9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Being a Dispatcher

Taken from 911 Magazine, April/May 2009
Written by Laura Vigor, dispatcher with the Henry County Sheriff's Office (Cambridge IL)

Being a dispatcher is not an easy job and sometimes not a very rewarding one. Every day brings new things. The simplest of tasks becomes a lifesaving adventure. The hardest of tasks becomes routine. And most of the time, good things go unnoticed. But as dispatchers, we continue on each day, being the best that we can.

Being a dispatcher involves dedication. Dedication means many things to a dispatcher. It is coming to work when you are so sick all you want to do is curl up in a corner and sleep. It is working on your day off for a co-worker who needs time to be with family or friends. It means working holidays and third shift, during tornadoes and snow storms.

Being a dispatcher involvs patience. Being patient when you are training a new co-worker who is just starting out and being patient with your patrolmen when they obvioulsy have no idea that they are not the only one who needs you. Being patient with callers who give you lines such as, "I know this is not an emergency, but...," "What is the phone number for ..." or, my personal favorite, "Do I have enough time to go to the bathroom before the tornado hits?"

Being a dispatcher involves giving a little or a lot of yourself. It means staying on the phone with your caller until help arrives, or crying alongside your caller, knowing a loved one isn't going to make it. It means being there for that caller who just needs someone to talk to, supporting a co-worker who has just taken the worst call of the day, or just giving hope to people who don't seem to have any.

Being a dispatcher presents opportunities -- to help others, to make a difference, and to feel good because you have just saved another life. And, of course, there is the opportunity to work with a group of the most special and talented people you may ever meet.

As a dispatcher of 13 years, I often go home feeling as though I haven't made a difference, wishing I could have done more. I go home feeling frustrated, stressed, and upset. Then I start thinking to myself, What about the baby I helped deliver in the back seat of a sport utility vehicle? What about the man that I kept alive who was all alone during a heart attack? What about that suicidal person who called me for help and is alive today? I then step back and take a look at myself and realize, "Hey, I did do all that, didn't I?" And I start feeling better; realizing how important my job is and all the good that I do.

A dispatcher's life isn't easy. We get yelled at because the neighbor's dog is in someone's yard and, of course, that's our fault. We often are told by the public, "I pay your salary," (and we just want to ask them for a raise). And let's not forget that when everything is "hitting the fan," it all comes back to us...the dispatchers.

I am a 911/police/fire/EMS dispatcher! And I am very proud of it.

Active Shooting Response: The Call Taker's Role

Exerpts taken from 911 Magazine, April/May 2009
Written by Capt. George Deuchar (Ret.), Director of training, PowerPhone Inc.

In every class I teach, I drive home the point that the first person on the scene of every crime, fire and medical emergency is the initial call taker. It's no different when the call for help involves an active shooting incident. When a frightened voice on the other end of the phone is looking for help, you are right on the scene. When the phones start to light up, will you be prepared?

What Constitutes an Active Shooting Incident?

An active shooting in an intense, uncontained incident involving one or more assailants who engage in a shooting spree with demonstrated intent to continuously harm multiple victims. Active shootings generally take place in populated areas--including schools, malls, churches, hospitals, and government buildings.

The active shooter has a desire to kill and injure as many as possible, often without concern for his or her own safety or possible escape. The shooter may have intended victims, but will accept other targets as these opportunities arise, continuing to move throughout the chosen area until he or she is either stopped by law enforcement or commits suicide.

Some notable examples of active shootings that you may recall from media reports:
  • Newington, Connecticut, March 6, 1998. A disgruntled accountant at the Connecticut State Lottery Headquarters killed four co-workers before turning the gun on himself.
  • Littleton, Colorado, April 20, 1999. Two students at Columbine High School killed 13 and injured 24 before taking their own lives.
  • Blacksburg, Virginia, April 16, 2007. In the deadliest incident involving a single gunman in United States history, a Virginia Tech undergraduate kills 32 and injures 23 before committing suicide.
  • Omaha, Nebraska, December 5, 2007. A 19-year-old man kills eight and injures four at the Westroads Mall before dying of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

As you can see from the above examples, there is an important point to remember: the active shooter, in most cases, is willing to die for the purpose of his or her mission.

As a telecommunicator, you play a vital role in these incidents. The questions you ask of callers, the decisions you make and the actions you take will help determine the safest and most productive route of entry for officers, aid in the survival of the injured, and can help minimize casualties.

Immediate Action Rapid Deployment Tactics

The Columbine High School shootings taught us that the response of police officers to active shootings had to change. No longer could officers respond, set up a perimeter, and wait for specially trained tactical units to arrive. To save lives and minimize casualties, the concept of Immediate Action Rapid Deployment (IARD) has become the prescribed method for present day law enforcement response to an active shooting.

IARD works in the following manner: first, arriving officers will set up a quick perimeter, assess the situation, and determine the safest entry point. Officers will likely make this decision using information provided by telecommunicators. Officers on the scene will then take immediate action to stop the active shooter and prevent further loss of life--by going directly to the sound of gunfire. To assist and protect these officers, you must attempt to get vital information from callers regarding the sound and location of gunfire, a description of the shooter (or shooters) and the potential presence of other hazards, such as explosives.

During the Westroads Mall shooting in Omaha, 911 call takers repeatedly asked each caller, "Do you know where the shooter is?" In an active shooting, each 911 caller is a new witness with potentially new and better information that can assist responders. Responders should be updated as you receive location and description information. Whenever possible, gather information from callers regarding all possible points of entrance and exit to the target location. This includes the location of elevators, stairwells, and the discovery of intentionally locked (or chained) exits. In the Virginia Tech shootings, for example, the shooter chained the three main entrance doors of an academic building shut prior to his rampage.

Protecting Responders

In addition to those tactics mentioned above, to best protect all responders the call taker's checklist should also include the following:

  • Obtain specific intelligence as it pertains to the exact location of the active shooter.
  • Keep responders updated and eliminate surprises.
  • Think in terms of potential multiples (multiple shooters, multiple victims, multiple responders, multiple responding agencies, etc).
  • Initiate integrated communications under your agency's Incident Command System.

Protecting Victims

Protecting responders is only one portion of your responsibilities. The survival of victims and potential victims can be enhanced by giving critical pre-arrival instructions.

When speaking with callers, first determine whether they can talk without being exposed to danger. Callers should never be encouraged to interfere with or neutralize the shooter; rather, they should be instructed to get to safety as quickly as possible.

As with all incidents in progress, the caller should be kept on the phone only if it is the safest environment. If you determine that the environment is not the safest, your priority is to work with the caller to make it safer. For example, if the caller is in an open area, tell them to seek immediate shelter where they will not be visible to the shooter.

Remember, when citizens call 911 they are looking for assistance at the scene and on the phone. You should always consider ways to deter, delay or deny the shooter from gaining physical access to the caller.

Pre-Arrival Instructions For Callers In Danger

The following instructions can help protect callers caught in the middle of an active shooting incident:

  • Secure the immediate area--classroom, bathroom, office, etc.
  • Lock the door, if possible.
  • Many doors in public buildings are solid core, and many walls are block and brick, which may provide some protection form bullets.
  • Whether the door is locked or unlocked, block it using whatever is available--desks, file cabinets, boxes, or other furniture.
  • If the shooter enters the room a caller is in and leaves, lock and barricade the door after the shooter exits.
  • If safe, the caller may allow others to seek refuge with him or her.
  • When secure inside a room, the caller should:
  • Close blinds.
  • Block windows.
  • Turn off radios, televisions and computer monitors, if necessary.
  • Silence cell phones.
  • Seek protection behind walls, desks, file cabinets, etc.
  • Place signs in exterior windows to identify the location of injured persons.
  • Keep occupants calm and quiet.

The Aftermath: Critical Incident Stress

As a telecommunicator, you work feverishly to protect responders without compromising the safety of callers and victims. Active shootings are obviously an extremely stressful event to deal with. Your role is often overlooked because of the danger faced by on-scene responders. Communications personnel must be included in a mandatory critical incident stress debriefing conducted after the event.

According to recommendations from the United States Fire Administration in their technical report on the Columbine High School shooting (USFA-TR-129/April 1999), the following issues should be taken into consideration after an active shooting:

  • Following an incident, there is an immediate need for affected personnel to have an outlet for understanding and processing their reactions.
  • Many public safety personnel may refuse to leave after they are relieved.
  • Most are emotionally and physically exhausted.
  • Families and friends of personnel will need reassurance that these individuals are alright.
  • Personnel released from duty after a major incident should not be left alone.
  • If necessary, allow those alone to meet with others and seek support.
  • Agency personnel should be alert to co-workers "distancing themselves" from the group.
  • A critical incident stress debriefing should be scheduled for all personnel.

Establishing Your Own Active Shooting Plan

As I mentioned, my community didn't realize almost until the end of building our active shooting plan that we had not sought enough input from our telecommunicators. You and your fellow telecommunicators should commit to taking an active role in helping your department and community plan and prepare for possible active shooting incidents.

You can take the following steps in helping to plan for active shootings:

  • Identify likely targets in your community. With the prevalence of school violence, special attention must be paid to all schools in your community. Analyze the floor plans of these schools and determine how responders will approach and intervene in an active shooting. Also identify any other targets where a large number of people will be gathered (shopping malls, sports arenas, office parks, etc). Many of you have participated in ride-along programs; you should also request a walk-along to discover those potential targets first-hand.
  • Review your internal communications procedures. Ensure that you and your responders can communicate efficiently through an incident command system. Establish procedures for using common terminology and ensure clear understanding so that seconds can be saved in a crisis.
  • Make sure your team is adequately trained. Just as police officers must continually refine their skills, so must telecommunicators. Make sure you and your fellow telecommunicators receive regular training in police-related communications and pre-arrival instructions, plus specialized training in areas such as hostage negotiations, suicide intervention and active shooting response.

Remember, planning and preparation are the only things that can help us minimize the fear, panic and chaos that accompany active shooting incidents. Your contribution is vital, so insist on being part of the process from day one.

Make the Right Call with Advanced Weather Technology

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine May/June 2009
Written by Dan Buck, director at DTN/Meteorlogix (Minneapolis, MN). He has more than 20 years of experience consulting with businesses on how to best mitigate weather related risks. He provides public safety organizations with the resources they need to keep the public and responders safe.

When handling an emergency, responders need to be aware of inclement weather conditions to ensure their own safety and keep the public out of harm's way. By using advanced technology and proactively monitoring weather, emergency professionals will always be able to make the right call.

Public safety officials and EMS responders spend a lot of time training and planning for how to react when an emergency call comes into a 911 dispatch center. Each emergency presents different circumstances that public safety professionals need to be prepared for. Dispatchers and EMS responders go through checklists to ensure proper steps are taken to ensure the safety of community members and the responders themselves.

Although precautionary measures are taken to ensure safety, one variable that can throw a wrench into emergency planning is severe weather. Bad weather can throw off a well-planned rescue if it has not been closely monitored. Weather conditions need to be factored into the decisions that public safety officials make. Having accurate, up-to-the-minute weather information allows responders to adjust their plans accordingly to account for precipitation, wind, changing temperatures and other weather related incidents that impact rescue efforts.

Communications centers are constantly expanding on their technologies and many have implemented the use of voice broadcasting, a system that allows numerous voice messages to be sent to large volumes of phone numbers that go directly to first responders and the public. In the case of approaching weather hazards and even chemical spills, this improves the ability to move people and objects out of harm's way, saving lives and reducing damage to property.

An accurate and convenient way to monitor weather conditions is to implement real-time, location specific weather information from a weather service. Receiving updates based on expert insight from meterologists gives public safety officials advanced knowledge to take proactive, not reactive measures.

Keeping on top of severe weather and establishing alert parameters to monitor conditions that affect safety is important. Weather information providers have simplified the process for monitoring incoming storms, and have developed systems that allow users to look at weather for specific locations, not just by county. Public safety officials can easily set alerts that give them a tap on the shoulder when severe weather is moving into their area. This is a safer alternative than having responders try to figure out what the weather is going to do. This timely shoulder tap allows EMS responders to more closely observe weather activity to determine exact dangers contained within a storm, when it is expected to hit, direction that it is heading and its anticipated duration.

With advanced weather information only a click away, EMS teams can rapidly respond to any emergency situation. Responders can use the weather information to navigate icy roads and choose the route that will get them to the scene in the safest and quickest manner. Emergency responders cannot wait until an emergency occurs to check the weather; instead they need advanced foresight on how conditions are expected to change while they're responding to an emergency.

Mobile Weather Alerts

On occasion, emergency responders spend hours at the scene of an emergency. Considering the amount of time that passes from arrival to clean up, responders need to constantly stay in tune with changing weather conditions in order to keep people on the scene out of harm's way. An effective way to monitor weather conditions is to receive mobile updates directly on a cell phone. This technology provides EMS responders and public safety officials with mobile alerts that are sent directly to their cell phones and e-mail, allowing emergency crews to make decisions at a crisis site that accurately account for incoming weather.

Considering that advanced notice of approaching severe weather is essential for making safe decisions, another notification that allows emergency personnel to gauge severe weather threats is all clear alerts. These alerts give public safety professionals a sign that it's okay to resume activity, particularly following an incident where lighting was in the area. Resuming activity obviously takes a backseat to safety on the list of priorities, but all clear alerts have proven to be especially helpful for large events.


When monitoring severe weather activity at an emergency site or in the dispatch center, one of the most important elements is activity taking place within storm corridors. Storm corridors are particularly important for spotting tornadic activity and mesocyclones--small cyclones that arise near thunderstorms which sometimes are associated with the occurrence of tornadoes. If a mesocyclone is located in a nearby storm corridor, responders need to be aware that there is an increased risk for tornadoes to develop. Storm corridor updates allow public safety officials to see where there is the greatest chance for a tornado and pinpoint where there may be a potential touch down. In larger cities, emergency management agencies use this information to put certain teams on "high" or "critical" alert. Tornadoes are known to cause a lot of damage, but early warning and awareness of possible tornado activity can help emergency management professionals mitigate risks.


Although tornadoes pose a deadly problem, emergency professionals are much more likely to encounter lightning storms. Emergency management agencies that receive real-time lightning information have the ability to examine lightning stroke data that is critical to the safety of the responders. Advanced lightning data helps agencies see exact locations and times of lightning strokes that have occurred, and predicts where lightning is striking relative to storm corridors.

In addition to capturing detailed lightning stroke data, it is also imperative to monitor potential lightning storms that are approaching. Emergency agencies monitor lightning activity within a 30 or 90 mile radius and set perimeters to receive lightning advisories and warnings. A common distance to set for receiving advisories is 15 miles, and most agencies receive alerts when lightning is anywhere from three to five miles away. The difference between an advisory and an alert is the call to action. An advisory is more of a tap on the shoulder to pay close attention to dangerous weather conditions nearby, whereas an alert is a signal to take precautionary safety measures such as clearing crowded public places and getting people to an enclosed structure.

While receiving advanced lightning information is important for public safety professionals, it is also important to understand how lightning works because some of the advice people receive is inaccurate. Contrary to popular belief, lightning does not seek out metal objects; instead it seeks out the highest point to connect with. So, if a worker in a metal cherry picker gets struck by lightning, it's not because the bucket is made of metal, it's because that was the highest point for lightning to strike. Getting to the lowest point possible is the safest option if you're unable to take cover in an enclosed area during a lightning storm. Like other forms of severe weather, lightning forces public safety officials to make a lot of decisions on the fly that directly impact community safety.


When thinking about weather and the hazards is presents, we tend to think about the immediate risks and the associated effects. However, with advanced weather forecasting technologies, having foresight into probable flooding becomes not only possible, but much less painful. Weather watches, warnings and advisories are a necessary percursor to the imminent danger of flash floods or severe flooding, but rainfall estimates also play a vital role in knowing what to expect and how to best prepare. It is best to have a holistic overview of all conditions that will directly impact the probability of flooding and areas most likely to be affected.

The Dangers of Winter

Oftentimes winter weather is not placed in the same category as tornadoes, floods or other severe weather risks. However, recent Federal Highway Administration data shows that annually there are more than 10 times as many weather-related road fatalities than non-driving weather fatalities (7,400 annually versus 650 annually). A closer look at the statistics would reveal that many of the deaths are winter related, while some are caused by fog and rain.

Winter driving fatalities have become more preventable, thanks to the development of pavement forecasts. Now, advanced weather technology can anticipate frost on overpasses and ice build-up on roads, so proactive measures can be taken to make roads less hazardous during the winter. This is where communicating with the public works department or department of transportation is crucial, as they are responsible for salting, sanding and other winter road maintenance. Obtaining pavement temperatures, helps transportation and public safety officials gauge the risk of not just ice build-up, but also the possibility of overnight re-freeze situations. By using pavement temperatures and not relying on air temperatures, today's emergency responders can do a better job scheduling staff for impending severe weather, which reduces costs and increases safety.

Chemical Spills

In addition to precipitation, high wind speeds can create havoc for emergency responders. Wind is especially dangerous when combined with a hazardous material spill. EMS personnel need the ability to view a quick plume model, which takes into account wind speed and direction to determine the safest entrance point to an emergency scene and what areas need to be blocked off.

Expert Advice

Being able to access real-time weather information and receive timely alerts gives public safety officials the tools they need to keep emergency crews and civilians safe. However, sometimes it can be overbearing or confusing. Receiving direct insight from a meterologist on expected weather conditions can also help agencies prepare for the precise weather hazards they are likely to encounter. Advanced notice allows time to alert crews to be on standby and ready to react based on the impending conditions.

Some professional weather packages give public safety professionals the opportunity to ask specific questions to experienced meterologists. Officials can ask questions through an online forum or set up conference calls to speak with meterologists directly. A quick call can help public safety professionals understand exactly what the forecast means for their specific area.

Real-time, location specific weather is critical for public safety departments in order to carry out proper precautionary measures. Having advanced weather information allows emergency professionals to place storm trackers, crews and other personnel in position to react quickly to an emergency created by weather or an unrelated incident that may be affected by weather. When handling an emergency, responders need to be aware of inclement weather conditions to ensure their own safety and keep the public out of harm's way. By using advanced technology and proactively monitoring weather, emergency professionals will always be able to make the right call.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Communications Supervisors - You Can Make a Difference!

Taken from Emergency Number Professional Magazine, September 2007
Written by Kathleen Jameson, retired from Colorado State Patrol as the Communications Director. In 2007 she was director of Public Safety Communication Management Services in Littleton, CO and provided training and consulting services for public safety.

Since retiring as the communications director from the Colorado State Patrol after a 25 year career, I've had plenty of time to reflect back on the many lessons I learned during my time in public safety communications. Some lessons were easily learned while the most difficult ones often centered on how to effectively deal with people. This was especially true after I was first promoted to communications supervisor. Back then, there wasn't any training offered that was specific to communications supervisors, and you all know how some dispatchers can come up with creative and unique issues to solve. In addition, due to budget constraints, most of the funding for training was reserved for uniformed personnel. Thankfully, that changed significantly as the years passsed.

To say I was not adequately prepared to be a supervisor would be an understatement. Like many other young, new supervisors, the fact that I thought I knew all there was to know about absolutely everything only compounded the situation. It wasn't until I was promoted up through the ranks and had grown up a little bit, that I came to the realization that I had made plenty of mistakes when I was newly promoted. If I were to list everything I learned over the years, it would have to be published in separate volumes. One thing is for certain: you can make a difference and it is my hope that you can benefit from the lessons I've learned in order to be the best supervisor you can be.

You Have the Power

In order for any communications center to be successful, it is absolutely vital to have an excellent first-line supervisory staff. Although upper management is responsible for overseeing operations, it is the communications supervisors who are the most critical level in the management hierarchy. The reason is very simple. You set the example for what is expected from communications personnel through your daily contact with them. By virtue of your position, you have a vast amount of responsibility and power. Your team looks to you to set the example, encourage, teach, reward, support and yes, even hold accountable. Both your team and your supervisors hold you to a higher standard and you have an obligation to achieve that standard. Remember, if your team shines, you shine, as they are a direct reflection of your abilities. Whether you realize it or not, your team will be watching you and imitating your actions. "Do as I say and not as I do" doesn't cut it.

The stakes are higher now. You wouldn't have been promoted if you hadn't already been setting an excellent example. Kind of scary, isn't it? If you accept and acknowledge the opportunities you have to make a positive impact on your center and then follow through, you will be an efficient, effective and well-respected supervisor. Just remember that you have the power to set the example to be followed by communications personnel.

All for One and One for All

As supervisors, we show commitment and reliability to our agency by being supportive and dependable. While we may not always agree with decisions made by our agencies, it is imperative that supervisors outwardly show support when communicating with our team members. What happens if we don't? It undermines the agency and creates fear, confusion and turmoil among personnel. Remember, you are on a different level now; you are not "one of the gang" anymore. There will be times when you have to take the unpopular stand, but it is imperative for all supervisors to display a unified front -- regardless of your personal beliefs. This is one of the most difficult parts of the job, but also one of the most important.

Being reliable means you fulfill your responsibilities to the best of your ability and are available when needed. If that means setting aside your paperwork to help in the center during periods of high activity or working the overtime that no one else will take, do it. And, of course, do so without fussing...at least out loud.

As supervisors we must also encourage our teams to demonstrate the same level of support, not only to our agency, but to each other. That means assisting others when needed and not waiting to be asked, helping and encouraging those in training and not participating in derogatory discussions about team members.

If you show commitment and support to your agency, chances are your team will do the same. While there will always be those few who won't, do it for the majority.

Be the Best You Can Be

What better way to set the example than to demonstrate top-notch skills? For those times when we have to counsel team members on performance issues, they will accept correction much easier when they know you meet or exceed expected standards of performance. While it is natural that our skills lessen if we don't routinely work a position, our skills shouldn't lessen to the degree that we're unable to perform up to the same expectations we place on our team. How can this be accomplished? Just like you schedule meetings, schedule yourself to work in the center. Take the most difficult work station. Be the first one to answer the phone. Exhibit a positive attitude and never demonstrate annoyance or irritation with citizens or public safety users (either on the phone/radio or after you hang up or end the radio transmission). Set the example by performing the dispatch functions as you want your team members to perform.

You Want Me To Do What?

Most people come to work every day with full intentions of doing a good job. But, if they don't know what is expected, how do they know how to do a good job? More importantly, how can we hold them accountable if they don't perform up to expectations? It is up to us to provide written policies, rules and procedures. Giving verbal instructions or directives just doesn't cut it. They also need to know what will happen if expectations are not met and then we must be consistent in applying our own rules. Expectations for both performance and conduct must be in place. Do you have an ace dispatcher who performs well above expectations but causes hate and discontent because he or she can't get along with anyone? Wouldn't you prefer to have a center full of dispatchers who simply meet standards and get along well rather than a room full of A+ dispatchers who fight the whole shift, or just as bad, give each other the silent treatment? Establishing a Code of Conduct is paramount to having an efficient center. Establish expectations, communicate results if not met and follow through.

You're a Supervisor and You're There to Help

The most important responsibility of being a supervisor is supervising personnel. Too often, other things interfere with this basic function of supervision such as special projects, never ending meetings, etc. It is common practice to load up communications supervisors with special tasks and you may have no choice in the matter. Sometimes management needs to be reminded that your first priority and responsibility is to the center and special projects may need to be assigned elsewhere, if possible. This is easier said than done, but you might be surprised by management's reaction when you recommend that priorities be adjusted for the good of the center.

Monitoring activity in the center doesn't mean hovering or hanging over a dispatcher's shoulder and watching his or her every move. It does mean being aware of what is going on in order to determine if a dispatcher needs assistance, is performing as expected or even needs a break. It's called MBWA (Management by Walking Around). Be diligent in knowing if the center if functioning in an efficient manner. Be aware. Be available.

It's a Dirty Job but Someone's Gotta Do It

Some supervisors absolutely hate paperwork; others despise coaching or counseling their people. What part of the job do you dislike and how do you avoid it? Some supervisors go out of their way to find things to do on their own to avoid supervising. They'll hole up in their offices doing schedules or other paperwork and the center is lucky to see them. Or, they'll wear ear plugs and blinders and pretend they didn't just hear that dispatcher be rude on the phone or see that dispatcher arrive late to work. If you don't handle performance issues, who will? Supervisors who avoid their basic responsibilities appear weak and ineffective. Worse than that, your team members will not respect you. Period.

When you are first promoted, it is natural to dread having to counsel employees which is made worse by the fact that not long before, you were peers. It's a difficult transition, isn't it? An important point to remember is counseling does not have to be confrontational or adversarial. By simply treating them respectfully, controlling your emotions and focusing on the issue at hand, counseling an employee can be very productive. Every effort should be made to end on a positive note to ensure when they walk out the door they still feel good about themselves, in spite of the faux pau they committed.

Mistakes are to be expected. After all, dispatchers (at least most of them) are human, too. If our goal is to provide excellent customer service, we must have good performers. To have good performers, we must coach and counsel. We owe it to them, our agency and the public.

Go, Team!

How do you develop a cohesive team that is working towards the same goal? The same way a sports team does it -- by having routine team meetings. I can hear it now, "We don't have the staff to cover," "I'm too busy with other things," "She's delirious," or perhaps more harsh thoughts are going through your head. We cannot expect to nurture a group of people to work towards the same goals if we do not bring them together on a routine basis. The purpose of team meetings should not be to go down a laundry list of do's and don'ts. After all, expectations are already written, or should be in the process of being written. Focus on working together as a group to enhance the level of service provided by the center, identify and resolve any issues facing the center, or any number of things that would benefit from the participation of all team members. A variety of topics could be addressed:

  • How do we improve the time it takes to answer the phone?
  • How do we improve the training program for a higher success rate?
  • What should we do about the increased use of sick leave?
  • How do we improve our relations with public safety users of our center?
  • As a team, what should be included in our own Code of Conduct?

The more you establish a collaborative atmosphere and involve dispatch personnel in the operation of your center, the more cooperation and ownership you will get.

Because I Said So!

Have you ever had a supervisor that walks around like Attila the Hun? Controlling the masses through either spoken or unspoken threats? The result is fear, contempt and lack of respect. Even worse, there is resistance to whatever Attila is trying to accomplish, be it good or bad. One of the most important lessons to learn is to treat your team members as professional equals with respect and courtesy; you will be much more successful in accomplishing whatever endeavor comes your way. Attila should be killed and left outside. Everyone knows you're the supervisor; you don't need to remind them. By the mere fact that you treat your team with respect and courtesy, are interested in them and make yourself available, they will willingly follow your lead.

What Aretha Wants

Just because you're a supervisor doesn't mean everyone will automatically respect you. As they say, you can't demand respect. If you're a good supervisor, you will command respect. Respect must be earned by conducting yourself professionally, treating others professionally, demonstrating good character, and being fair and consistent. It is difficult for employees to respect someone who engages in unacceptable behavior such as making derogatory remarks about the agency or other employees, talking "down" to people, showing favoritism or even suffering from mood swings. If you create a respectful and professional atmosphere, employees will respond accordingly.

Just Be Nice

Have you found that common courtesy is becoming a lost art, not only at work but in general society? The more courteous we are, the more we will get what we want, whether you're dealing with a store clerk or a dispatcher. Sometimes we lose sight that it's just as important to be courteous to our team members as it is to be courteous to our superiors. Showing courtesy is as easy as greeting your team as they arrive to work, asking how they are, saying "Please" and "Thank you," and bidding them farewell for the day. How many times have you witnessed a shift change when no one says a word to each other? Not a very welcoming and relaxed atmosphere, is it? You can set the tone by having an interaction with each member every day and by simply displaying basic common courtesy. Just watch as it rubs off and your team starts doing the exact same thing.

Say What?

Do you ever feel like someone just isn't listening to you? Remember what it felt like and then fine-tune your own listening skills. Effective listening takes a lot of energy and practice. In a nutshell, the rules of being a good listener are the same whether you're in a counseling session or during idle conversation. It consists of demonstrating interest, giving your full attention, acknowledging you understand what is being said through body language or words (acknowledgement doesn't mean agreement) and not interrupting to give your own point of view.

When counseling, some supervisors do most of the talking when it should actually be the employee. A counseling session should consist of the supervisor briefly presenting the issue at hand (just the facts and no commentary) and the employee then giving his or her perspective, be it explaining, justifying or admitting fault. The employee will be much more accepting of your decision, whether in their favor or not, if he or she feels you have really listened and considered his or her viewpoint.

When a employee, or anyone for that matter, wants to talk to you about a topic you are not interested in, keep in mind that the topic is important to them, and more than that, they want to share it with you. Put everything else out of your mind, focus on them, show interest and give feedback such as, "That's very interesting, tell me more" or "It sounds like you really had a good time," etc.

What are the results of having good listening skills? Your team will see how much you care, know that you hear what they are saying, and feel like they can talk to you about anything and you will truly listen.

Just Do It

Henry Ford once said, "You can't build a reputation on what you are going to do." Think about it. How many people promise you the world, but never deliver? How many times has someone said, "I'll get back to you on that" and then you never hear from them again? If you say you are going to do something, then do it! But if you can't complete the task, do the right thing and tell the person the reason. Good supervisors will follow through and do what they say they will do.

Ya' Done Good

Mary Kay Ash of Mary Kay Cosmetics once said, "There are two things people want more than sex and money...and that is recognition and praise." Recognition and praise are very important! Take every opportunity to acknowledge a job well done. It can be either formal or informal recognition. We handle critical incidents just about every day from pursuits to disturbances to natural disasters, so there are more than enough opportunities to present team members with high achievement awards, official commendations or whatever award process is used by your agency. If your agency does not have any official awards and commendations, make a difference and create some!

Recognizing employees doesn't have to be the result of a significant incident. We handle "routine" calls every day that dispatchers go above and beyond what may be expected. Sometimes it is enough just to say, "You handled that call extremely well," "You really maintained your composure," or even "Thank you for coming in at the last moment" -- whatever the circumstances may be. Just remember this basic rule: Praise in Public; Counsel in Private. Even those team members who shirk recognition by saying, "That's my job," will feel appreciated and valued. More importantly, they will remember what you said or did for them.

Go Forth and Prosper

Just think about the role we play in public safety. We're the first contact with the public; we gather and disseminate crucial information; and what we do or don't do has a huge impact on the safety of both the public and response personnel. Sometimes we need to remind ourselves, and our agencies, of the absolutely critical and vital role that each communications center plays in public safety. That's where you come in. You are the leader, the advocate and the cheerleader for communications. Awesome responsibility, isn't it? Will you make mistakes? Of course, but that's how we learn, grow and become better at anything we do. Just remember that you have the power, and if used correctly, you will make a difference in your center.