9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

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.

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