9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Teachable Moments: Harnessing the Development Power of Everyday Events

Article from Public Safety Communications Magazine, Sept. 2008
Written by John R. Brophy, EMS communications supervisor

A call with no ANI/ALI information is relayed from a PSAP in a neighboring community to your communications center. The dispatcher provides the city (which is within your jurisdiction), address and telephone number of the caller and drops off the line. The street name and block range verify in your CAD as valid. The call is screened and prioritized according to applicable medical priority guidecards, and an appropriate tiered response is sent. A few minutes later, the first EMS unit arrives in the area and states that the address is a vacant building.

The unit verifies that it is at the address on the CAD screen. The instant playback tape confirms that the address in the CAD is what was provided by the dispatcher from the other PSAP, so a call back to the original caller is placed. Upon speaking with the original caller, it's discovered that the city provided by the other PSAP was incorrect. The street name is common, and the block range matched as well. A call is placed to the proper community's dispatch center, and that center takes it from there.

You conduct a quality control review of all the tapes related to the incident and ask the supervisor at the other PSAP to do the same. It becomes clear that the error occurred at the point of the original call. The caller clearly stated the city name, but the calltaker improperly entered and transferred it.

Personnel at your secondary PSAP could easily look at this event as the primary PSAP's error and move on, but you could also take this as an opportunity for a teachable moment. Perhaps the lesson for your calltakers is that they should always verify location with the caller directly when the caller is still on the line and not with a third party--even if that third party is a dispatcher. This practice might have prevented sending units to the wrong address and the delayed patient access that resulted. Doing the simple things, even when they seem on the surface to be a waste of time or perhaps painfully and unnecessarily redundant, will minimize the likelihood of a negative outcome.

If you use this situation as a teachable moment, you can reinforce the importance of address verification and caller reliability at a point in time when no one in your center is directly responsible for the error. This type of nonjudgmental discussion may have more far-reaching positive results than a reprimand or embarrassing a dispatcher for not following procedure.

Creating an Atmosphere of Learning

Every day events occur in comm centers across the country and around the world that are considered "routine," and others occur that are more "high impact." Lessons can often be learned from both call types by new and experienced communications professionals alike. All too often, however, follow-up is conducted only when someone goes above and beyond or when a mistake is made. This leaves most of what takes place and its potential for enhancing professional growth and development untapped.

Using everyday occurrences, successes and even mistakes in a positive way as a catalyst for thought and professional development is what a teachable moment is all about.

When communications staff and front line supervisors connect and share their thoughts, concerns and ideas in a non-judgmental and meaningful way, they set the stage for a positive atmosphere in which learning and growth can take place. When supervisors look for opportunities to praise positive outcomes, initiative and creative problem solving, not just correct mistakes, they are creating an environment in which teachable moments can emerge and prove successful.

A good litmus test to determine the level of connection and trust that exists between staff and supervisor is whether staff members feel comfortable coming to the supervisor with a mistake or simply hope the manager didn't catch it. In the former situation, the atmosphere is ripe for the use of teachable moments; in the latter, teachable moments can perhaps have even more benefit. They can be used as a means of building that trust and as a means of improving performance. In either case, positive results can be achieved.

Break the Ice

Let's face it: No one likes to be approached on our shortcomings. We all like to believe that our best is good enough, and, in fact, most of the time it is. But when we make mistakes--and as members of the human race we all will--the best way to handle them is to be made aware of what we could have done differently to prevent a negative outcome. Knowing how you've felt about being made aware of your own past errors and factoring that into how you approach others about their mistakes will allow supervisors to come across is a more positive and empathetic way.

The reality is that the desire to improve is often stifled because "most criticisms we receive (or give) place a strong emphasis on the negatives." Understanding this fact, when I train new dispatchers, I often remind them that it's not likely that they'll find a new way to make a mistake because I made many of the very same ones they might make during my own training, and if I didn't, someone else in the agency probably did. Additionally, when coaching or counseling someone on a particular area of concern, I often give an example from my own past that is on point and will help soften the blow. In so doing, they are given an opportunity to realize that mistakes happen and that how you overcome them is often more important than the mistake itself. In short, when people see you open yourself up to criticism and use your own mistakes as examples, they tend to open themselves up as well.

Teachable Moments Promote Critical Thinking

Critical thinking is more than simply thinking through, projecting and anticipating the results or consequences of actions or inaction. Critical thinking involves reflective learning. According to Bond, Keough and Walker, reflection is "a generic term for those intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciation."

Thus, analyzing and reflecting upon the events that we participate in and that occur around us in the comm center will allow us to improve in our specific areas of performance and become more developed as individuals and professionals. Sharing our critical thoughts with one another will also enhance trust and team building while at the same time develop our capacity to at least understand, if not embrace, the perspectives of others and afford them the same opportunity.


Coaching is a partnership between the coach and the person being coached. Using a teachable moment as a catalyst for a coaching session can be a valuable tool. When taking a coaching approach, it's important that perspectives be shared and that the coach realizes that they need not be all knowing to be successful. The most important thing when coaching a teachable moment is to be certain the goals of the session or discussion are clear and that the tone is kept positive.

Be prepared, and know the desired outcome, what could be at stake, potential difficulties and how best to handle them. Just like in sports, the goal of coaching is to provide input and insights that will lead to improved performance.

Coaching in the context of a teachable moment can be a one-on-one event or a small group activity. The important aspect is beginning the session with an end in mind, and being positive and open to feedback from those being coached. Remember, the coaching session is not about the coach.

Professional Development Dialogue

Having regular professional development discussions about events that occur in your comm center, as well as those that occur elsewhere in the news, will build rapport, as well as critical thinking skills. 911 tapes are frequently in the news, both on television and online. Sometimes the media publicizes 911 tapes that tout dispatcher success, but often, 911 recordings are used to criticize mistakes. Either way, the media has performed a valuable service. They've researched the matter, written an article or news story on it and even made the tape available.

Instead of criticizing their criticism, use their work as the foundation of a case study for yourself and your staff. Look at the call through the eyes of the media and the public to gain an outsider's perspective on what we do. Discuss whether the criticisms are truly valid and what improvements could be made. Ask yourself and your people to consider what would have occurred if the call had come into your comm center. Is it possible your center would have handled it in a similar way? Are there lessons to be learned or policies to be revised?

In the final analysis, consider this: Teachable moments need not always be based on what your people did or didn't do. As long as they are timely and approached in a meaningful way, a wide variety of sources can provide the basis for a teachable moment.

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