of your performance whether as a dispatcher of as a person.

Deep Breathing

Breathing is an easy stress management technique any dispatcher can learn to use. When we get busy at work or at home, many times our breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Breathing slowly and deeply can reduce your heart rate and your stress. The next time you are feeling stressed, take a second and breathe. Follow the steps below.

  • Breathe in through your nose for four seconds.
  • Hold for seven seconds.
  • Breathe out for eight seconds.
  • Repeat three times.


Our profession requires us to be ready 24 hours a day. Once we come home, many do not have the luxury of relaxing. Children, spouses, family and other significant others demand our attention and time. But it is important that all of us learn how to relax.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

"How Can I Help You: Customer Service in Emergency Communications

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine December 2007
Written by Sheila Hanna-Wiles, she works for the SC Highway Patrol and has been an adjunct instructor for APCO institute for seven years.

We usually think about customer service in terms of how quickly we get served at a restaurant or whether a store clerk gives us a hard time when we try to return a piece of clothing that doesn't fit. When we think about good customer service, Walt Disney World and Nordstrom are the two businesses that come most readily to mind. But what does customer service have to do with public safety communications? After all, 911 is a monopoly. But think about it for a minute. Has your agency received any of the following types of complaints?

"The calltaker I spoke with was very rude."
"I got the feeling that the calltaker did not care about my situation."
"The calltaker was very unprofessional."
"Susie did not help me with that three-alarm call."
"The radio dispatcher has an attitude problem."

These complaints may seem vague, but they all deal with the same factor: customer service.

We've heard about customer service, but we may not know the definition or understand how it applies to public safety communications. In fact, a single definition of customer service does not exist. It can be defined as an activity, a performance measurement and/or a philosophy. So customer service:
  • Is the ability to provide a service or product in the way that it has been promised;
  • Is about treating others as you would like to be treated yourself;
  • Is an organization's ability to supply its customers' wants and needs;
  • Describes the process of taking care of customers in a positive manner;
  • Is any contact between a customer and a company that causes a negative or positive perception by a customer;
  • Is a process for providing a competitive advantage and adding benefits in order to maximize the total value to the customer; and
  • Is the commitment to providing value added services to external and internal customers and involves attitude, knowledge, technical support and quality of service in a timely manner.

Customer service is the intangible element that goes with the acquisition of goods and services. When you go to the store to buy a loaf of bread, there's an element of customer service that goes along with the purchase. How were you treated? Were you able to easily find what you were looking for? Was the store clean? Were you able to check out quickly? Was the parking lot well lit? None of these questions are related to the quality, freshness or price of the bread that you bought; they are all part of customer service.

When you go to purchase services, many of the same questions apply. If you drop off and pick up your clothes at the dry cleaners, there are certain aspects of service that you are paying for in the price. Were the clothes cleaned properly? Were they free of damage or discoloration? Were they pressed properly and hung neatly, covered with plastic to keep them clean? These are services that you are paying for. But courtesy, being open when needed and convenience also play a big part in our decision to use these services.

Why do people choose not to use a certain store or service? Overwhelmingly, people stop doing business with companies because the customer perceived an attitude of indifference from the company's representative.

The Public Safety Customer

How does this apply to public safety communications? To answer that question, we must first identify who the customer is in public safety communications. Customers can be separated into two categories: internal and external. Internal customers are those people within your organization for whom you provide certain services or products. External customers are those from outside your organization. Let's begin with the obvious external public safety customer, the caller.

The caller is someone who calls the public safety communications agency, requesting some type of assistance or emergency response.

Our emergency responders are another set of customers, encompassing law enforcement, EMS or fire personnel that we dispatch to the callers.

Support personnel are also customers. This group includes personnel from environmental services, utilities, towing, addressing department, emergency management, equipment maintencance, etc.

Yet another customer is our public sector, those organizations that we educate in public safety communications. Public sector customers may include school administrators, students, hospital personnel, church groups, communities, government officials, etc.

Finally, our last customer--the internal public safety customer--consists of the people around us, sitting in the chairs next to us or across the room from us and the people who oversee the operations of the communications center, our co-workers.

Why Customer Service Counts

By now you may be thinking that these customers don't have a choice when it comes to public safety services. So is it even relevant if they receive good or bad customer service? The answer: It is absolutley relevant.

Public safety agencies are typically supported by government funding, which comes from property taxes, local sales taxes and other sources of government income. The public, through the payment of taxes, provides the income by which public safety services are provided. When a caller says, "I pay your salary!" that's essentially a correct statement.

It's true that citizens typically don't have a choice when it comes to public safety services. They cannot call another law enforcement agency, ambulance service or fire department if they're dissatisfied with local service. But what they can do is call the local governing body and the media, form opposition groups, etc. They can refuse a grant increase or vote down a bond issue to fund a new PSAP or a new radio or CAD system. They can bring lawsuits and other legal action, and it will affect the crime level and quality of life in the community if they refuse to call and report crimes.

Not only do citizens have the power to make important decisions that affect the telecommunicator's job, but emergency responders themselves have power. If they work for a separate agency dispatched by a consolidated PSAP, they may refuse to work with a PSAP that provides poor service and choose another source for dispatching.

Our co-workers can file grievances or terminate us.

The public sector can follow the same path as the callers. The support personnel can follow the same path as the emergency responders.

Customers are the most important aspect to any public safety agency. Customers are not dependent on us; we are dependent on them. Customers are not interruptions to our work; they are the purpose of it. We are not doing customers a favor by serving them; we are fulfilling our obligation by doing so. Customers are not outsiders to our business, they are part of it.

All of our customers depend on us to do a job, and we must perform that job to the best of our ability or be prepared to handle the consequences mentioned above. The bottom line: Our customer service skills will reflect stability in our jobs. Remember, no customers equals no business and no employees.

Exceptional Customer Service

Exceptional customer service consists of many factors: assurance, empathy, responsiveness, attitude, quality, problem-solving and listening skills. You must assure the customer that you possess the knowledge and skills needed to perform your job properly. To assure confidence to the customer, you must know the policies and procedures set forth by your agency. Lack of knowledge and confidence wil leave your customer feeling that you don't know what you're doing. You must understand and listen to the callers' specific needs and concerns. Let the caller know that they have your undivided attention and what they have to say is important to you. Listening skills and problem-solving skills will show the customer that you are competent and trustworthy. If you don't possess these skills, the customer will wonder if they truly got the correct response.

We must show a willingness to help our customers and provide prompt service. Placing a caller on hold for a long period of time will indicate that you're not interested in them or that you're having difficulty. Letting the caller know what's going on and the reason for the delay will instill a more positive impression. Attitude is like a virus. If you display a good attitude, then your customer will end the call in a positive manner specifically because of your good attitude. If you display a bad attitude, then your customer will end the call in a negative manner again specifically because of your bad attitude.

Customers have three expectations about what will happen when they call for public safety assistance. They expect to: 1) talk with a trained and knowledgeable professional; 2) be treated with respect and courtesy and 3) talk with someone in authority.

There is nothing as important in calltaking or dispatching than making the customer feel good about their contact with your agency. The entire department's image is formed by the person who answers the phone or dispatches on the radio. The way they talk and ask questions, the way they solve the problems and the customer's perception of service virtually establish the customer's entire feeling about the department.

How many times have you heard from a family member or friend, "It's not what you said, it's how you said it."? How true! Maybe more so with telecommunicators who are heard but never seen. When you are not face to face with people, they tend to make visual images of you, judging you by the tone of your voice. Your actual spoken words are not as important as the tone in which you use them. A short "yeah," click of the mic or "all right" can mean many things depending on how you articulate them. Two different telecommunicators saying the exact same thing but in different tones come across with totally different messages. Like the police officer calling out on a routine traffic stop who screams, making you think he's in a full-blown pursuit, tone of voice can have an effect on all of us. Tone of voice is probably the most important factor when dealing with difficult callers. Changing your tone and changing the way you phrase your words can make or break a conversation with an already upset caller.

When you start to deal with someone who is upset, you must first deal with the emotions. The facts don't make a difference to someone who's upset, and explaining your position or the agency's position won't even begin to make a dent in the situation. You must deal with the caller's emotions. Here are some key phrases that will help you when dealing with customers:

  • I understand.
  • I'm sorry.
  • Thank you.
  • You're welcome.
  • I can help you...
  • I understand that you are frightened and upset, but (next question)...
  • Please don't curse. I need to know...
  • My supervisor can help you.
  • Can you hold for a moment so I can...?
  • I don't know, but I can find out.
  • Let me help you.

Say "A locksmith can help you..." or "Public Works handles that" rather than "We don't do that." Say, "Let me give you that telephone number" rather than "You have to call..." Always emphasize the help that's available, not the assistance that you cannot provide.

Here are a few trigger phrases that you need to avoid because they tend to enrage customers--whether or not they were already upset:

  • "I'm sorry, but that's not our policy."
  • "It's against the rules."
  • "That isn't my department's responsibility."
  • "We've never done it that way."
  • "You have to calm down or I won't help you."

Something that should be considered on every call is that each customer is unique. Some may be more intelligent than others. Cultural background or beliefs will affect how a customer responds to you. A customer's moral values may not match yours. The age and life experiences of a customer are all factors to consider when trying to achieve excellence in customer service.

A customer will not accept someone being too authoritative or someone preaching or losing their temper and yelling. You are the public safety professional. It's your job to listen to the customer, show empathy, provide the customer with feedback and, most importantly, follow the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you want to be treated."

Customer service is part of being a telecommunicator, and it involves more than just answering the phone. Customers expect more from emergency services due to several influences. First, it is unthinkable that there would be anything but the best in emergency services. Second, television and movies have created expectations. And third, the customer of emergency services may be in a panic situation, not really knowing what they want, except a fix for their problem.

Basics to Better Serve Your Customers

A "customer service star" typically exhibits certain characteristics. To begin with, they focus on the customer rather than the situation. They also:

  • Set personal standards that exceed customer expectations.
  • View work as a show.
  • Create mutually cooperative relationships with customers, especially internal customers.
  • Smile a lot when talking to customers. (Smiles really do get transmitted over the phone line and radio frequencies.)
  • Think of themselves as professional customer service personnel. It works. Self image is important to projecting a caring image.
  • Remember that everyone they contact is a customer and that, in turn, they are a customer to others.
  • Recognize that the customer is always right, but so are they. The trick is to get the two as close together as possible.
  • Acknowledge that good customer service is a cycle. Having a good attitude toward customers breeds good feedback from customers, which feeds your good attitude, which breeds more good feedback, which feeds your attitude.
  • Remember that they cannot please everyone. Don't let a customer service failure get you down.

These characteristics take time and energy to adopt, but they do work.

Customer Complaints

If a customer's expectations are not met, only one out of 10 will complain to the agency. So if a manager gets 10 similar complaints in a week, there were probably a hundred or more total incidents during that week. Whether or not the customer complains to the agency, and even if the customer is eventually satisfied, they may still tell people how they were initially treated, repeating the complaint to others. Therefore, it's prudent to take a practical approach to solving customer problems and resolving customer complaints before they ever happen.

Dissatisfield customers usually do two things. They may go elsewhere for the same products or services if possible, and they tend to tell everyone and anyone who will listen about how they were treated. Satisfied customers will tell seven people. Dissatisfied people will tell 28. Those who still have to use the service or products (no choice) tend to tell many more about their unpleasant experiences.

When customers complain, what do they expect will happen? Many want the person responsible to be disciplined -- or even fired. Others want special privileges or some type of special treatment. Some look for an apology only.

The customer is looking at things from their point of view. Some customers may not have all of the information that they need to be correct, but perception is reality. In their minds, they are right.

Always shoot for the satisfied customer! Remember that customer service is very important. Every agency should demand excellent customer service from its employees so that customers will return and for job stability. No customer equals no business and no employees.