9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Fill-Ins for Call-Ins: Policies for Filling Schedule Gaps

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine/ October 2009
Written by Bob Smith, director of strategic development for APCO International

It's 0300 hrs, and you're the senior person on duty when that dreaded call comes in: "This is Mike from day shift, and I'm not going to be able to make it in today. I'm sick." At this point, several things run through your head. Who's on call? Who's in charge of dayshift today? And most worrisome of all - will I have to work a double?

Shift work is a fact of life in public safety comm centers. The services we provide aren't restricted to Monday through Friday 0800 to 1700 hrs but must be available around the clock. In the fast-paced, dynamic world of today's comm center, it's important to ensure enough people are on duty at any given time. Understaffing is a risky business. It affects the ability of an agency to handle telephone and radio traffic, increases liability, decreases quality of service and affects staff in a multitude of other ways.

So how do we prepare for those calls? How do we ensure that we have adequate staffing on a shift even if someone calls in? And how do we do this without breaking the bank in overtime?

Well, one way to prepare for these types of situations is to establish a "Call-In" policy. A policy that dictates who will be called when an employee calls in or otherwise fails to show for work without prior notice. There are different variations of this type of policy, including:

On-call policies: This type of policy designates a person or persons to be on call for a specific period of time to come into work when someone calls in sick. This person or persons can be issued a pager or cell phone so they can be easily contacted during their on-call period. This position can be rotated among employees to spread out the responsibility and to ensure one or two people aren't bearing the brunt of the burden.

Previous shift call-back: Many agencies have a policy that requires off-going shifts to be available for call-back for a designated period of time. Example: If your agency works three eight-hour shifts designated day, evening and night shifts, then the day shift staff would be on call for evening shift call-ins and evening shift would be available for night shift call-ins and so on. This option can be troublesome because fatigue can be an issue for people assigned to work double shifts. This can be further complicated in agencies that work 10- or even 12-hour shifts.

Random call-back: This type of policy is quite common. It basically designates all off-duty personnel as available for call-in at any time for any shift. Employees may be issued pagers or required to have 24-hour contact information on file with the agency. When someone calls in, a roster of off-duty employees is produced and someone begins to go through the list until a "volunteer" is found to cover the shift. This type of policy is only effective if off-duty personnel answer the phone or return calls. It can also be abused by routinely starting with the people who are most likely to come in or the ones who will be easiest to contact.

Double shifts: The least popular method to cover call-ins and the one policy most likely to increase staff burnout and liability due to fatigue and decreased staff morale. This method requires that an employee on the current shift stay over to cover the oncoming shift shortage. Again, there are several shortfalls to this method and if it is used, it should be a last resort.

Regardless of which method is used to cover call-ins, the person selected as a stand-in must be carefully chosen. Often, the thought process is such that any body in the seat is better than nobody at all. This isn't necessarily true. A person with inadequate experience, training or skill level can indeed be more troublesome than having a hole in your staffing for a particular shift.

Often, the person selected is the lowest person in the chain of command. This isn't always a wise choice. Can a newly hired employee effectively cover this shift? Can they handle the workload? How much of a learning curve will there be if a night shift person is called in to work day shift? All of this must be considered when drafting a call-in policy.

The bottom line: Illnesses and family emergencies happen. People will need to miss work, and usually it will be with little to no notice. Agencies must be prepared to handle these types of events. Whether your agency uses one of the examples listed here, a combination or something totally different, a policy must be in place to ensure that staffing levels for all shifts are adequate every day. Any holes in the schedule can increase liability and affect the delivery of service to the community you serve.


  1. This has nothing to do with your post but I couldn't find another more approperate. I hate when people qualify their comments but I'll need to because I'll come off as a dispatch hater and you will take this wrong.

    This comes from a comment on a fellow dispatchers blog about us patrol officers rude comments to you and you saying you would go to his supervisor. I personally can't stand someone going to my boss because of something they don't like. Especially when it wasn't done to them. But as a Supervisor I see you interject into situations you wern't involved with. Having said that, how about you interject with that specific officer. I personally don't degrade my dispatchers because they are REAL PEOPLE, I LIKE THEM, and they hold EMS in their hands when I get hurt. Sure there have been less times then I can think that I popped off because they are on facebook instead of running my parole. But there comes a time when you don't complain to the boss, you make real relationships with your collegues. Sure hope this reads the way I want it to. I love my dispatchers. I could never multi-task like you and I've tried. But there does come a point where a snotty question over the air should tell you there is a bad situation I'm dealing with and I'm just pleading for help.

  2. I don't take it personally, I appreciate your comment. In my case, I cannot go to the officer that was short with my dispatcher because I am not his supervisor, that is our policy. I do agree with you, and wish our policy was different. However, let me clarify by saying that I do not go to the officer's supervisor to get him in trouble. I simply let him know that I think there is a problem that needs to be addressed and I would like him to talk to the officer and see if there is anything we can do to rectify the situation. Thanks again for your comment, and be careful out there.