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Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Rickover's Rules: Yesterday's Lessons for Supervising Today

Article taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine August 2008
Written by Bob Smith, Director of Comm Center & 911 Services for APCO International

Public safety communications today differs greatly from 20 years ago--or even 10 or 5 years ago. Technology is ever changing and increasingly complex. Political and governmental changes have resulted in the slow decline of the mom-and-pop dispatch center in favor of larger, consolidated and regionalized centers. Agencies that once handled daily operations with a single telephone and base station radio now handle thousands of calls annually using million dollar systems and resources. Never before has public safety communications been as complex in every component as it is today. Now more than ever, individuals in leadership positions must be prepared to supervise these systems in the most efficient, effective manner possible. What hasn't changed: We can gather a wealth of information for supervising in this modern era by looking to our past.

One guide to managing complex systems such as ours is Admiral Hyman Rickover (1900-1986). Rickover was the longest serving active duty military officer in U.S. history, with 63 years of continuous service under 13 presidents. Considered the father of the nuclear Navy, he is most well known for overseeing the team that designed and built the first nuclear submarine. Rickover's obsession with safety and standardized processes is legendary and led directly to the U.S. Navy's continuing record of zero reactor accidents in its nuclear fleet. Rickover's Rules for Managing Complex and High-Risk Systems have been implemented and followed by military, government and private sector leaders for decades. These rules are appropriate for administrators in all sectors, including public safety.

Rule 1: You must have a rising standard of quality over time, and well beyond what is required by any minimum standard. Standards and best practices should be viewed as minimum performance requirements. Benchmarks for success should be well above those standards. We should consistently strive to exceed existing standards.

Rule 2: People running complex systems should be highly capable. Leadership and supervisory roles should be based on more than just seat time. Years of service should not be the only factor in promotion to a senior level. Qualifications should be set and adhered to, and continuing education should be mandatory. Once a person becomes a supervisor their education should not stop. Public safety leaders should be poised to address issues and culture changes long before they become challenges.

Rule 3: Supervisors have to face bad news when it comes and take problems to a level high enough to fix those problems. Agencies should empower supervisors and management staff to rectify situations and provide them with the knowledge and tools necessary to solve problems. Supervisors may be able to address certain personnel and administrative issues on their own, depending on their level of authority and the policies of their particular agency. If not, they must be prepared to escalate problems to the next level.

Rule 4: You must have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks of your particular job. At any given moment somewhere in the world a public safety telecommunicator is making a life-or-death decision that may affect one person, a whole family or an entire population. Today's litigious society should cause all personnel to be vigilant of the level of care provided to the citizens and communities they serve. Those in leadership roles should be especially cognizant of high-risk areas and the need to limit liability exposure for their agencies and themselves.

Rule 5: Training must be constant and rigorous. Many elite unit and special forces personnel live by the mantra, "We sweat in training, so we don't bleed in real life." This level of intensity is just as important for public safety communications. Training should be relevant, accurate and timely. Tune in to any news broadcast, and you'll hear about many of the things your current training should be focusing on: active shooter incidents, VoIP, suicide bombings, natural disasters and continuity of operations. Many agencies provide adequate training for new hires, but fall short on continuing education for existing employees outside maintaining certifications. The better trained and educated your personnel are, the better prepared they are to respond when needed.

Rule 6: All the functions of repair, quality control and technical support must fit together. Quality control programs cannot function in a vacuum. Gaps in operations and deficiencies discovered during quality control reviews need to be incorporated into continuing education programs. Further, deficiencies that appear regularly must be addressed more formally by revising or modifying policies and procedures.

Rule 7: The organization and members thereof must have the ability and willingness to learn from mistakes of the past. Building on lessons learned and incorporating emerging challenges into daily operations should be the norm for any comm center. Incident critiques will provide essential clues to what worked and what didn't--what needs tweaking and what needs to be completely overhauled. Don't reinvent the wheel. Share your lessons learned with others, and incorporate lessons learned by others into your operations.

The bottom line: Rickover's Rules for Managing Complex and High-Risk Systems have stood the test of time. Today's comm center manager or supervisor can learn much by reviewing these rules and incorporating them into their own management style.

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