9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Am I Ready for the Big One? Personal Preparedness Tips for Telecommunicators

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Barbara Graham, assistant chief operator for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. She has been a trainer with the agency for ten years. She is an APCO certified instructor and has taught at APCO and NENA conferences in Missouri, Nebraska and Iowa.

I've been in law enforcement for 32 years. Thirty-one of those years have been in communications, working the console on a daily basis. I've seen many, many changes over the years. Gone are the manual typewriters, the ticker tape machines, the rotary dial telephones. The radio console in use when I started is currently in the Patrol's museum, along with the old ticker tape machine. In fact, hanging above the console is a picture of me working, so I can truly say I am a museum piece. I have seen and continue to see dramatic changes in technology. So much so, it's hard to comprehend.

One recent change is all the talk about interoperability. Did someone just make that word up? I tried to research this in a 1988 edition of Webster's New World Dictionary, Third College Edition, in our comm center. Guess what? I couldn't find it. Don't get me wrong, I understand where the word came from. The attacks on America on Sept. 11, 2001, changed our whole lives, especially our lives working in a public safety communications center.

There has been so much talk about readiness in the comm center in the past several years. We have backup phone systems, backup generators, even backup comm centers. What about backup telecommunicators? I wanted to know, "What about me?" What if I were the one working (stuck) in the comm center when something big happens? Is there anything out there to prepare me?

I tried to research communications preparedness. I got plenty of responses on comm center preparedness. APCO and NENA have many articles about how to keep your comm center prepared - what type of equipment is available and suggested. But I found nothing about the telecommunicator's preparedness. So I contacted several Telecommunicator Emergency Response Teams (TERT) and got some recommendations as to what telecommunicators should have ready in case of deployment. I finally found most of the information I wanted from the Florida, Missouri and Alaska emergency manuals. I'd like to share my findings with other telecommunicators.

What If....?
The most important step is to talk about the "what ifs" with your family. What if you're "stuck" working when the hurricane, the ice storm, the blizzard or the tornado hits, or the terrorist attacks (heaven forbid)? Have you discussed what plan of action you and your family should take? Do you have a plan as to how the kids will be picked up at school or day care? Do you have a plan if your house is damaged? Where should your family go, or what should they do while you're at work? The best plan of action is to talk with your spouse, your children, even your parents or neighbors about what to do in the event of an emergency.

Write a family emergency plan. List ICE (in case of emergency) numbers in your cell phone. Keep all phone numbers in an accessible place where they can be located in the event of an emergency. Keep a list of family members' names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and important medical information. This may sound silly, but if the family is separated, this information is invaluable. Most of us know our own information and possibly our spouse's, but do you know all of your children's Social Security numbers?

Make a list of your out-of-town contacts, including names, phone numbers and e-mail addresses. You may need to contact out-of-town friends and family members. Do you know their information off the top of your head?

Keep a list of important information you may need in the near future: doctor's names and phone numbers, pharmacist names and phone numbers, medical insurance policy numbers, homeowner's insurance policy numbers.

Make copies of birth certificates and other important information. Keep important documents protected. Consider keeping this information in a folder at your work or protected in your emergency list.

Develop a plan that addresses the possibility that your family might not be home together when an emergency arises. In this day and age, our families are scattered. School, work and church activities keep us on the move and rarely at home all at the same time. Discuss a plan the entire family knows and understands. How will you reach each other? Depending on the emergency situation, you may not have phone contact with each other. You may not be able to use your cell phone to call each other, but you may be able to text each other. Consider having a plan to contact a family friend of an out-of-town family member. Make sure everyone in your family knows who this is and that you're all on the same page. Consider having a neighborhood meeting place or a regional meeting place. Do you have children in schools or day-care facilities? How will you reach them? Is there a plan in place at the school or day-care facility if you can't get there? Do you know the evacuation locations in your area? Find out, and make sure your family knows. The better prepared your family is, the better your family will be able to face an emergency situation.

Shelter at Home
Include two scenarios in your family plan: one for home and a second one if you should have to evacuate. You may not have a choice in this decision; officials may order you to leave. You can prepare a shelter at home, and you can also prepare a "go kit" if you have to leave your home. Remember, you could be at work when your family must face these decisions without you. It will make it easier for them if they know exactly what to do. Remind them to use common sense and stay calm.

If you must shelter at home, choose the most secure room in your house. Select a room with few windows or doors. The room should be large enough for the whole family, including pets. Keep the exterior doors locked. Remember to also have your emergency supplies in this room, along with a television or a battery-powered radio to listen for updated information.

Remember, during an emergency, the electricity may not be working. You may not be able to get food or water. Have three days' worth of food and fresh water. Remember to have at least one gallon of water for each individual for each day. If room is available, try to store two weeks' worth of water for each person.

Other items you should have in your shelter are flashlights, a radio, extra batteries, prescription medicine, first aid kit, blankets, clothing, cash, eating utensils, duct tape, heavy-duty plastic bags, matches, paper, pencil, needle, thread, toilet paper, liquid detergent, soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, deoderant, bleach, plastic bucket with tight lid, disinfectant and a whistle to signal for help. Don't forget the cash. ATMs don't work without power.

Go Kits
Find a tote bag or a backpack, and put together a go kit. The kit can be kept at home, in the car or at work. You'll need some of the same items you have in your shelter: a gallon of water per person, several cans of food or dried foods, manual can opener, flashlight, extra batteries, blankets or sleeping bag, first aid supplies, extra money and personal hygiene items.

I brought a big plastic tub into work and encourage my co-workers to bring in non-perishable food items, such as canned soup, oatmeal, tuna, peanut butter, etc. to have on hand in case of an emergency. If we're out of electricity, that means our snack machines won't work and we'll need something to eat.

Here are some suggestions of what to have on hand in case you're the one who's stuck behind the console when the big one hits - whichever the big one is:
  • Medication and copies of prescription;
  • Nonperishable food items;
  • Water - 1 gallon per person per day;
  • Personal hygiene items;
  • Complete change of clothes;
  • Eyeglasses/contact solution;
  • Paperwork;
  • First aid kit;
  • Flashlight/batteries;
  • Cell phone charger;
  • Blanket;
  • Bucket with tight fitting lid;
  • Heavy-duty trash bags;
  • Utility knife;
  • Matches/lighter;
  • Small toolkit;
  • Battery-operated radio;
  • Leather/latex gloves;
  • Mess kit;
  • Bleach; and
  • Rope

Final Thoughts

When considering worst-case scenarios for your comm center, don't forget to consider your own preparations. Make a family plan. I also encourage every telecommunicator to start your own go kit to keep in the trunk of your car or in the work storage area.

Livable Centers: Creature Comforts & Beyond

Taken from Public Safety Communications, May 2010
Written by Steven E. Loomis, LEED AP, FAIA and Nathan D. McClure III, MPAM ENP
Mr. Loomis is an assistant vice president and the justice and public safety design director for AECOM. He has more than 20 years of professional architectural practice. Mr. McClure is an associate and public safety consultant at AECOM. He has more than 40 years of public safety communications experience and is a past president of APCO International.

The next-generation PSAP is characterized largely by the attention to livable spaces, beginning with the communications room and carrying through to supporting spaces. From ergonomically designed consoles and chairs to lighting and sound control, facility designs that provide relief from daily stress increase job satisfaction, retention and service delivery.

Let there be light: The main operations room must be efficient and uplifting. Contributing to ultimate livability, large windows can offer natural light and calming views. New glass technologies make natural light possible even in areas with the most severe weather. When possible, windows should take advantage of diffused northern light to avoid glare and uneven heating conditions. If this orientation is not possible, or other views are desired, automatic rolling blinds can be installed.

Another way to get diffused natural light into the operations area is a light shelf that spans between the outside and inside of the exterior glass and effectively bounces sunlight up onto the ceiling. Artificial lights can be switched off when there's enough ambient light entering the space, which supports green, sustainable principles.

This concept works best with higher ceilings. The height should be proportional to the size of the footprint of the roon. For most medium to large centers, this results in a ceiling that's about one-and-a-half stories high. This spacious setting allows for indirect light fixtures to be used much like the light shelf. The fixtures are suspended from the ceiling and direct their light upward, providing a similar diffuse lighting effect. Task lights can be used at each workstation. Our experience suggests that a lower light level is desired in most operations center.

Sound control: Acoustics can be affected by wall placement and other elements, such as floating or irregular ceiling panels. Non-parallel room surfaces can eliminate "flutter" echo and effectively dissipate conversational noise. Acoustic wall panels and carpeted floors contribute to a queit room, and most console furniture have acoustic panels to provide separation between operators.

Non-optional amenities: Break rooms, kitchens, quiet rooms, restrooms, lockers and physical fitness areas are considered standard for next-generation facilities.

Like the operations floor, break rooms should have natural light, and most dispatchers prefer an open, inviting setting where they can get away from the action of the floor. The break room may be completely separate or remote from operations, which may be possible only in larger centers where sufficient relief is available for breaks. Smaller centers generally request that these areas be immediately adjacant to the work space.

Basic break room elements include a kitchen or kitchenette, dining tables, vending machines and casual seating. Often a TV is available, and some centers have fountain drink machines. The kitchen design depends on the number of telecommunicators and departments. Many centers have a full-size range with a hood, but others have only a cook-top or microwave. Sometimes a commercial range hood and chemical fire suppression system are required even for residential appliances. Often, several refrigerators are provided too so each shift or department can have its own. Pantry space should be included.

Additional considerations: Soft seating, computer stations and telephones. Highly livable centers include an adjacent, secure, outside break area, allowing dispatchers an opportunity to catch a breath of fresh air before returning to work. Out of public view, break areas can be outdoor gardens with benches and a covered area for group activities, such as staff picnics. Some centers even include gas barbecues, located on a raised balcony or roof area or enclosed behind a screen wall next to a first floor break room.

Exercise rooms provide employees with a great outlet for stress reduction. The most livable centers plan for a reasonable amount of equipment and size the room accordingly. Showers and changing lockers need to be provided in close proximity to these facilities. These spaces are also critical in times of extended work shifts and uncertain home conditions, which may be the case during large-scale disasters.

Quiet rooms provide the respite required by telecommunicators after a particularly traumatic call or event. Ideally, the quiet room should be located adjacent to the dispatch floor in order to provide easy access to the dispatcher, as well as allow supervisor observation.

Livability issues and support spaces are more than mere functional requirements. Providing needed relief from the daily high stress activity, these livable principles and design concepts promote employee wellness and satisfaction with working conditions - one of the most important factors in employee retention.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Who's In Charge? Tenure Does Not Equal Leadership

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Kelly M. Sharp, co-owner of Workplace Consulting NW. She holds a Master's degree in Education from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelors degree in Commuication from Washington State University. She has 14 years' experience as a police/fire/medical dispatcher and is a Certified Training Officer for APCO and CJTC.

It's 3:30 a.m. in a typical comm center and the skeleton crew, made up of the lowest seniority dispatchers, is working the graveyard shift. Call volume is nonexistent, radio traffic is low, the magazines are out, and the night progresses at its normal, boring pace. Suddenly, the phones light up with calls of a multi-level office building fire, or a frantic call comes in reporting a major chemical spill at a manufacturing plant or an officer is shot. What happens next can determine the success or failure of the incident.

It becomes a question of "who." Who do the dispatchers turn to? Who is in command of the comm center? Who sees the overall picture? Who has the leadership ability to help her fellow dispatcher through the disaster? In many understaffed dispatch centers, the person in charge is often simply the person with the most seniority. But tenure does not always equal leadership, and this can be fatal during a major incident.

In most comm centers, there are three levels of supervisors. First, is the person who officially holds the title. This person is usually someone experienced in the job itself and who has been promoted through some kind of interview or testing process. At this level, it should be assumed that the supervisor has been provided with basic supervisory or leadership training, understands the overall needs of the center and has the ability to coordinate and evaluate her staff.

The second level of supervisor is the acting watch or lead. At this level, employees are experienced enough in the job to be able to answer questions from co-workers and oversee the basic operations of the comm center. The best lead programs involve a testing process that reviews evaluations and job skills and an interview process that asks the employee how she would react in specific situations. Leadership or supervisor training classes would then be provided to educate the new lead on how to respond to supervisory challenges or during emergencies. Although this level of supervisor is not responsible for overall performance of the employees, they can be expected to run the center without supervision and may also be asked to provide input on employee evaluations.

The third level of supervisor comprises those who are forced into the position by default. Usually found on graveyard shifts, this supervisor is in charge based only on their hire date. In this model, the most qualified person to supervise the shift is the one with the most seniority, regardless of their ability to lead others. These people have usually had no training of any kind and are simply there to answer job-related questions and make decisions.

The Default Supervisor
The challenge facing many comm centers is a lack of supervisory preparation for a major incident. It has often been said that supervising dispatchers is like herding cats: If they're going the same direction you are, great; if not, you're in trouble. Established supervisors often have challenges getting those around them to head the direction they want them to, but supervisors who switch back and forth from being a co-worker to being the one in charge often have no chance of leadership - even before a major incident.

There can be two specific challenges for a supervisor during a major event. First, those in charge are often considered to be a working part of the shift, so they're too busy answering 9-1-1 lines or working radios to be able to step back and see the big picture. This leaves the supervisor with the decision that may set the tone of the event: Do they let the 9-1-1 lines ring and coordinate a response to the incident? Or do they continue to answer 9-1-1 lines and hope their co-workers can handle the rest without them? Although most dispatchers have exceptional multi-tasking skills, the reality is that very few have the skills needed to successfully synchronize a major incident while still answering phones or working radios. Expecting them to do so is setting them up for failure.

The second challenge is defining the position the supervisor will fill during a significant event. When running a major incident, the supervisor needs to take the role of coordinator or commander and control the situation by answering questions, providing information and coordinating resources for the call-takers and dispatchers. This can include communicating with sergeants or fire chiefs, advising administrative staff or emergency services personnel, calling in additional staff for overtime or ensuring employees are provided with breaks.

Of course, knowing what the person in charge should be doing and understanding how to do it are two separate things. In their article "Asking the Right Questions About Leadership: Discussions and Conclusions," J. Richard Hackman and Ruth Wageman say, "Leading well, therefore, may require a considerable degree of emotional maturity in dealing with one's own and others' anxieties." This means that not only must the lead or default supervisor understand the needs of the position but they must also have the ability to understand the needs of the people.

A leader is only a leader if they have followers. When a lead dispatcher is promoted on the basis of a testing process but then not provided with any leadership training, or a default supervisor is simply put "in charge," they may find they have no one willing to follow them. Dispatchers are notoriously autonomous and may simply ignore the direction of someone they don't feel is a true leader capable of providing them with direction. Add to that the fact that often the default supervisor is in charge of a low-seniority crew, who may not have the experience to make the correct decisions, and suddenly there's a complete breakdown in communication.

For example, Andrea was promoted to lead dispatcher two years ago but has not been provided with any training in how to supervise. One night, one of her graveyard dispatchers limped into work and told her he had sprained his ankle earlier that day, but he's doing OK because the doctor gave him Vicoden and he took "a couple." She can tell that he's impaired but does not have the confidence in her abilities or position to send him home. She tries to reach her supervisor at home for advice, but he's not answering the phone. She is too unnerved to call the director at home and admit she cannot handle the situation. So she tells the dispatcher to go work on the phones and hopes for the best.

Or take default supervisor Liz, a dispatcher for 23 years. She is not the best dispatcher or the worst, but rather her job skills range in the middle ground on her yearly evaluation. She is considered an adequate dispatcher by her co-workers, but she has no leadership skills. Regardless, based strictly on her seniority, she is in charge every day from 0300 to 0700 with a crew that has fewer than five years of experience. Now add a domestic violence shooting at a local manufacturing plant and a structure fire.

Liz has worked multiple incidents in her career and understands what to do as a dispatcher. She has years of experience knowing what units to send, how to call in SWAT, how to coordinate with her sergeants, how to control her radio traffic. She understands the logistics of dispatching fire, coordinating with the battalion chiefs and rescue and how to call out additional fire resources. The problem is that Liz is now in charge of the center and no one has ever taught her how to lead her dispatchers. Barb, over at police, is undone because the sergeant wants her to page out a sniper, while Samantha at fire can't find the number for public works for road-closed signs, and the phones are ringing off the hook. Liz, as supervisor, decides her best option is to continue to answer 9-1-1 calls and let the dispatchers fend for themselves.

Even worse, think about the typical graveyard crew made up of dispatchers who all, including the default supervisor, have less than four years of experience. When they get a big incident, they are left to decide as a team how they will handle it based on their experience and knowledge. The only problem is that their experience and knowledge have not prepared them for this type of situation.

Comm center directors, managers and supervisors need to take a hard look at the leadership skills of those who are tasked to be the go-to person during a major incident. Does the person in charge have the leadership skills necessary to coordinate the needs of police, fire, citizens and dispatchers? Have they received training in how to lead and how to deal with emergencies from the supervisor's point of view? And most importantly, do those on the frontlines feel they can follow the person who has been left in charge?

Plan Ahead
In all three of the previous scenarios, employees were asked to respond to situations outside their normal field of work and outside their training. This, of course, leads into the problem of negligence. If the comm center manager is lucky, the crew will work together to come up with a solution to the challenge they are facing. This does not imply they will make the correct decision, but rather they will pick the one that sounds best to them. But what happens when the staff, either the acting supervisor or the group, makes the wrong decision? Should they be punished? If so, the employees are in the position of being blamed for not knowing what to do simply because they lacked training. Or should the blame go to the administrator who chose to leave a 9-1-1 center with an inexperienced or untrained supervisor? Either way, it's a no-win situation.

So, how can this situation be prevented? In their article, "Looking for Dr. Jekyll but Hiring Mr. Hyde: Preventing Negligent Hiring, Supervision, Retention, and Training." Kathryn Lewis and Susan Garner state, "Prevention begins by confirming the knowledge and skill levels of new employees and appropriately training them to perform their jobs correctly and safely."

This applies even more for those who are in a supervisory capacity, regardless of the level. First, each shift must have someone in charge, and that person must be minimally qualified and trained, not just assigned by seniority. Administrators must look at each person on the shift and consciously choose who the best leader will be. The employee who has 23 years in dispatch may not be as qualified as the employee who has only been employed for three years, but who served two tours of duty leading soldiers in Iraq.

Second, there must be some kind of vetting process to select a person in charge, even if it's only for a few hours. Many comm centers believe they can "get away" with having seniority supervision for just a few hours each day because nothing has gone wrong in the past. This is dangerous thinking. The same applies for those who say they have no one who is qualified or who could pass an interview for the lead position. Those administrators may want to review the concept of negligence and re-think their strategy.

After the acting watch or lead is selected, they need to have some kind of formal, documented training. An acting watch or lead, although not responsible for the formal duties of a supervisor, still needs guidance on how to react in an emergency situation or what to do with a significant personnel issue. Another benefit: The more training they receive, the better chance they have of being able to count on their co-workers to follow their decisions.

Acting watch or lead training does not have to be intensive supervisory style training. Rather, it's training provided to help the lead determine how to make decisions and where to go for help. Lists of phone numbers for people who are on call for guidance, opportunities to shadow full-time supervisors, even handbooks providing training and guidelines are all cost-effective options.

To successfully lead a crew through a disaster or major incident, the person in charge needs to have an understanding of the needs of the job, the trust of the staff and the ability to make decisions and stand by them. Even senior employees, with their years of job-related experience, may not have the leadership skills to successfully navigate the trials of a disaster. Administrators who take care to select leaders based on more than just time on the job, and then train them appropriately, can go a long way toward increasing the chance of success for everyone involved.

Bridge the Generation Gap: As Millennials Enter the Workforce, Comm Center Managers Must Adapt

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, May 2010
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's Director of Strategic Development

Read as many public safety publications as I do, and you've probably noticed the amount of attention folks are giving to the "next" generation of public safety professionals. Complaints include: "They're hard to get through to." "They have different agendas than we do." It's one challenge after another. Or is it?

Is it more likely that it's just the same thing those before us said when we were cutting our teeth in the business? The Buddy Holly generation, who said it about the Jimi Hendrix generation, who said it about the Metallica generation, who in turn said it about the Nirvana generation -- an ongoing cycle of trying to deal with the fresh young faces flooding the industry.

So why are we seeing so much attention on the subject now? For starters, this is the first time in history in which four generations are in the workplace at the same time -- not just in public safety, but everywhere. Traditionalists/veterans, baby boomers, generation X and the millennials are all working together. What does this mean to public safety?

Let's start with those labels. The labels and the dates assigned for each generation vary by source and they aren't specific to a month or day, but the most common breakdown is:

  • Traditionalists or veterans - born during the WWII era;
  • Baby boomers - born between WWII and 1965;
  • Generation X - born between 1965 and 1979;
  • Generation Y or the millennials - born between 1980 and 1999 or the turn of the millennium; and
  • Generation Z - born since 1999.

It's hard to avoid talking in generalizations when discussing generation gaps, so keep in mind that every person is unique, and comm center managers must approach employees as individuals.

Although many millennials have just entered the workforce, they will soon become the majority. As a generation, millennials are exceptionally tech-savvy. They are tuned to their own value in the job market, have limited loyalty to a particular employer and tend to insist on working in a stimulating job environment. These qualities can be viewed as liabilities, but let's look at them as opportunities.

As a former comm center director, I know that having an employee who is tech-savvy is always a good thing. Many agencies can't afford dedicated information technology staffs, and having a little technical know-how on staff can be of great assistance and help keep expenses down.

As for the other qualities - being especially turned into their own value in the job market, having limited loyalty to any particular employer and insisting on a stimulating job environment - all of these will ultimately benefit an entire agency. As employers consistently strive to meet these needs, they'll improve morale and create a positive work environment, thus improving their agencies overall. All of this can lead to higher recruitment and retention rates as employees start seeing more about an agency to appreciate (e.g., challenging work, adequate compensation and sufficient recognition for a job well done).

A bit more information about this up-and-coming workforce: They have a greater requirement for accountability and performance measurement. This means they'll give 100% effort 100% of the time if needed, but in return they'll require proportionate recognition. Exceptional work will require exceptional recognition - a reward that is more than a paycheck and on the same level as their performance.

This requires agencies to implement and maintain a formal employee recognition program. It can be as simple as thank you notes, gift cards or paid days off. However, it has to occur more often than once a year during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. It has to be an ongoing part of agency operations. Reward employees once a year, and you'll get exceptional performance once a year. Reward and recognize them regularly all year long, and you'll get exceptional performance all year long.

Goals and objections will also need to be clear, and there must be an established benchmark for success. This will require a formalized employee performance evaluation program and well-maintained policies and procedures that are reviewed and updated regularly. An agency should be doing this anyway.

These are just a few examples of qualities and characteristics of the next generation of public safety communications professionals. Not all are challenges or obstacles that need to be overcome. In fact, in most cases if an agency prepares itself to meet the needs of this new workforce, it will ultimately improve overall operations and increase performance levels and morale for all generations on their staff.

The bottom line: Bridging the gap between senior leadership and a younger generation of employees is a task that must be faced now. As technology and the workforce of tomorrow grows and evolves, today's public safety leadership must use this diversity for the benefit of their agency and the communities they serve.