9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 13, 2009

Dispatcher Attitude

The words spoken by a midnight caller held an eerie sound. "It seems my husband has hung himself. Are you the people I should call?" When the crisis had passed, the police dispatcher in the small Iowa town described her emotions as "shock" and "defeat." Her attitude? Depressed.

"So what else is new?" "It comes with the territory." "If you can't take the heat, get out of the kitchen." etc., etc., etc. These trite phrases serve to cover our own anger and negative dispatcher frustrations. Yet they avoid the issue. Negative dispatcher attitude, anger turned inward, not dealt with can result in self-destruction.

For public safety dispatchers and call takers, saving seconds can save lives. Yet, by our own lack of recognition of the job stressors that can cause negative attitudes and subsequent burnout, we may be placing the lives of our officers and the citizens they serve in jeopardy.

One dispatcher told me, "You develop a shell. Over time it grows hard and strong. Finally, nothing can penetrate. My mother passed away recently, and I didn't feel any emotion. Nothing. That's how hard my shell has become."

Recently a dispatcher in New England shared with her peers her feelings she was "jinxed." She couldn't handle crisis calls anymore. "Sometimes," she said, "I feel like hanging a sign over my console that says, Dispatcher of Death."

In 1995, our company trained more than 10,000 public safety personnel. The comments above could have come from any one of them.

What do I learn from these comments? We place men and women in positions of major responsibility to an ever-increasing litigious and critical public. Often we're guilty of providing minimal or no formal training and even fewer offer stress management or interpersonal self-help programs directed toward their dispatch personnel.

Why then are we surprised when complaints come in concerning the "lack of politeness" by someone who answered a department telephone? After a period of time in the communications center, a unique twis occurs in the attitude of many dispatchers. The public, who is our customer, becomes our enemy. We resent them. We're curt with them. We wish they would stop "bothering" us.

How do we solve this problem? This is not an article on stress management, though public safety officials must be proactive in ensuring their employees receive assistance in this area. We need to go back to the basics and examine three important areas. Each of the three areas is a link in the chain of success for a communications center and can help improve attitude and morale.

1. Selection and Hiring

When was the last time you critically examined the selection and hiring process for dispatch personnel in your agency? Many problems can be stopped here, before they begin. Is your present hiring process relevant to the needs in your communications center? Do you measure an applicant's ability as it relates to:
  • Human relations with the public
  • Reasoning ability/decisioin making skills
  • Mental alertness
  • Personality

Are you hiring people who can handle the unique technical and interpersonal skills required to be a great dispatcher? How strong is your selection link? Remember the lives of citizens and responders may depend on the skills of your dispatch personnel.

2. Supervision

The supervisor has a major role in the effective and smooth operation of a communications center. Do you have an effective supervisory training program in place? Are your supervisors skilled in the elements of supervisory techniques? If you are relying on the fact that your supervisors have "learned it all on the job," you may be in for some unpleasant surprises. If your supervisors lack effective training then the overall effectiveness of the communications center is short-circuited. The effectiveness of a dispatcher is often directly linked to the effectiveness of the supervisor. How strong is your supervision link?

3. Training and Development

Do you have a comprehensive training and development program for your communications center personnel? Does it include all facets of the job from use of hardware to crisis communication skills? Does the department have an Operational Procedural Manual (Standard Operating Procedure)? Is thorough training provided in each section of the manual?

Do you use qualified training consultants who can come to your agency and conduct state of the art dispatcher training programs? Are role-playing simulations part of your program and do employees do frequent ride alongs with responders to get necessary hands-on experience?

While packaged mail-order programs, video tapes and train the trainer modules are available, they may not address the specific needs of your agency. Also, they lack the dimension provided by having a professional, expert dispatch trainer on site to ensure each student receives a lasting, motivational learning experience. A training link must not be poorly forged. Without a solid, complete training program, dispatchers will be mediocre at best and ineffective at worst.

Going back to the question posed by the late night caller, "Are you the people I should call?" If your department has each of the three success links firmly in place, then the answer is a resounding YES.

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