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Friday, September 18, 2009

Broken Windows: Identifying & Fixing Problems Before the Moment of Crisis

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2009
Written by Raphael M. Barishansky, MPH, Program Chief for public health preparedness for the Prince George's County (MD) Health Department. He is a frequent contributor to various public safety publications.

Have you ever noticed that morale at your communications center has hit rock bottom? Do your employees show up to work wearing raggedy uniforms, uninspired to communicate with the various units in your system and just generally un- or under-motivated? Do you feel like the supervisors aren't communicating with you anymore? What's happening? Read on, comm center manager.

The Theory

One of the most influential concepts of modern policing is referred to as the "broken windows" theory. In an article titled "Broken Windows" by James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, which appeared in the March 1982 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, this theory was elaborated on. A successful strategy for preventing vandalism, said the authors, is to fix the problems when they are small. Repair the broken windows within a short time - say, a day or a week - and the tendency is that vandals are much less likely to break more windows or do further damage. Clean up the sidewalk every day, and the tendency is for litter not to accumulate (or for the rate of littering to be lower). Problems don't escalate, and, thus, respectable residents don't flee a neighborhood. The title comes from the following example in the article:

"Consider a building with a few broken windows. If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside. Or consider a sidewalk. Some litter accumulates. Soon, more litter accumulates. Eventually, people even start leaving bags of trash from take-out restaurants there or breaking into cars."

In effect, when what seems to be relatively minor evidence of decay appears in a given neighborhood (e.g., a broken window, accumulated trash, graffiti on building exteriors) and is allowed to accumulate over time, the people who live and work in the area feel more vulnerable and begin to withdraw. They become less willing to intervene to maintain public order (e.g., attempting to break up groups of rowdy teens loitering on street corners) or to address physical signs of deterioration. Sensing this community dissociation, the local criminal element becomes bolder and their unlawful activity increases. As a result of the rise in crime, residents become even more afraid and withdraw further from community involvement and upkeep. This atmosphere then attracts offenders from outside the area, who now see that the neighborhood has become a less risky site for more insidious and violent crimes, such as drug dealing and robbery. This theory has been field-tested in major cities throughout the United States, including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York.

Comm Center Applications

Although it may seem like a strange connection at first, this same theory of progression may be applied as a cautionary tale to the realm of communications center supervision and management. Once evidence of decay in our system (e.g., sinking employee morale, chronic equipment problems and unaddressed protocol deviation/violations) appears, our employees, like the residents of the cities mentioned above, begin to withdraw. They become less willing to communicate personnel and operational problems to those who have the potential to act on them.

There's also a correlation to employees coming to work late and showing up in untidy uniforms or with unkempt appearances. And you may see a spike in personnel callouts or even no-shows. Additionally, the level of customer service - toward both internal and external customers - begins to decline. Sensing this, the more disgruntled comm center employees take the opportunity to become more verbose about their occupational dissatisfaction, but usually in a surreptitious manner and not in a constructive manner by bringing the now-emerging issues to management for resolution. The cycle feeds on itself until, ultimately, there's a mass exodus of employees - including those at the supervisor and manager levels - from the system. Additionally, the distinct lack of a positive customer service-oriented corporate culture can destroy what was once a functional dispatch entity. This can result in the loss of long-held contracts or negative attention in the media. In either case, the organization essentially implodes.

Identify & Empower

To prevent going down this path, we must be able to define what the communications center's "broken windows" are so that we may better gauge when problems, even seemingly minor ones, are occurring and act to correct them immediately. This can include appropriate backing from supervisors and managers when difficult decisions need to be made, ensuring that the proper equipment is in place for employees to effectively do their jobs and making sure that other entities don't harass your dispatchers or other employees.

In addition, we need to empower field training officers, supervisors and line personnel to intervene and make them feel safe in their work environment. As managers, if we see something broken or in a state of decay - be it morale, operations, training or even another facet - we have to ascertain what occurred and why. Don't look to assign blame. The effort should instead be aimed at finding out the why and then getting to work fixing it, with input from all levels of employees.

This concept of progression may be abstract, but it's definitely reasonable that sensing the smaller cracks in the facade of a communications center is an integral part of a manager's job. If these seemingly minor problems aren't repaired early on, they have the potential to grow into larger problems that can affect the organization in any number of ways. By resolving what may seem like a relatively unimportant annoyance today, you can prevent it from causing the crisis of tomorrow.

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