9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

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.

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