9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, December 20, 2012

From the Chair: The Holidays Approach - Big Whoop!

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, 12/9/12
Written by Paul D. Bagley, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association.

There is no time of the year that is more difficult for emergency telecommunicators than the so-called holiday season.  Like everyone else, dispatchers would like to look forward to spending quality time with their loved ones just like everyone else.  Alas, far too often they must set aside or radically alter any holiday plans because duty calls.  Someone has to stand watch all of the time.  It's the nature of the beast; it comes with the territory; use whatever platitude fits, but it ultimately boils down to figuring out whose turn it is in the proverbial barrel.

Communications centers deal with the troublesome task of staffing during the holidays in different ways.  Some centers make the junior members of the staff cover all the holiday shifts in order to grant senior members the perquisite of being able to live a somewhat normal life during those special days.  This is fine if  you've got seniority, but it is down-right lousy if you don't.  Other centers hold a lottery which determines who gets what days off.  Frankly, I'd rather spend my lottery luck playing Powerball as opposed to wasting it on a shot at a single day off.  I know the odds aren't nearly as good, but the payoff is a far sight better than one day with the family.  Still other centers rely upon the age-old method of everyone having to work their regular shift regardless, with no accommodations made for the holidays.  This method follows the old adage: "Sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug."  Let's face it; the holidays can be a problem.

One thing that should first be given consideration is what constitutes a holiday.  Christmas is almost universally recognized within the Christian world as being the big kahuna, with Christmas Eve running a close second (even though it isn't technically a holiday).  These are both times when families and friends come together to share good will and fellowship, not to mention eggnog laced with bourbon if you're lucky, tasteless Christmas cookies that seem to be made of either clay or cardboard, and that mystery of all holiday mysteries: fruitcake.  Even though Madison Avenue and retailing giants across the country have turned this once-festive season into the modern frenzied equivalent of the Oklahoma land rush of 1889, Christmas remains but a single day observance.  All the hype and hysteria used to herald it in is merely marketing.

But what about Hanukkah - isn't that a holiday?  Aren't those of the Jewish faith entitled to their holiday the same as Christians?  If so, should they be given the entire holiday off, or merely a single day in order to maintain parity with Christmas?  After all, Hanukkah is actually an eight day celebration known as the Festival of Lights dating back to the 2nd Century BCE.  Should our Jewish brothers and sisters be forced to pick one of those eight days on which to light all eight candles on the menorah?  ("Oh, wait," I hear you cry, "There are nine candles on the menorah, not eight."  Quite true, the ninth is known as the shamash, or helper candle that is used to light the others.)  Let's see, one day instead of eight - it seems fair, unless you add in the religious aspects.

Kwanzaa is a week-long celebration that runs from December 26th through January 1st celebrating African-American and African Canadian heritage (by the way, why does the term African-American need to be hyphenated but African Canadian doesn't?)  While Kwanzaa is more or less a cultural observance, it has grown in popularity since it was first introduced in 1966.  Even though all culture maintains some religious overtones, Kwanzaa is not strictly a religious observance.

Wiccan Yule offers practicing Pagans the world over an opportunity to usher in and celebrate the winter solstice, but few emergency dispatch centers offer this observance as a compensated holiday.  Like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa, the Yule is a multi-day event that runs from the 20th to the 23rd of December.  Although Paganism is not what most North Americans consider to be a mainstream faith, it is nevertheless, a bonafide religion.  Why then should the Pagan's eight annual observances that consume sixteen days in total be considered less important than those holidays and observances that repose upon the Judean-Christian calendar?  The minority party in the US Congress asks a similar question at every legislative session.

And then there's New Year or, more significant, New Year's Eve.  The actor Billy Crystal put it best in one of his movies when he observed that it's a one-second holiday.  I used to volunteer to work in place of others who felt that ushering in the New Year in an advanced state of inebriation was an important aspiration.  Personally, I've never felt as though a holiday was needed to mark the mere passage of time, but Guy Lombardo and Dick Clark enhanced their careers around it, so who am I to judge?

Holidays, simply stated, are those days that are so defined in  your employee handbook.  Don't have an employee handbook?  Okay: holidays are then defined on your paycheck - when you get paid more for a shift that you worked and you don't know why, that's holiday pay.  It's tough having to work holidays like Hanukkah and Christmas, but that's what you signed up for when you applied for the job.  Included in the pre-employment conversation was that infamous question, "Do you have any problem working nights, weekends and holidays?" to which you, of course, said no.

There's good and bad that's associated with working the holidays.  The bad part is invariably the fact that you can't participate in religious ceremonies or family gatherings.  The good part is that you can't participate in certain religious ceremonies and family gatherings.  This is, of course, contingent upon the kind of religion you practice and the family that you have.  In my case, it was always a hardship to work the holidays; for others, not so much.

The holiday season for me actually begins on Veterans Day.  Odd as it might seem, I worked every Veterans Day from the time I became a veteran until I retired.  Now I proudly fly my US Ensign and my US Air Force flag and reflect upon my days in uniform.  The town where I live has a parade that day, but it pales in comparison to the festivities that take place on Labor Day (another holiday on which I always seemed to be laboring).

Thanksgiving is the perfect holiday.  It isn't based upon religion, nor does it involve any kind of patriotic rituals.  It's held on the same day of the week and month every year, so no one has to consult a calendar in order to reconnoiter when to make travel arrangements.  Families and friends come together and share a fantastic feast after being bored to death by television coverage of the Macy's parade.  Sometime during or after coffee and dessert, there's football.  When the dishes are done, everyone goes home.  Now that's a holiday!

The day after Thanksgiving it's a though someone fires a starter's pistol into the air.  Big box stores, shopping malls, and liquor outlets are suddenly swamped, and calls-for-service in dispatch centers start to climb.  This year the mayhem of Black Friday began on Thursday, Thanksgiving Day itself!  Is there nothing sacred anymore?  Mobs of people pressed themselves up against glass doors in hopes of being the very first to purchase some cherished item; talk about humbug!

Purse snatchers, pickpockets, and shoplifters are everywhere!  The season of Good Will Toward Men is translated into, "Had they not meant to be shorn they would not have been made sheep."  True, there are random acts of kindness that happen during the holidays, but no one dials 9-1-1 to report them.  All we get are reports of crimes from victims, the chronic complaints of chronic complainers, and the empty feeling that comes from witnessing too much human suffering.  Fear not fellow dispatchers!  Always remember the immortal words of Dr. Seuss, "Today you are You, that is truer than true.  There is no one alive who is Youer than You."  Thank heaven!

Despite the often wearisome nature of things that accompany holidays, emergency telecommunicators should take the time to celebrate themselves.  It is a special person who can interrupt their lives in order to serve others; it is a very special person who can do this regularly and on holidays.  It's not just missing midnight mass, or the fun of carving the turkey and enjoying a meal with a family member who may not be around for subsequent celebrations.  It's being able to have that meal but not being able to enjoy that glass of wine like everyone else because of the eight-hour rule.  It's missing the quiet and rest that is often the true value of a holiday.  It's not being there to watch the eyes of your five-year-old light up to see what Santa left behind.

But of greater importance is the knowledge deep down inside that what you are sacrificing in your service to  your community is not only beneficial to society but essential to its very survival.  You may not have undertaken this profession with that in mind, but that's the way things truly are.  Emergency telecommunicators are the glue that holds everything together.  The real test of our worth and our ability to maintain a wide-angle focus is best illustrated during those times when others are focused inwardly; on holidays.

So, yes, the holidays are approaching - and yes - it's a big whoop!  If you're lucky enough to have time off, enjoy.  If you are compelled to make the sacrifice and work the holidays, do so knowing that you are not alone.  You are among a very small and select group of people across the nation who are doing the same thing as you, and an even larger group of brother and sister dispatchers who are fully aware of your efforts in The Chair, and are appreciative of the sacrifices you are making.  Be safe.  Be well.  Most of all, know that what you do matters deeply to us all.  Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Get Back on Your Feet: 3 Steps to Coming Back From a Major Error

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, November 2012
Written by Ray Barishansky, director of the Office of Emergency Medical Services for the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

We've all heard about them - managers who make a critical error and it appears their career is over.  The error in question can involve anything from a financial issue, such as reimbursement or budgets, to personnel issues or just dropping the proverbial ball in any of the many precarious situations that comm center managers deal with every day.

So what do you do?  Try to hide your mistakes?  Deny they existed?  Blame them on others?  The answer is D -- none of the above.

Obviously, a great deal depends on the specific situation -- e.g., how forgiving the organization is willing to be, how seriously others were hurt/impacted and how early in the manager's career the mistake occurred.  We can made some generalizations, however.  Historically, managers who have come back from major errors are those who own up to their mistakes, forewarn colleagues, try to solve the resulting problems and -- after the lesson has been learned -- move on to think about something else.

Before we go into depth about the healing process (for lack of a better term), understand that there are a lot of areas that you, as a manager, must be very careful walking into.  These include, but are certainly not limited to, sexual harassment, various areas of employment law, the disciplinary process and how it is meted out, as well as age/racial discrimination.

Also, understand that you, as management, will be looked at under a microscope by those around you, so you must follow all policies to the letter of the law.  If there isn't a policy that covers the specific area or action, ensure that your actions have been approved by someone higher up in the organization -- and that you have proof of this approval.

Step By Step
Following are some essential steps to make amends for things that go wrong in your professional life:

Step 1: Admit to the mistake.
Rather than hiding or denying it, admit to the mistake and put all your focus on how to fix or blunt the results.  Use the experience to reassure yourself about your ability to cope with adversity.  Use the failure as an opportunity for self-examination, and try to gain an understanding of what occurred and why.  Although difficult (OK, extremely difficult) to see right now, over the long term this experience is likely to give you a keener sense of your own strengths and weaknesses.  It also may actually make you a better manager of other people, because you've blown it once yourself.

Step 2: Take control.
Take control of any part of the problem you can and try to figure out how you were responsible.  This can include revising policies and procedures, as well as closing any loopholes that allowed for things to go off track.  If necessary, warn others, including your boss.  Ask others what you can learn from the circumstances, especially what you should learn about yourself.  Initiating such conversations isn't easy, but the payoff may be more enduring than the crisis itself.

Step 3: Apply what you learn.
When you find yourself in a situation similar to the one you were in when you made the critical error, take a moment to think about what went wrong the first time and what measures you have put into place since then.  Consciously avoid making the mistake again.  Even if it entails asking for assistance (and it may), don't rush into action.

Be Transparent
One of the most important elements to implement after these steps is transparency.  We are in a business built on trust.  Whether trusting our calltakers and dispatchers with their most intimate moments or trusting our managers to effectively utilize public funds, the lay public has a certain image that they expect communications centers and agencies to live up to.  When a mistake occurs, the community should be advised of it in a professional manner, with the overall message expressing accountability and transparency about what occurred, what type of discipline there will be (if any) and what you, as a publicly funded agency, are doing to ensure this mistake does not occur again.

Additionally, you should use this as an opportunity to remind the community of your mission and some of your past community accomplishments.  In a nutshell, give as much relevant and accurate information as possible about how the company is responding.  In the Internet age, heroes and villains alike become instantly famous on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.  If you do not get in front of a crisis, chances are you'll see the results of that action on the Internet in moments and feel its repercussions for years.

Learn & Move On
Everybody trips, and some even fall.  As a comm center manager, the key is not to focus on the fall itself but rather on what will get you back on your feet afterward.

For a real-world example, we need only to look as far as Martha Stewart.  One moment she was on top of the world with an empire of her own; the next moment she became embroiled in a stock market scandal that ended with her in jail, forced to pay hefty fines and publicly embarrassed by mocking headlines in some of the world's most-viewed media.  But that wasn't the end of her story.  Martha did her time, paid her fines and  held her head high, learning from her mistakes, ensuring they would not happen again and clawing her way back to the top.  Today, the debacle that could have ruined her career is a mere footnote to any discussions that involve her.  Martha understood the steps outlined above and implemented them in her own way to ensure that her mistakes were not fatal.

Failure can be a powerful teacher.  The lessons learned stay with you forever.  The trick lies in understanding what went wrong, constructively using what you've learned, and having the courage and tenacity to bounce back.

Emergency Communicators: Stay One Step Ahead in Preparedness

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com 10/15/12
Written by Todd Haines, Adjunct Professor for the Fire Science and Emergency Management Degree program with Kaplan University.

Each day around the world emergencies happen in every community.  Most emergencies that happen will not make public headlines, but are nonetheless the most important call in someone's life.

From calming a caller and evaluating the type of emergency to securing the required information for emergency workers to respond to the proper location and communicating any tactical concerns, emergency telecommunicators' jobs encompass a wide range of skills that require extensive knowledge, preparation and education.  These men and women are there to reassure that help is on the way no matter they type and severity of the emergency.

Last month and anually each September, National Preparedness Month reminds us how important it is for emergency communicators to spearhead efforts to encourage individuals, families, businesses and communities to work together and take action to prepare for emergencies.  One of the most important things for emergency telecommunicators to do is to truly understand their jurisdiction and what critical infrastructure, symbolic targets, and other unique features exist and how the loss or disruption of those facilities or events will impact emergency responders and the community.  Understanding community threats prior to an emergency is critical to not just the success of the response, but also the life safety of the occupants and emergency responders.

What type of information is important to be proactive against, for example, considering the effects of a terrorist attack or other man-made disaster from an emergency communicator's standpoint?

Location, Location, Location
Work with local, state and federal law enforcement to develop a list of critical infrastructures and symbolic targets that can be easily accessible to the communications center.  Specific street addresses are usually not the primary interest to inflict harm but understanding the meaning behind the address is a key indicator for a terrorist.  Examples may include:
  • Water treatment facilities
  • Power Grids
  • Large fixed hazardous material locations
  • Transportation - subway, rail, highway, airport, shipping ports
  • Schools
  • Public and private large mass-gathering locations - outdoor venues, theaters, amusement parks
  • Special Events and Festivals
  • Global businesses
  • Symbolic Targets - military facilities; religious facilities; local, state and federal government facilities; memorials; controversial businesses
Another critical item for emergency communicators is understanding the type and capability of resources that are available within the community.  These resources may be through emergency service organizations, public works and also private contractors or companies that have specialty equipment that responders may need during a crisis.

Suspicious Activities
An action where an emergency telecommunicator can be proactive in homeland security is monitoring and tracking reports of suspicious persons, packages and fire/security system alarms to a critical infrastructure facility or symbolic target.  For example, if emergency responders respond to a critical facility frequently in a short period of time it may be important to consider a modified response route and changing the staging location to another pre-determined location.  Observing how resources respond can be a part of the planning process for a terrorist attack or choosing secondary device locations for emergency responders.  Emergency communicators can be the consistent means for first responders by knowing the frequency and history of calls to a specified location and suggest modified response considerations.

Emergency telecommunicators play a critical part in the pre-incident planning process.  Through their knowledge, they can give responders exact locations of venues, resources allocation, type of calls and response history, emergency contact information and access to mutual aid automatic aid partners.  Emergency telecommunicators are truly the behind the scene heroes in today's ever changing threats to our communities.  We need to ensure that throughout the year communities are proactive in tapping into emergency communicators and the essential role they play in preparedness and a well-orchestrated emergency response.

From the Chair: Accepting the Inevitable: Schedules, Expectations & Things

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com. 8/14/12
Written by Paul D. Bagley, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association.

One of the many problems facing emergency communications managers is that people hired as dispatchers soon forget all that was discussed during their employment interview.  In the vast majority of cases applicants are asked if they have any problem working nights, weekends, or holidays and invariably their reply is an enthusiastic and emphatic "no."  Within a few short weeks or months after they have soloed on the board their attitudes begin to morph away from all that enthusiasm toward a more jaundiced outlook on the vocation.  Suddenly all the glitter of the profession has turned into the drudgery of a job marked by "shift work," and their work product deteriorates in direct proportion to their rate of morph.

From the start dispatchers need to accept the inevitable fact that the job is twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.  True, they're not getting paid anything near what they're worth, and the meager prestige associated with dispatching probably wouldn't sustain a monk.  The fact that emergency dispatching is an essential and noble task doesn't put any more food on the table, make the mortgage payment, or buy the latest CD or video game for the kids.  Dispatchers aren't likely to receive any thank-you letters from a grateful public or commendations from their hierarchy, which is partially why their attitudes begin to deteriorate in the first place.  As dispatchers begin to spiral downward in performance they invariably fall into the trap of believing that working "normal" hours (Monday through Friday between 8:00 and 4:00) is the Holy Grail of the emergency telecommunications industry.  Brother, they couldn't be more wrong!

Dispatchers disheartened thusly need to comprehend that day-watch hours are the same hours worked by The Chief, and if they think they have their hands full coddling that introspective collection of troglodytes assigned to night shifts, wait until they get a load of what's waiting for them on day-watch.  The Chief can whine and cry with the best of them during those choice hours, and he does it with the added threat of dispatcher termination looming on the horizon throughout the entire shift.  As grumpy as The Chief may be when you awaken him by phone in the wee hours, it's nothing compared to how much attitude he can generate during "normal" hours, and there are also plenty of witless non dispatching minions around that help fuel his wrath.

There are good and bad points to every dispatching shift.  Working all night long when everyone else is asleep can be downright boring.  When something does happen, it's usually real.  The public, in most cases, isn't ambitious enough to get up at zero-dark-thirty to play practical jokes: if they call about something it's most likely a real problem.  The boredom associated with infrequent calls can lead to atrophy of dispatcher skills, which is where detailed procedural checklists and agency run-cards prove invaluable.  Since newbies are most-often relegated to the overnight hours, they're also often tasked with doing administrative "busy work" to keep them awake and alert.  Several thousand volts of caffeine apparently aren't considered sufficient by some supervisors and administrators.  Added to the busy work assigned to night shift is the likelihood that staffing will be the thinnest during those same hours.  This insures that when something "real" does occur, the dispatcher(s) on duty will be up to their proverbial armpits in alligators.  Another side effect of the midnight shift came from a colleague who complained that while working overnights he always felt like eating breakfast no matter what time of day or night.  Also, if he got off duty at 8:00 AM and had a beer with his Cheerios he wondered if he should start attending meetings.

Second shift, or evenings, can often be filled with an array of calls from a wide spectrum of sources that keep dispatchers active.  Like third shift, these hours can be absolutely dead activity-wise.  But more often this is the time when the public does all kinds of interesting things: they drive home from work, they cook dinner, they drink, and - of course - they fight with each other.  You can set your watch by them.  Activity tends to be higher and hopefully staffing is as well.  The biggest problem with working second shift is that it can be difficult on family life.  You find yourself sitting at the console when your kid is premiering in the school play or driving in the winning run for the little league team.  You often have to excuse yourself early from family gatherings in order to make it to work on time, and watching prime-time entertainment on television requires programming a DVR so you can play it back at a time to be determined later.

The worst of the evening shifts though are those that overlap evening and early-morning hours.  For many years I found myself working as a supervisor from 6:00 PM to 2:00 AM Tuesday through Saturday nights.  My wife was a school teacher during that time and we seldom saw one another except in the summer and on Sundays.  Another problem with that shift was that I'd arrive home late and couldn't go directly to sleep.  I'd be up for several hours watching mindless television in order to  help dissipate the adrenalin that had built up during my watch.  I would subsequently sleep away most of the morning hours, awaken around noon, eat breakfast at lunch time, lunch at dinner, and dinner whenever I could squeeze in a bite during my shift.  No wonder I grew to be the size of a Zeppelin!

Day shift is not the picnic that is envisioned when you're ensconced on any of the night shifts.  Anytime you need to do something outside of the dispatch center it means using up vacation or personal time in order to do it.  One of the great things about working nights is the ability to run errands and do chores at your leisure.  Being assigned Monday through Friday day shifts may seem like a reward, but it can be a consignment to something considerably less desirable when it comes to actually working those hours.  Aside from the high level of activity that coincides with the waking hours of the public, it's also when The Chief is lurking and when high-ranking department heads are viewing your every move in real-time.  Make the slightest deviation from established protocol and they're on you like ugly on an ape.

Weekends and holidays don't exist in dispatch.  While we recognize that for others - you know, real people? - there are designated days of rest that are regularly observed.  For dispatch these virtually come and go without notice.  Now and then some enterprising staffer will decorate the center with brightly-colored crepe paper, or maybe bake cookies.  But that's it!  While others enjoy the warmth of hearth and home, the embrace of their family during the yuletide, or relish a sumptuous Thanksgiving feast, someone always has to be minding the store back at dispatch.  Even though the shift work in itself can wear on dispatchers heavily, holidays seem to be the real sticking point.  Working holidays is truly a sacrifice in a profession that is already filled with an overabundance of sacrifice.  Low compensation, low public esteem (if any public recognition at all), and constantly reposing under the proverbial Sword of Damocles where you're damned if you do and damned if you don't is bad enough; but working holidays too?

Many agencies add high-test fuel to the mix by rotating shifts in an effort to provide some measure of fairness.  Some dispatchers love this; others can't stand it.  Some industry leaders claim that rotating shifts are more greatly detrimental toward the health and well-being of the individual working them, while others claim it promotes better Esprit de Corp, better understanding of the overall mission, and a fundamentally better employee who can handle any task placed before them regardless of the hours being worked.  Rotating shifts offer some measure of fairness among the staff in that the sharing of perceived good and bad shifts is equally distributed.  This, of course, presumes that the shifts will, in fact, be equally distributed - sort of like presumptions made about communism.  In centers where there is sufficient staff to provide ample coverage on all shifts while accommodating vacations, personal and sick time for everyone, the rotation of shifts can afford the individual dispatcher a locked-in schedule that can be projected years in advance.  This can allow personal planning options and opportunities to be present for those important family events like those little league games and school plays.  This presupposes that future administrators will adhere to what the current administration has established for scheduling and that staffing levels will always remain constant.  My experience has been that every new boss feels compelled to tinker with the schedule to either save money, promote some newly-hatched agenda on staff members who have to work the schedule, or simply to emphasize their power over others.  Whether changes made for any of these reasons are a good or bad thing can only be determined by those who ultimately have to work the schedule.  But one thing is for certain: it is change, and change of any kind for human beings requires adjustment.

Okay, we all know that dispatching is an around-the-clock operation that requires constant care and maintenance.  We know that sacrifice is involved, which is true of many professions in addition to ours.  Why, then, do so few dispatchers make it to retirement age?  Why is it that the expectation of a crappy schedule in the medical community, law enforcement, or the fire service is so much easier to tolerate for new people than it is with dispatch?  Why is the attrition rate for emergency telecommunicators so high?  Just as there is no such thing as a single-cause motor vehicle accident, there is no single reason for this state of affairs.  But among the many reasons our profession has become a revolving door for so many is the sheer number of sacrifices that have become associated with it.  Few people are truly prepared for that level of sacrifice regardless of how eager they may appear at their initial interview.  Accepting the inevitable is likely the only way for anyone to survive a career in The Chair.  That acceptance is often impossible to achieve when both youth and inexperience are involved; more importantly when full disclosure is not provided from the outset.  Maybe it falls to management to be more forthright during the interview and evaluation process.  Maybe it should be more difficult to become a dispatcher.

The biggest issue is, and always will be, compensation.  Since pay and benefits for dispatchers is universally low, it might seem a reasonable expectation to fledglings in the profession to see preferential schedules as an element of compensation.  It is essential from the get-go to provide aspirants with the fundamental understanding that schedule may well be the absolute worst aspect of the profession.  Technology becomes more daunting with each passing day and the list of tasks to be handled by dispatchers grows constantly (if only compensation grew at the same rate).  Schedule is the pits!

When new dispatchers were first starting out with me, I would recite to them a passage from the book Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace.  At one point in the story a high Roman official tells a group of slaves aboard a galley that they are all condemned men.  He ends his spiel by uttering, "We keep you alive to serve this ship...row ell and live."  I would suggest to new dispatchers that when it came to the schedule we are subject to it rather than the schedule being subject to us.  I would repeat, "Row well and live."  Ah, those good old days...when simple intimidation was all you needed to keep the oars in the water.

Friday, December 14, 2012

7 Traits of a Chaotic Workplace - And 7 Great Resources for Overcoming Them

Taken from 9-1-1.com Magazine, 2/22/12
Written by Sue Pivetta, president of Professional Pride, Inc. She has worked in emergency communications since 1989 as a college instructor, consultant, workshop leader and author.  She teaches adult learning through her book and workshop The Exceptional Trainer.

9-1-1 Communications Center teams work like well-oiled precision tools when a critical call comes in or the phones and radios are swamped on a full moon Friday night.  We all can agree Comm Centers rock when it comes to doing great teamwork on the phones and radios.  But we often hear that teamwork comes to an abrupt halt when it comes to getting along or to be a team off the phones and radio.  Performing extra data entry, agreeing on a new chair design, buying in on a new policy, implementing some in house training, getting past gossip, eliminating back stabbing or administration bashing.  Here are 7 Deadly Habits and 7 Useful Tips for more teamwork off the phones and radios and 7+ recommended eBooks for your professional library, independent learning, or In Service Training.

#1: Not Knowing Team Responsibilities 'Off' The Phones and Radio

"It's Not My Job"
It is very clear that the role of a Call Taker or Emergency Radio Dispatcher is to send with speed.  But does your staff agree on and accept their role when it comes to internal communications, enforcing procedures for the team, stress management, support, and decision-making when it's not associated with call taking and dispatching?  Has everyone talked about his or her part in creating a safe and positive work environment?  Do you have an ethics statement?  Did your team create it?  For example, would it be ethical to talk to officers about a trainee who made a mistake on a call?  Do your telecommunicators know exactly what to do when a fellow worker abuses the equipment in frustration or anger?  What would someone do if a dirty joke or picture was distributed in the center?

Suggested Reading #1: Purchase Sexual Harassment in the Comm Center
This book takes real stories from Dispatch Monthly Magazine and Power Point and connects them to the laws on Sexual Harassment. See Professional Pride's bookstore. Another great book is Resolving Conflicts At Work by Kenneth Cloke at amazon.com or other booksellers.

#2: Not Knowing How To Talk To One Another

"No One Listens Anyway"
Poor communications skills can be blamed for probably 99% of the stress and dysfunction at an agency.  And the simple truth is, internal communications skills can and should be taught but are not.  The purpose of communication is to get your message across to others.  This is a process that involves both the sender of the message and the receiver.  This process leaves room for error, with messages often misinterpreted by one or more of the parties involved.  This causes unnecessary confusion and counter productivity.

Suggested Reading #2: Have your team read Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss what Matters Most by Stone, Patton & Heen (it's available at amazon and other booksellers).  If you can do it in a group session, the training should be a dialogue where each person is required to read the section and discuss the principles and practice the techniques offered.

#3: Resistance To New Policies Or Change

"We're Treated Like Mushrooms"
If a rowing team changes direction people don't begin to question and complain - there is 'trust' in the person who knows what direction the group is supposed to be heading in order to get where the team is supposed to be going.  There is no need to question every decision.  However, when people don't understand the direction they are going nor the change of course, demands will create resistance.  Telecommunicators are adults, but many 'demands' treat workers like children.  Therefore it should come as no surprise if workers act like children and refuse to cooperate and question and resist.

Suggested Reading #3: Read Winging It, Supervisors Q & A by Sue Pivetta, available at www.911trainer.com.

"Commitment is demonstrated through accountability."

#4: No Accountability Process

"People Get Away With Murder Here"
Commitment is demonstrated through accountability, which can be loosely defined as "following through on what is expected," or more simply stated, "keeping your word."  When commitment is questioned, trust ( a key element of accountability) becomes impaired.  People at work often do not keep their word because they are centered in self instead of centered in what is best for the team.  People become centered in self when they forget that their job is to serve.  However it must also be noted that people do what they feel is best for self and with accountability for tardiness, negative behaviors, skipping meetings, sick leave abuse, failing to follow through on projects will create a whole new perception about what is best for self; to do the right thing or pay the consequences.  Administrators and supervisors must also keep their word to keep fair and consistent with accountability processes.

Suggested Reading #4: Professional Pride's training program, Breaking Out of Negativity is a downloadable workbook and slideshow program offering a dozen intense personal exercises for less.

#5: Zero Conflict Resolution In Place

"Can't We All Just Get Along? No, Not Really."
What do you do when there is conflict?  How do you feel about conflict?  Is conflict actually a welcomed event that can bring better understanding, uncover unspoken feelings, deal with current stressors and create improvement where needed?  Likely not.  Mediation and peer mediation teams are a new concept.  Most people don't know there is a process to working with conflict that actually and absolutely turns conflict into opportunity.  Put in place a Peer Mediation Team plan today and you will find that you will have more peace at your agency.

Suggested Reading #5: Becoming the Peace-Maker At The Comm Center, a downloadable eBook written by a certification Dispute Resolution Mediator that explains mediation, resolution and understanding the formula used by mediators in court.  Available from Professional Pride.

#6: Knowing What Is Wrong and Doing Nothing

"Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes"
Challenges at the workplace are often ongoing and are assumed to be a part of the culture.  Actually there are many steps you can take to begin a process of change - all solutions begin with an acknowledgement that there is an ongoing problem that may have solutions.  Stress and Negativity are two ongoing challenges that seem to be just a part of the culture but instead are problems that can be neutralized by looking to many of the sources rather than always mopping up after the 'effects' have been realized.  These effects may include high turnover, sick leave, conflict, poor work habits, and low job satisfaction.

Suggested Reading #6: Professional Pride eNews "Got Solutions?" This series can be assessed by signing up to "Join Our Mailing List" at www.911trainer.com

#7: Dealing With 'Effects' Instead of Causes

"Who Is The Enemy Here?"
Let's say you do not have an evaluation process or form that is honored, respected, and useful in planning needed training, retraining, or motivation.  You know it's a problem but what can you do?  There isn't enough time to allow all the supervisors time to revamp the system let alone time to listen to tapes and provide evidence of skill levels and adherence to policy and procedures.  Or let's say your SOP is sadly out of date.  Maybe you don't have a good training manual.  Or you send people to training just to give them a break yet really aren't sure the training is what they need.  Your budget is used up by turnover and overtime and people you hire aren't really fit and either quit or are let go.  You know your training program needs to be changed but the amount of energy and time needed seems overwhelming considering how hard everyone is working anyway.  You're putting out fires when you should be eliminating the fuel source.  Time isn't the enemy - leadership priorities and skill at providing effective leadership are.  Great leaders are able to define priorities and get stuff done - regardless.  Time is money - great leaders can find money if they can make the time.  Great leaders can make the time if they free up time by delegating.  But delegating means giving more work to overworked people - so what's a leader to do?

"You're putting out fires when you should be eliminating the fuel source."

 There are thousands of leadership books out there.  I counted the ones on my shelf: 32.  Most of them have been read, some of them have been used.  There is no great mystery to leadership - it's about getting stuff done; to get stuff done first define what stuff needs to be done.  Next prioritize based on possible losses or potential harm.  Next list all solutions tried and if they worked and solutions not tried and cost.  Let's take one issue and explore how it's handled.  Stress: Determine the source of stress for your people.

Suggested Reading #7: 911 Wellness, Stress Less Trio by Sue Pivetta found at www.911trainer.com.  This book approaches stress at its 'source,' which is personal responsibility, education and skill building for each member of your staff.

I accept chaos, I'm not sure whether it accepts me. -Bob Dylan

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Had This Been a Real Emergency..." Disaster Exercises in the Comm Center

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2010
Written by Bob Smith, APCO International's director of strategic development

East Coast to West Coast to Gulf Coast, hurricane season is upon us.  To prepare, many public safety agencies reviewed, evaluated and updated their disaster response plans and procedures, policies, resource lists and inventories, and personnel were quizzed on new and revised policies.

The best way to evaluate preparedness is to conduct a disaster exercise.  FEMA defines an exercise as "a focused practice activity that places the participants in a simulated situation requiring them to function in the capacity that would be expected of them in a real event.  Its purpose is to promote preparedness by testing policies and plans and training personnel."

Exercises evaluate and improve an agency's disaster response by providing an opportunity for "dry runs" or simulations related to specific disaster types.  Exercises allow all responders to proceed through actual response steps -- in a controlled environment.  They also provide agencies the opportunity to monitor and evaluate their response, the response of others and the effectiveness of their tools, resources and procedures.

Disaster exercises range in format and complexity.  FEMA recognizes several formats, the most common of which are drills, tabletop and full-scale exercises.

Drills are coordinated, supervised exercises used to test a single specific operation or function.  In a drill, there's no attempt to coordinate organizations or fully activate an emergency operations center (EOC).  A drill serves to practice a single component of an agency's response plan and assist in preparations for more complex exercises.

Tabletop exercises are a facilitated analysis of an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment.  A table-top exercise is designed to elicit constructive discussion as participants examine and resolve problems based on existing operational plans and identify where those plans need to be refined.  There is minimal attempt at simulation:  Equipment isn't used, resources aren't deployed, and time pressures aren't introduced.

Full-scale exercises simulate a real event as closely as possible.  This type of exercise is designed to evaluate the operational capability of public safety systems in a highly stressful environment that simulates actual response conditions.  It requires the mobilization and movement of emergency personnel, equipment and resources and should test and evaluate most public safety functions.

A jurisdiction's public safety and emergency management agencies may conduct disaster exercises regularly, but it's not uncommon for the comm center's role to be minimized or even absent.  When the comm center is involved, the role may be nothing more than receiving the first simulated 9-1-1 call, dispatching the appropriate resources and possibly monitoring radio traffic as warranted.  This lack of participation is unfortunate.  It doesn't gauge the center's preparedness and causes a significant gap in preparedness.

So how do we address this lack of involvement?

Comm center managers must develop and maintain a quality professional relationship with local field agencies and emergency management officials.  Educating these responders and officials to the comm center's role and importance to disaster response operations before, during and after an event encourages the inclusion of the center and its personnel in exercises.

Comm center employees can play many roles in a disaster exercise, both in and out of the radio room.  They can be used to staff EOCs or to initiate and staff an on-scene Incident Command Post (ICP).

They can also serve as evaluators to gauge and audit specific portions of on-scene operations and compare actions or inactions to exercise objectives, thus establishing a benchmarking process to gauge an exercises success or failure.  Comm center employees require little explanation of field-level operations due to their familiarity with aspects of field-level response.

They can also monitor and evaluate on-scene radio communications and accountability policies during an exercise.

If the comm center isn't invited to participate in local disaster exercises, it falls to management to ensure policies and procedures are tested regularly.  While a jurisdiction conducts a larger disaster exercise, the comm center can incorporate facets of its own disaster preparedness.  Example:  During a large-scale, mass casualty incident-based exercise, a comm center can drill on its policies for notifying local hospitals.  For a hazmat exercise, the center can practice initiating a mass notification system simply by simulating the initiation of a notice or launching an actual system test.  Or the center can review its procedures for activating a secondary PSAP or transferring calls to a backup agency.

The bottom line:  Whether participating in a jurisdictional disaster exercise or conducting a internal drill, the comm center must establish a formal process for testing and evaluating its preparedness.  As the hub of all public safety and emergency management response, failure to ensure the comm center is prepared can cause a domino effect, hampering operations at all levels during an event.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

William P. Rutledge, the Father of Police Radio

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, February 2012, Historical Perspective
Written by Richard Rybicki, Historical Committee, chair

So when did all this radio transmission technology begin?

The earliest application of Marconi's wireless was for ships at sea.  They had the first wireless operators on board ship.  The story goes that the radio operator on the Titanic, after it struck an iceberg, was the first to use the SOS, the international distress signal.  This was in April 1912.

Commissioner Rutledge of the Detroit Police department became intrigued by radio when he heard of the sinking of the Titanic.  He envisioned a fleet of automobiles that were linked by radio to police headquarters for dispatching of automobiles.  He surmised that if a ship at sea could pick up radio waves, why not a moving automobile.

Rutledge contacted his nephew Bernard D. (Barney) Fitzgerald, a wireless amateur.  He was the first official radio operator.

The first transmitter was a one-tube self-excited oscillator.  It was on the second floor of the 9th Precinct station house.  It had the amateur license 8BNE and operated in the 200 meter band.  The receiver in the vehicle was a tunable receiver with earphones.

In 1921, Rutledge authorized patrol cars to have radios and ancillary equipment installed.  This was a daunting task that had its fair share of failures.  In December 1922 a radio transmitter was installed at police headquarters.  The Commerce Department, through the Federal Radio Commission, issued Detroit a radio license, KOP.

The Radio Commission also ruled that since it was a commercial license, the radio station, KOP had to broadcast entertainment during regular hours when no police calls were broadcast.  This evoked the reply from Rutledge, "Do we have to play a violin solo before we dispatch police to catch criminals?"

One interesting decisions was made by Rutledge concerning the station, KOP.  In June 1924, he ordered there would be no more musical interludes on the station when not broadcasting police business.  Did this cause the Radio Commission to cancel their license a year later?  The last date of broadcast for KOP was October 1925.

An amateur license, WCK, was issued at a new frequency in April 1926.  The new frequency and other technical problems caused Rutledge to shut down the station one year later.

He did not give up on his idea of police dispatch radio.  He just needed time to consider other avenues.  He enlisted the aid of police officer Kenneth Cox and a young radio engineer, Robert Batts, to keep working on the problems.  These two developed a radio receiver with fixed tuning that was very reliable.  The story is they took it into the commissioner's office and dropped it on the floor, and it continued to work.

In 1928, a Purdue undergraduate in electrical engineering, Batts built a radio system for use in the patrol cars of the Detroit police department.  The police department already had a transmitter.  Batts created the receiver: a three-stage, tuned-radio frequency superheterodyne with a two-stage audio amplifier.  The receiver operated from an external storage battery on the car's running board and B and C batteries under the floorboards.  The antenna was woven into the car's fabric roof.  The first radio-equipped patrol car - #5, a Lincoln cruiser, received its first transmission on April 7, 1928.  Batts' success with one-way transmission attracted national attention, and by 1933, two-way police radios had appeared.

Between the new receivers, a move away from the noisy downtown area to Belle Isle, a better antenna system and approval by the Commerce Commission, police radio communications began on a permanent basis on April 7, 1928.

The first full year of operation in 1929, there were 22,598 police messages and 8,228 runs were dispatched.  In December 1929, continuous 24-hour operation began.  This happened after Rutledge tried to get a car dispatched and was informed that the radio division did not work on Sundays.  Another development: To ensure the radios were working properly, the time and call letters were broadcast to the vehicles every 15 minutes.  This has not become standard practice.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Stop Coddling Bad Guys Who Kill Police Dogs

Taken from American Police Beat Magazine, November 2012 Volume XIX
Written by Lt. Lance M. Burris, retired Police Chief of Detectives and currently employed as a Master Instructor with the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.  He is a published author and a frequent contributor to the American Police Beat Magazine.

Police officers are subjected to stressful and dangerous duties every shift they work.  Likewise, police dogs are vulnerable to the same stress and danger as their handler.

These well-trained dogs are not only police officers, but become a true member of the handler's family as well.  When we lose one of these animals in the line of duty, it is a devastating loss.

So what happens when a law enforcement officer is killed in the line of duty and the suspect is apprehended?

That officer is charged with a homicide in the death of the officer.

What if a certified law enforcement K-9 is injured or killed in the line of duty?

In this state, the Indiana law indicates that for an assailant to be charged with murder, the death must be that of a human being.

The statute reads, "a person who knowingly or intentionally kills another human being."  So what about the K-9?  Is the police dog not a living creature?  This is a question that must be answered by state legislatures across the country.

In July 2012, a report by the "Indiana Criminal Code Evaluation Commission Review of Criminal Code" was submitted after evaluating the criminal laws of Indiana.  One of the laws reviewed was Indiana Code (IC) 35-46-11 "Law Enforcement Animal; Mistreatment or Interference."

The committee reported the offense should remain a Class A misdemeanor and enhanced to a felony if the violation resulted in serious permanent disfigurement, unconsciousness, loss of use of limb/organ, or death of the animal so that if a person knowingly or intentionally causes the aforementioned they are charged with a Class D felony.

A Class D felony can be changed by the court to a Class A misdemeanor (a lesser charge) under certain circumstances.

Recently, two of our police dogs working with the Anderson P.D. were murdered by individuals during the commission of a crime.

Sgt. Craig Patton, a long-time K-9 trainer with the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department said that while rare, police dogs do get killed in the line of duty.  "It happens," Patton said, "but it doesn't happen often."

Magnum was shot while searching for a suspected bank robber after his handler set him free to search a wooded area.  Magnum was shot in the nose by the suspect and the bullet travelled down into his lungs.  Magnum did not recover from emergency surgery where vets tried in vain to save his life.  The suspect was apprehended and charged with killing Magnum, a class D felony.

An officer in Fortville, Indiana was shot and wounded in an ambush style attack by a subject who was stopped for a traffic violation.  The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department along with the Lawrence P.D. assisted.  A Lawrence Police Department K-9 was shot while he was waiting inside the police car by the suspect.  The suspect, who exchanged fire with the officers, was killed during the exchange.

Another Anderson Police Department canine, Kilo, was also killed in a shootout with an armed individual who shot and wounded the dog and his handler.  With the handler down, the wounded dog sought to protect his partner and attacked another police officer who responded to the scene.

Tragically, another officer had to shoot Kilo to protect the downed colleague.  Can anyone even envision the officer's frame of mind when he had to shoot the police dog?

The stress this officer and Kilo's handler are now experiencing must be overwhelming.  The perpetrator escaped justice when he shot and killed himself.

Perhaps it's time for legislators in every state to revisit the current laws on the books as they pertain to police dogs.

K-9's are part of the law enforcement community.  They don't carry guns for protection, but they do protect their handlers and other members of the department.  They are loyal, faithful and dedicated employees who risk it all by rooting out, chasing and apprehending those who commit criminal acts.

When they are murdered, it should be looked upon as a serious felony and dealt with as such.  These are not just other dogs.  They are police dogs.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Integrity: The Leader's Role in Comm Center Ethics

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, October 2012
Written by John R. Brophy, market general manager for the Georgia Division of Rural/Metro (R/M) Ambulance.  Prior to joining the R/M team, Brophy led two comm centers to ACE Accreditation.  He has more than 30 years' experience in emergency services, including both fire and EMS.  He is the author of Leadership Essentials for Emergency Medical Services, as well as numerous articles for trade publications, and is a frequent speaker at national and regional conferences, as well as internationally.

Leadership in action:  You are a front-line supervisor in the comm center, and your manager comes to you with concerns raised by several of the field staff you dispatch.  The concerns allege that one of your dispatchers is incompetent, as evidenced by field personnel repeatedly being dispatched to calls where the nature of the emergency on arrival does not match the nature at dispatch.

We all know that this will happen sometimes when a caller doesn't grasp the true nature of the emergency and incorrectly describes what is happening.  But contributing to the concerns expressed is the fact that the employee in question is an average performer and not part of the "in" crowd.

You call upon the employee in question to discuss the concerns, and they say that their partner in the comm center isn't very helpful.  They call attention to things that they would help others with but won't help the employee in question.

Upon review of CAD records you notice some anomalies and pull tapes to learn more.  After a lengthy review, you conclude that the mistakes were actually those of another dispatcher who is well liked by peers and field staff alike and not of the unpopular average performer.
  1. What would your next steps be?
  2. How would you clear the name of the average performer in the eyes of their peers and the field personnel?
  3. How would you address the fact that the mistakes were made by someone else?
  4. What if, upon further review, you found that the misakes weren't mistakes at all, but rather an attempt to make the average performer look bad in order to facilitate their termination?
  5. How do you think supporting the unpopular employee who did not make any mistakes while addressing the more popular employee's actions will play with those around you in the short and long term?  Why?
The above questions don't have "right" answers.  They're intended to prompt thought and discussion about the nature of integrity.

Leadership in the comm center is about character and trust.  Everything a leader does sets the tone and will be viewed by others as an example of what the leader expects.  If the leader is always on time, dresses professionally and treats people with respect, that will set the tone for the staff to echo.  But if the leader comes in late and leaves early while wearing a less-than-professional-looking uniform and criticizes others in public or behind their backs, all the policies in the world outlining expected workplace behavior will not have as great an impact on behavior and performance as the example the leader is setting with their own actions.

In short, personal integrity has a significant impact on leadership effectiveness.

Influencing staff behavior, attitudes and commitment is a key function of leadership, with the comm center at the heart of all operations regardless of the type or size of the agency(s).  It's vital that those who play a leadership role have a strong ethical compass to ensure their moral and earned authority with the people around them is strong and that their actions are above reproach.

When we talk about personal integrity, "the most basic definition emphasizes honesty and consistency between a person's values and behavior."  When people have confidence in the integrity of their leader, they will respect both the decisions they agree with and the ones they don't.  If the leader's integrity is in question, their ability to sustain a relationship of trust with their people will be difficult, if not impossible.

It's always better to employ disciplined people than to have people who need to be disciplined.  Followers often mirror their leaders.  Therefore, leaders must hold themselves to a higher standard, especially when it comes to integrity, than they do their staff.  Anything less is irresponsible and will result in mixed messages and inconsistent performance.

There are many things that a leader can do besides holding themselves to a higher standard that will have a positive impact on their ability to lead, but there are a few key acts of irresponsibility that will almost certainly scuttle a leader's authority with their staff.  These include failure to take reasonable efforts to prevent followers' misdeeds; ignoring or denying ethical problems; not taking responsibility for their actions or directives; and denying or shirking their responsibilities to followers.

There are many ways to both build and shatter trust, but it takes far longer to build it than to shatter it.  A leader can spend weeks, months, even years building their moral and earned authority, but one misstep can have a profound negative impact.  Such negative impact may or may not be recoverable, but even if it is it will take a long time to rebuild what was taken away.  Staff may forgive the misstep by the leader, but it can never be undone; it is a part of that leader's history now.

How a leader applies their ethics based on the situation at hand will have an impact on the events at hand and will also follow them on the mental scorecard all around them keep, either consciously or unconsciously.  People in leadership, while guided by policies and procedures, have various levels of authority and discretion with respect to how to handle the situations they face.  Handling matters consistently and fairly will achieve the best results in both the short and long term.  However, when a leader allows an end to justify their means or allows a personal agenda to skew their ethical compass the impact can be significant and reach far beyond the situation at hand.  It's important for a leader to remember that "even when no one is looking you always are."

In my view, when a leader deviates from fairness for a less than honorable reason they have created a self-inflicted hardship.  They will pay the consequences with whatever fallout results, and because of their role as a leader, so too will the organization and its people.

One litmus test of both a leader's effectiveness and the trust their people have in them comes when a leader asks one of their people about their progress, and they never need any help.  Either the leader failed to provide challenging work that will serve to grow the individual personally and professionally or the follower does not have enough trust in the leader to share their shortcomings or ask for help.  If it is the former, the leader needs to work on their personnel development skills, if the latter the leader has far more work to do for the absence of trust is more of an abyss than the relative pothole that is their need to challenge their staff more.

Creating an ethical climate within the comm center, or any organization for that matter requires more than just the adopting and posting of a code of ethics or values statement.  But using such tools as part of a comprehensive approach to achieve such a result can help chart the course and serve as a reminder of the key expectations.  The most impactful thing a leader can do to create and sustain a culture centered on ethics and values is to model the behaviors expected and quickly act upon behaviors that are inconsistant.

Comm center supervisors and managers will lead by example, whether they intend to or not.  Leaders who arrive on time in a clean and pressed uniform demonstrate what is expected.  But they need to take it one step further.  When they see staff whose appearance is not up to par and say nothing, they send a message to everyone that they accept that level of appearance as "within standards."  Something seemingly trivial like unshined shoes or a wrinkled or dirty shirt that goes unchecked by the supervisor will send a message that they didn't notice or have accepted it.

Another example:  When a supervisor or manager overhears, or worse yet participates in, an inappropriate conversation.  Whether the topic or the language used to discuss the topic is inappropriate, by allowing it to go unchecked the comm center supervisor is putting their stamp of approval on it.

If the actions of the leader are not in keeping with the words on the ethics code or values statement, they will drown out those words, and the behavior modeled by the leader will be replicated.  If the leader's actions are in keeping with the established standards and they model the way toward an ethical and just culture, one will be achieved.

In his book The Nature of Leadership, B. Joseph White shares a fear that echoes observations I have made.  He writes, "I am concerned that a generation of young Americans has come to equate leadership with nothing more than the opportunity to get power, get rich, get whatever you want."

If it wasn't hard enough for a leader to establish a positive relationship of trust in their comm center based on their own actions and reputation, they potentially start out a few steps further back, having to overcome a stigma and mistrust of leaders in general that is fostered by the actions of past and present leaders in our country and throughout the world.

The lesson aspiring, new and experienced leaders alike must think, speak and act above reproach both on and off the job.  By doing so, they will establish their own moral standing with the people around them.  Trust will be earned on the merits of their actions.  As this earned authority builds over time, the leader will take control of their own leadership legacy while distancing themselves from the negative impressions of leaders in general that was shaped by those high-profile leaders who betrayed the trust placed in them.  Over time their efforts will serve to establish them as a leader of character and integrity.

Serving as a leader in an emergency comm center requires that the individual entrusted with this responsibility understand that it is both a privilege and a responsibility.  A significant trust is placed on those entrusted to provide leadership to those who protect and serve others in their times of need.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

From the Chair: Dispatching is Simple - It's Just Not Easy!

Taken from 9-1-1 Magazine.com, 5/4/12
Written by Paul D. Bagley, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher, published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, past president of New Hampshire Dispatchers Association, editor and publisher of the association's monthly newsletter, "The NHEDA Broadcaster."

Among the fundamentals of emergency telecommunication is the ability to understand the basic elements inherent in each type of call.  Just as there are similarities that exist in any diverse collection of activities, emergency and non-emergency calls can be categorized, classified and organized.  It's a mathematical certainty that things will occur in virtually the same predictable pattern within each of them.  Doing the next most-logical thing makes a dispatcher indispensable; knowing what comes next is what makes that dispatcher a true professional.

Sometimes it helps to think of dispatching as though you're playing a board game.  In a game you need to know how each piece moves in order to be any good at it.  Also, like a game, knowing what comes next can often be the key to keeping the play orderly and organized.  Experience in The Chair is the most common technique for acquiring such understanding in dispatching, and it is certainly a tried-and-true method of acquiring knowledge.  It can also be the most demanding, dangerous and heartbreaking way of learning the ropes.  Difficult and complex dispatching situations confront all dispatchers, even those with limited training and experience.  How can they obtain the savvy to handle those calls without risk?  Simply stated:  they can't.

One age-old way of learning is known as the Socratic Method; self-learning through exploration, trial and error.  Law schools and medical schools use this method all the time.  Individuals who aspire to the demands of dispatch, and who eventually excel at it, are those who take the time and energy to learn the intricate elements of the job outside of a formal training setting.  From learning the topography of their jurisdiction to unraveling the jargon of field personnel, emergency dispatching calls for a dedication to learning that reaches far beyond any classroom.

The term "rehab" is used by fire and ambulance personnel, and it has nothing to do with fighting a fire and everything to do with looking out for the life and well-being of the firefighter or medic.  Walking around with an additional eighty to one hundred pounds of protective clothing is, in itself, a demanding chore.  Strap on a Scott Air-Pak and walk into a burning room where the mean temperature is well above the boiling point of water and it's easy to understand why firefighters sweat profusely.  Fighting a fire is a physically exhausting endeavor and dehydration is an anticipated result of the work.  This is why ambulances are routinely sent to active fire calls.  Providing firefighters with fresh drinking water during a much-needed time-out is often the key to firefighter survival.  This is "rehab."  For those fire departments that don't employ the automatic response of an ambulance to working structure fires, the wise dispatcher handling such calls should consider prompting the on-scene commander to call for a "bus" in order to safeguard the lives of those fighting the blaze.  In some jurisdictions, "bus" has become another colloquialism right out of the emergency responder's dictionary meaning ambulance.

Working The Chair during a hot police call involving a barricaded subject with a firearm requires knowledge and understanding of what the possible outcomes might be.  First and foremost are the life-safety issues; those involving the responding personnel and civilians who might be caught in harm's way.  Knowing the area around the building where the event is taking place isn't enough.  A good dispatcher needs to know the alternate routes available for field personnel to get to and from the call safely and what avenues of escape may exist for the bad guy.  Also, knowing where to stage an ambulance and fire apparatus is essential.  Why fire and ambulance to a police call?  Well, there's the obvious issue of a possible exchange of gunfire between the armed "perp" and the police (perp being a police-shortened version of the word perpetrator).  Gunfire often results in gunshot wounds.  The quicker such wounds are treated, the stronger the likelihood the victim will survive.  Whether it's bringing someone to justice or saving the life of a police officer of some civilian caught in the line of fire, having an ambulance nearby becomes a necessity, not a luxury.

What about the fire department?, I hear you ask.  Tear gas is a non-lethal option available to police in dealing with individuals who have only threatened violent behavior.  Lobbing tear gas through a window can extract the subject from the building while simultaneously protecting hostages that may be inside.  The problem is tear gas is an incendiary device and it will likely set the building on fire.  Having firefighters on hand before gas is used not only seems a prudent strategy; it could likely be considered a compulsory precaution for those in charge.  If a delayed response by a fire department results in extensive damage due to fire to adjacent structures or in injury to anyone other than the suspect, the civil law suits could go on seemingly forever.  Besides, it is comforting to have a B.R.T. (Big Red Truck) on scene to block roads or shield emergency workers from oncoming traffic.  Knowing such things dispatchers can be better prepared to plan for what happens next.

Handling any call is more than a reaction to a given stimulus.  It means that the initial assessment of that call is the key to the eventual outcome of it.  Dispatchers must conduct an assessment, evaluate the information available, know in advance the controlling policies and protocols, employ common sense based upon training and experience, and dispatch the call accordingly.  Certainly this isn't too much to ask, is it?  But, given the time constraints and the very nature of emergency calls, this is where the skill of the person in The Chair makes the difference.

Dispatching is certainly simple enough; dispatchers take information from one source and give it to another -- simple!  But anyone who has ever endured the rigors of a mutual-aid structure fire, an armed robbery in progress, or had to handle pre-arrival instructions of a full cardiac and respiratory arrest while simultaneously having to direct police, fire and ambulance personnel to the victim's location is painfully aware that there is nothing easy about it.

While field personnel concentrate their training on their specific calling, constantly narrowing their focus, emergency telecommunicators must broaden their training efforts to include anything that they might encounter on their watch.  In simple terms it means dispatchers must grown into being the true generalists of our society, becoming all things to all people - a lofty goal, if not an impossible one.  While telecommunicators might not need to know how to treat a sucking chest wound, they should know that it's a life threatening condition and that the  most probably cause was a bullet from a gun.  This means that a threat in the form of a sniper may exist to the medics being sent to such a call, so maybe it would be judicious to send along a significant contingent of police!

All the classroom training available within the entire field of emergency telecommunication cannot adequately prepare an individual for the rigors of a single shift in The Chair.  Seated at a console, working with a telephone, or handling a radio is like enduring a hangover; you can explain to others until you're blue in the face what it's like, but until they've experienced a hangover for themselves they have no idea what you're talking about.  But the shock and awe that accompanies that first solo shift in The Chair can be minimized by proper training and by exposing the newbie to the more common things they might expect to encounter.

We've all listened to commercial radio since as far back as we can remember.  ..But a radio that talks back -- that is interactive, so to speak -- that takes time to get used to.  Talking back to units in the field is easy; saying the right thing at the right time is something else.  Fortunately most dispatch centers don't toss fledglings into the deep end of the shark-infested pool until it's determined they possess the ability to swim.

Formal training provides emergency telecommunicators with the basic tools of our profession.  And let's be clear; dispatching has quickly grown to be a true profession.  A profession is defined as an endeavor where an ever-changing and ever-widening body of information, policies and procedures must be absorbed and employed by the practitioner toward the accomplishment of the stated objectives of that profession.  Just like doctors and lawyers, who must read and absorb constantly in order to practice their professions, dispatchers must do the same.  The array of topics to be studies includes every aspect of the human experience.  There isn't anything that man has done, can do, or will do, that isn't germane, and the more a dispatcher knows the more likely they will understand and handle each call in such a way that the outcome benefits all involved.

If there is a board game that teaches the rudiments of dispatching it is probably the game of chess.  Like dispatching, chess is a highly complex endeavor with an assortment of pieces each of which has a unique way of moving about the board.  Knowing how each piece moves and what potential each possesses is fundamental for the player.  Chess is strategic and, at the same time, tactical.  And, like dispatching, a strategy that isn't working may have to be abandoned for another based upon ever-changing and evolving circumstances.  Thinking several moves ahead of the play is how one wins at chess.  Thinking several moves ahead of the action in dispatch is how emergency telecommunicators save lives and property.  In competitive play, chess has time constraints, just like dispatch, and moves must be completed within specific increments of time.  Dispatching is a  timed activity as well; the clock is running form the instant the phone is picked up and the call for service is taken to the time when the field units finally clear from the scene and command is terminated.

Obviously some calls require quicker action; those in which lives and property are in immediate danger.  Again, like chess, the dispatcher needs to possess a sense of what prompts immediate action and what things can be placed on hold for a moment.  Where the game of chess differs with dispatching is in the moves themselves; each player, in turn, moves one piece at a time.  In emergency communications, dispatchers could be moving multiple units, in fact multiple departments, simultaneously.

A good chess player is one who can see the entire board and understand how the pieces interrelate.  The same is true for dispatch.  Being able to take a broader view of a given environment and see how seemingly incongruent elements fit together to create a single and discernible mosaic requires and intellectual individual who can think and understand in the abstract, but function properly within the confines of the practical.

Playing chess helps sharpen the senses and raise the consciousness of the player.  For this reason it is the ideal pastime for emergency telecommunicators.  For those who can't find an opponent of equal or superior skill, chess is one of the basic games included with Windows 7 software.  Unlike dispatching, you can even preset the level of difficulty when you're playing chess against the computer.

Even if dispatching remains just another job in the minds of those outside of it, for those of us on the inside it is truly a profession.  Because this is so, the practitioners have an obligation to engage in the age-old methods of raising their own standards in order to serve the demands of their profession.  Taking training classes, reading, riding along with field units, and learning as much as possible about the people and businesses to be served are all ways in which we improve.  Because the tasks of our profession are simple, the perception is that what we do is easy.  Those who've ever sat in The Chair know otherwise.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Poetry In Motion

Taken from Emergency Communications Proffesional Magazine, July 2010, Vol. 28/Number 5
Written by Greg Warner, dispatch manager of the Ada County Sheriff's Office in Boise, ID
Mr. Warner holds a Masters of Business Administration

As I instruct dispatchers in the area of leadership and watch them carry out their daily activities, I see a true characterization of the term "poetry in motion."  The casual bystander will quickly realize the intricate nature of the business: multiple monitors, keyboards, mice, programs, radio channels, etc., all used in a concert to aid and disseminate critical information.

They would also notice that dispatchers are a conscientious group, wanting nothing more than to do the right thing the best way possible.  One day while walking through the center, I noticed a dispatcher working on primary, standing at her elevated console and staring intently at the wall of monitors.  While passing, I noted nothing out of the ordinary: monitors with red and green lists of officers, electronic maps, phone system, etc.  Wanting to understand her fixation, I asked what she was looking at.  Her reply, without hesitation or changing her gaze, was "I am watching my officers."  Wow!  "Her" officers.  Before her shift would end that day, at least one of those officers would speak harshly to her, being caught up in the frustrations of their own day.  Yet they were "hers" to watch over and to protect.

A Dynamic Environment
Few people will ever understand the fascinating and subtle qualities that accompany this profession and its people.  Emergency dispatching is a dynamic environment where both processes and events are in a constant state of flux.  This condition requires that dispatchers have not only technical skills, but an ability to be "aware"...that is, to consciously know what is occurring in the center while simultaneously performing their individual duties.  Being sensitive to the environment ensures that the dispatcher has a complete and up-to-date understanding of every situation.  The practice of monitoring the room for relevant conversations is even more fascinating when considering that the dispatcher is only picking up bits of information from one-sided conversations.  There are times when dispatchers transition into reflective listening by repeating back to the caller what is being said, which helps determine content, but this skill tends to be the exception, not the rule.

Zero Reference
Although dispatcher awareness is a uniquely individual event, there appear to be elements that have direct association to team familiarity.  As dispatchers build close professional bonds, they begin to read one another.  The dispatcher develops both a conscious and subconscious ability to decode the distinctive characteristics and qualities of fellow team members.  They develop a proficiency in reading individual phrases, word structure, sentences, tone, voice inflection and, when possible, body language.  This relational connection becomes a zero reference for the dispatchers, enabling them to sense variability in each other.  In this case, the term "zero reference" is referring to the  natural equilibrium or what is considered normalcy in the team.  As change is perceived in the zero reference or norm, there is a heightened sense of awareness, improving the likelihood of detecting information during critical incidents.  Increased awareness is also influenced when dispatchers hear certain words or comments such as "clear the air" or verbal descriptions of weapons.  Emergency dispatching is a content rich environment, placing demands on a full spectrum of cognitive faculties.  As dispatchers mature, there seems to be a honing affect that sharpens their ability to filter out important information from a room filled with disconnected conversations.

The Need to Adapt
The distinctive nature of call taking compounds the complexity of awareness by imposing on the dispatcher the need to adapt for each transaction.  Every call brings with it a unique set of challenges which influences the call takers' approach for providing solutions.  Add in the urgent nature of the industry and the speed at which information becomes obsolete and we start to get a feel for how complicated life can become in the center.

Clearly, the extent to which dispatchers attain this skill is based on several internal and external influences.  The size and layout of the center can have a profound effect -- one man operations will differ from centers where telecommunicators are separated from radio dispatchers or the PSAP that does it all in the same room.  Additionally, jurisdictional population, call volume, call type and whether the center dispatches for fire, police or paramedics all play a role.  The art of being aware is truly a case where "necessity is the mother of invention."  Nevertheless, there is one dynamic, no matter the condition, which can increase or decrease the intensity of awareness -- harmony.  Because awareness is highly influenced by being in sync amid fellow dispatchers, a negative environment can deter the dispatcher's ability to read their surroundings.  Conversely, a positive atmosphere -- at least on a professional level -- will strengthen the dispatchers' ability to interpret center dynamics, enhancing their abilities to recognize key information.

Dispatcher Awareness
Once a dispatcher becomes aware, no matter how learned, it has an impact on every aspect of life.  Lost are the days when parents taught their children not to eavesdrop.  Dispatchers that become aware don't appear to be able to switch it on and off.  In social gatherings they will be fully engaged in conversation while scanning the room for items of interest.  One dispatcher expressed feelings of guilt while at dinner with his wife; he described having a conversation with her but focusing the vast majority of his attention on other conversations in the room.

The phenomenon of dispatcher awareness extends beyond center walls as is limited only to the degree which technology will allow the human senses to extend.  Oftentimes dispatchers will determine the urgency of response based on what is heard in the caller's voice or in the background, not by the words used.  Out of sheer necessity, dispatchers become master linguists, acquiring the innate ability to question and interpret for understanding.  They do this without the advantage of body language, where the vast majority of information is conveyed on a time scale measured in seconds.  Dispatchers sort through mixed messages, emotions, intentions, deception and background noise.  They then produce highly detailed information using the fewest words possible.  To acquire information, dispatchers will call on skills like word-smithing, voice tone and tempo to generate a coherent psychological understanding.  It is when these aptitudes are engaged that team members get an involuntary glimpse into the conversation, its urgency and content.

One night, a center received a 9-1-1 hang up and, as defined in policy, the dispatcher called the number back to ensure that all was well.  Right on cue, just like a million times before, the calling party declared a misdial.  Nonetheless, the dispatcher didn't feel right so he dispatched an officer, explaining that he had nothing more than a feeling.  The officer agreed to investigate based on the assumption.  Later, it was discovered that the caller's husband was at the residence but had a no-contact order.  He was pulling away from the curb with an alcohol level above the legal limit.

It should also be pointed out that awareness and familiarity are also vital to perform the duties of radio dispatching.  It is not unusual to have a guest listen to radio traffic and never really understand a word that is being said.  For the non-dispatcher it may come as a surprise to know that often the dispatcher does not understand every word being said either.  In many cases dispatchers will never meet a first responder face-to-face but they will become very familiar with them by voice, rhythms, tone, verbal habits, etc.  They become so familiar with individuals in the field that the partially jumbled sentence can still convey meaning.  To the dispatcher, a sequence of sounds and tempo can convey meaning such as: officer is on scene, checked out, clear, changing locations, or enroute with one, etc.  As with other positions in the center, this ability is learned over time through repetition and regular interactions.  However, the radio operators have an additional skill that aids them in deciphering what is being communicated in the field...predictability.  Often the sequence of audio exchanges is identical, giving the dispatcher the advantage of anticipating what is coming next.  Additionally, being attentive to what the responder is doing allows the dispatcher to think ahead about what the responder is likely to do next.

Reliance on Dispatcher Capabilities
In spite of all this, I hear some dispatchers express feelings of isolation.  Dispatchers somehow come to believe they are under-recognized and insignificant, but in this perception they error.  Considering the enormity of the public safety system(s), its personnel, equipment and training, it is interesting to note how much reliance is placed on dispatcher capabilities.  Most would agree that there is something validating, authentic and noble about performing a service that rarely attracts recognition.  The act of fulfilling a responsibility for altruistic reasons is not a sign of failure but a testament to what dispatchers are made of.

Ten Tips to Boost Retention And Reduce Turnover

Taken from Emergency Communications Professional Magazine, July 2010, Vol. 28/Number 5
Written by Kristyn Emenecker, Director of Solutions Marketing for Berint Systems (Melville, KY)

"How was work today?"  It's a question that echoes in homes all over the world at the end of every workday.  Let's say your response was a positive one.  You helped a co-worker find resolution to a reoccurring problem.  You were acknowledged for a successful outcome or completion of a big project.  Someone noticed your skills and reinforced how valuable you are to the team.   Time and time again, reducing employee turnover and boosting retention comes down to one thing -- the fact that people like and need to feel appreciated for a job well done.  To keep employees happy and content, this approach is applied to most lines of business, including public safety agencies.  Below are 10 simple tips that public safety  managers and supervisors can put into practice to help boost retention and reduce turnover in their public safety answering points (PSAPs).

#1: Start at the Beginning
Hire the right people for the job!  Many smaller PSAPs don't have access to dedicated human resources staff of professional recruiters, which can create challenges in finding strong candidates.  Making the right hiring decisions considerable improves your ability to maintain a strong staff, and reduces the likelihood that high turnover will be an issue.  Look around your center.  Who are your best performers?  Where did they come from?  Were they referrals from other staff?  Are they consistently from a certain organization, school or job fair?  Do your most dependable employees hold common skills or characteristics?  Identify the model that seems to work well and keep that in mind when you create job descriptions and seek candidates in the future.

#2: Communicate Constantly
Communication increases trust and decreases fear.  This is especially important in PSAP environments due to the stressful nature of the job.  Communication should span from the top down and from the bottom up.  Employees naturally communicate with each other, but sometimes need encouragement to communicate with superiors.  A transparent environment that provides open communication and encourages feedback from the frontline lets employees feel validated, useful and part of a larger cause or organization.

#3: Spell Out a Career Path
Share with your employees that you understand their career goals and passions.  By offering individual career planning, along with performance benchmarks and goals, you can help employees move from the mentality of "easily replaceable and necessary paycheck" to "passionately-pursued career."  Managers should take the time to find out the short- and long-term goals of those they manage.  For example, does your call taker want to become a dispatcher?  Or, perhaps they would like to eventually work in another area within the agency.  Are there opportunities to shadow specific colleagues in reward for good performance and as part of a long-term goal to learn that skill?  Are there management skills they'd like to learn?  Would they like to earn their ENP?  This doesn't mean you need a job opening available for them tomorrow.  Helping them work toward a goal by enhancing their skill set not only helps your agency, but also avoids the employee from looking for the "next step" somewhere else.

#4: Empower and Increase Accountability
Hire people who can make sound decisions and then give them the direction and freedom to do so.  Explain that with power comes responsibility.  Accountability is a positive thing -- it's a necessary trait for those who seek bigger and better things in life.  Of course, a manager shouldn't suddenly give employees more responsibility than they can handle.  A manager needs to gradually train and educate employees, as well as provide them with feedback on a regular basis.  Increasing accountability leads to empowerment and often to employees who stay with your organization.

Additionally, empowerment can be gained through access to information.  Leading PSAPs are leveraging quality assurance and other performance measures -- delivered in an online scorecard specific to each employee -- to help them feel in control of where they stand and what they can do better.  Measurements like speed to entry, call review score and schedule adherence are compared to individual goals, as well as to the average for the rest of their shift or team.  This helps engage in healthy competition and focuses on them achieving excellence, while avoiding surprises at review time.

#5: Provide Leadership Training for Supervisors, Team Leaders and Other Frontline Managers
Those responsible for the day-to-day management of and interaction with your call takers and dispatchers are often the biggest influences on employee retention and morale.  These special individuals need to fully understand and embrace a culture of communication, positive reinforcement, coaching and development.  Supervisors are often moved into a leadership role because they were "super dispatchers."  This means they understand the job their employees are doing, but not necessarily how to develop the skills that may have come naturally to them when the role was reversed.  Good coaching is a learned skill.  Where there are weak supervisors, there is high turnover.  Thankfully, quality assurance and training tools can help make feedback and guidance a seamless part of daily operations.  They provide out-of-the-box workflows for scheduling, delivering and tracking telecommunicator coaching.  Great training courses are available as well, and even a book or two focused on improving business can provide a great start.  Supervisors must not ignore employee communication -- it is much too important to leave to instinct and intentions alone.

#6: Purposefully Plan to Celebrate Success
The "purposeful" nature of this tip is important.  Some celebrations just happen, but this needs to be done regularly, celebrating both individual accomplishments and team successes.  These victories must be varied -- if only one type of success is celebrated, you run the risk of only a few people being repeatedly recognized, which can defeat the goal.  Be specific.  "Shelly did a great job yesterday of maintaining composure with a very emotional caller.  I'd like everyone to take a moment and listen to the conversation."  In another example, "Gina handled one of the most chaotic hours on dispatching we've seen in a while, and kept a cool and clear head throughout.  Fantastic job!"  Find a way to incorporate genuine appreciation and recognition into your day on a regular basis.  You don't always have to acknowledge one certain trait or skill, which leads to the next tip.

#7: Recognize Diverse Conributions
The term "one size fits all" doesn't apply to call takers in a PSAP.  Maintaining consistency is a critical component of good dispatching and call taking.  It's also important to realize that no two people are exactly alike or will find success in the same way.  Allowing for individual recognition creates an environment that is conducive to success.  For example, one telecommunicator may excel at providing comfort to distraught callers, while another is efficient and precise and has the highest speed-to-entry.  Both are important and can learn from one another.  Each employee needs to be recognized for their unique contribution.

#8: Provide a Mission
Those working in the PSAP need to fully understand the life and death nature of the business, and the way in which calls are managed should be taken seriously.  We sometimes take for granted the mission is assumed, but it is easy to get trapped into the daily grind and forget the all too important role of helping citizens during emergency situations.  It is the responsibility of the manager to communicate how individual roles impact the big picture, giving call takers a sense of being a part of something larger than themselves.  Their actions could potentially change the course of people's lives, making them everyday heroes -- and this cannot be stressed enough.

#9: Acknowledge Them from the Ivory Tower
Senior-level acknowledgement, no matter how small, goes a long way.  Again, this doesn't always "just happen," even with the best of intentions.  Identify a course of action or plan for agency directors, elected officials or another member of senior management to offer regular recognition, reinforcing a sense of pride and accomplishment to respective employees.  For example, supervisors or PSAP managers can select exemplary calls each  month and e-mail a copy of the recording to senior officials.  In acknowledgement of his/her appreciation, a senior official can then send a brief note to the call taker or dispatcher who handled the conversation to reinforce a job well done.  Another option is to invite your VIP for an onsite visit and acknowledge the good work of your employees.  Finally, remember to nominate your deserving call takers or dispatchers for any organization accolades such as NENA's "William E. Stanton Award" or the E9-1-1 Institute's "Call Taker/Dispatcher of the Year" award.

#10: Institute Exit Interviews and Apply the Findings
Upon notice that an individual is leaving your agency, schedule an exit interview to discuss the reasons behind the person's departure.  This is a great opportunity to obtain constructive feedback.  Don't let this information sit idle.  Apply the findings so the organization can improve as an employer.

The more employees feel that great sense of accomplishment, the more they want to earn it again.  Tips like these are quick to implement, and can help your PSAP boost retention and curb turnover in one of the most important and rewarding careers in the industry.