9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Surviving the Recession in Your Communications Center

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine, April 2009
Written by Steve Peach, ENP, Director of SHASCOM 911 (Redding, CA). He has worked as a dispatcher, dispatcher supervisor and manager in public safety communications for more than 34 years. He has served as instructor at the California Highway Patrol Academy.

As the nationwide recession hits every aspect of our economy, all tax-supported entities are seeing demands to reduce expenditures within their operations. While most public safety related agencies are given high priority for what little funds are remaining, no one is immune from cuts, furlough days and layoffs. Communications centers are feeling the brunt of these budget woes, with budgets being cut, and money that is allocated being closely examined. Managers and administrators struggle with the difficult decision of prioritizing diverse needs, from people to chairs, from painting the wall to buying headsets--everything is being considered for cost reductions. How can we all get through this crisis and still deliver good service to the public and our agencies and still keep the communications center a great place to work?

Make a good case
The Shasta Area Safety Communications Agency (SHASCOM 911) is a consolidated operation -- a "stand alone" supported by the various law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies we serve. That makes some of our budget issues unique (I have to budget for utility bills, paper towels and building maintenance where communications centers housed along with the first responders they serve or administration usually don't) but everyone has the same issue of convincing the "powers that be" that you need money to provide critical service. Showing those persons how efficient you are with money and how you solved problems in past budgets are important things to portray. Looking at the budget process as a competition for funds is not a bad mindset. Seek to show how you give the best "bang for the buck," how your unit/agency is the most important and how you save money better than anyone else. Most people understand that personnel costs (salary and benefits) make up between 75 percent and 85 percent of a budget, and are usually "set" costs due to labor negotiations, retirement policies, etc. It is important to explain to those with the fiscal reins that your communications center is staffed at "knife-edge," meaning that overtime is always required when someone is absent. Letting them know that the 911 lines and radios have to be answered is an educational task you have to perform by showing them that freezing hiring or laying someone off actually costs more money and reduces service levels.

Show your "funders" how you worked in the past and still work to keep the costs that you can impact at a minimum. You can show that you do try harder than others by explaining your conservation of costs for things like utilities, supplies and training. Nothing is too small to be considered; our budgets are usually not huge, especially compared to the folks we dispatch. Something as simple as instituting a recycling program, posting signs to turn off lights when not in use, asking employees to carpool to training classes and repairing, when it is cheaper than replacing, are good practices, and also show how serious you are about saving. Now is the time to use your best presentation skills; charts, PowerPoint, graphs and other graphics can be used to really make your case -- use them to the fullest.

Explaining the Facts of Life
As I mentioned previously, it is important to educate the folks with the money. Our leadership team all worked as long-term dispatchers before moving up into management at my agency; we understand how important a good headset, earpiece or chair can be. However, most centers are governed by uniformed personnel or others with no dispatch experience, and finding a method to portray how dispatch operates is important to keeping your funding intact.

One of the issues that always arises occurs when a city councilman or a department head visits, and sees a dispatcher reading the paper, or looking through old magazines--in other words, "not working." I have used our brothers and sisters in the fire service to make the analogy that works best while explaining how dispatch is staffed. We, like firefighters, do not produce a stack of work that can be measured easily. Twenty-five incidents in 10 minutes can be much less "work" than one complex call in an hour. We pay firefighters not only to be in a station and available for an emergency call, but to be totally prepared to respond (training, correct equipment, procedures in place, etc.). Dispatchers work in the same way; funding must not only pay for the "dispatcher chair to be filled," but to fund training, equipment, the facility, utilities, supervision and administrative costs. Without the support behind that seemingly "non-working" dispatcher, that next 911 call would not be handled. That is why dispatchers and firefighters are so similar in job type; we must be available and fully prepared to respond to any emergency, regardless of type, with no lag time. No one is a dispatch chair that is "not working"; we are all working to be ready and prepared for the next phone or radio call that will change someone's life.

Prepare for the Worst
Assume that you will be asked to cut your budget by 10 percent when you assumed it would only be cut by 5 percent. Explore all those options that are distasteful to you, and that you know will negatively impact your operations. Do it now, rather than later. It will be important to show those asking you to make those cuts how difficult they would be on the public and the agencies you serve before a final decision is made. If you are prepared to explain and educate before the event happens, you have a better chance of reducing the impact, and even if the cuts come, you will be better equipped to handle them. If you are asked to cut positions, always talk about how law enforcement (in particular) tends to handle short staffing issues. Many times, when resources are low, an officer will be asked to cover two beats instead of one for a shift, or certain types of calls normally receiving a field response will be referred to a "counter" report. Dispatch just doesn't have that luxury, and the persons trying to cut positions need to know that. We can't leave a 911 call-taker position uncovered, for if we do, the calls coming to it will not be answered, or service will be delayed, both causing the potential for liability, and the ensuing lawsuit, to occur. We normally can't ask a radio dispatcher to cover two positions when you are down a dispatcher, for the same reasons. Dispatch is just not the same as any other division of the agency.

Find Ways to Save, Then Find Alternate Funding
Work hard with everyone on your staff, from top to bottom, to come up with money-saving ideas. Any idea is free, and frankly, the more unusual the idea, the more I want to hear it. Why? Managers tend to think like managers, which can reduce your creativity when exploring every possible way to solve a problem. Nothing should be considered too silly to think about, and no policy or program should be sacrosanct; listening and using those ideas can result in some creative and elegant solutions to saving money. Since a majority of our costs are in "people," finding ways to save the remaining balance of budget requires imagination. Some things, like tools of the job -- chairs, keyboards, etc. -- can't be cut, and in fact, your budget may need to be increased. (Be prepared to explain the need for increases, as they will be questioned.) However, other areas -- non-critical training, trips to conferences, recruiting, testing, non-required maintenance, certain supplies and other miscellaneous expenses -- should be examined. Even a few dollars saved can help your agency provide services at a high level by allowing money to be spent on critical areas. Another area that is sometimes not considered involves your staff helping out by voluntarily regarding costs. Most persons are very cognizant of the finances of your agency; I have been surprised many times when dispatchers have offered to change shifts, or help develop new schedules in order to reduce overtime costs. It never hurts to ask for help!

Look for the funding outside of your normal budget stream. We all know about Homeland Security grants, and the newer subdivision of those grants that apply to interoperability. Make sure you take full advantage of those grant sources by investing the time and energy to develop good projects that will be competitive. With the announcement of stimulus funds coming forth, having "shovel-ready" projects is critical to improving your budget status. Since "planning" is a component of the ongoing interoperability grants, using that money to develop your projects is an excellent way to use grant funds.

Use your imagination (and the Internet!) to find grants that are not normally part of your funding sources. Foundations, Native American tribal entities, health care organizations and rural assistance groups (among many others) all have grants available, and since your communcations center, just by its nature, seeks interoperability and enhances public safety, you may be eligible for these funds. I know I was a bit surprised to find that the sponsor for a grant that was available for organizations that support "hometown" programs and projects was a well-known "dinner in a box" company. We qualified, and I applied for uniforms for our Tactical Dispatcher Team.

Take Advantage of Bad Fiscal Times
I learned long ago that lean years can be fruitful in other areas. If administrators cut your budget, ask for concessions or benefits in other areas that do not cost money. For years, you may have understood that a strict policy wasn't really necessary, and was in place only because the agency head liked the policy; maybe a dress-code or rules about breaks are the issue. Ask for a reconsideration of those policies during budget cuts, as they cost nothing, and can bring a bit of increased morale to those impacted by the cuts, softening the blow.

In short, make a good case -- show how much you do for the public and agencies you serve for what is already little money (don't hide your accomplishments or how much you contribute); educate -- explain how budget cuts affect communications centers more severely than others since we work at minimum in terms of both people and equipment already; be prepared -- when you are asked to sacrifice more by both having a good defense on why you should not be cut, and a plan to deal with it if you are actually cut; finally, talk to people and look for outside funds -- listen to everyone about any possible way to save money. You may find that you are able to avoid those cuts that reduce service or crush morale by finding ways to reduce in other areas. Think outside the box when it comes to finding new funding sources by doing research and networking.

Even though our ability to deliver high quality and efficient service is severely tested during these tough times, those must remain our highest priority for our profession, so we are all obliged to find a way to meet that priority while still working within our budgets.

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