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.

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