9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

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.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Just One More Thing

The phone's too slow, so said the chief;
With radio cars, we'll catch the thief.
Not many cars, just one or two,
One little thing for Dispatch to do...

Then came the thought of the radio log;
Hey, that's modern, we're going whole hog.
They're sitting there anyway, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

A new phone system, not tin cans and string;
Five business lines, a push-button thing.
We had phones before, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

We'll put in a window, the public to face;
We'll put it right here, in the radio place.
They're here already, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Ambulance, hospital and ALS;
Med-Com's the thing to handle this mess.
Same spot at the desk, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Add aircraft and fire and call us Control;
While we're at it, add Doggie Patrol.
Same console and chair, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Add motors, the Narcs, and quite a few pagers;
All kinds of traffic, both minor and major.
We've radio already, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Another phone board, one hundred lines;
We need them all to keep up with the times.
We had phones before so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

The public's in peril, help must come quick;
Add 9-1-1, there, that's the trick.
One phone's like the rest, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

We need to control this social unrest;
Here's the thing, let's add OES.
Same building and staff, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

The bureau's too busy to answer the phone;
Call-forward to Dispatch, they're always home.
Same number and phone, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Have booking clear warrants?  You must be insane!
Have Dispatch do it, they're best at this game.
Same terminal, same system, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

We need better stats to get more cops;
Run more suspects, more traffic stops.
They know how already, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

We must have more info to help catch the crooks;
Another computer to balance the books.
Like the other computer, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

A citizen wonders; What took so long?
Time all responses, we can't go wrong.
They're in there already, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

The budget's a mess, we must cut back;
Fill vacant positions?  That's out of whack.
If three are needed, then two will do,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Breaks for lunches, coffee or stretch?
Stay at the console you miserable wretch!
Never took them before, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

Re-type BOLOs to send to and fro;
No money for printers.  Where did it go?
They know how to type, so it's nothing new,
Just one more thing for Dispatch to do...

No one sees the frustration, pressure and stress;
But everyone adds their bit to the mess.
When your back's to the wall, a question to ponder,
Is Dispatch too busy to get help out yonder?

Written by Fred Mills
Cal Poly State University
Dept of Public Safety
San Luis Obispa, CA

Saturday, August 11, 2012

CIT Training: Telecommunicators Need it Now

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2012
Written by Kelly M. Sharp, 9-1-1 training officer and dispatcher for 18 years.  She holds a master's degree in education and is on the part-time faculty at Portland Community College's Emergency Telecommunicator/911 Dispatcher program

No matter how good a calltaker you are, dealing with a mentally ill caller can be frustrating.  How do you help people when you have no idea how to relate to them?  What do you say to someone who believes he lives on a different planet, where the sky is purple and the grass is orange?  What do you tell the family member who is begging for her mentally ill child to be "sent somewhere safe?"  What about the caller who isn't necessarily suicidal but feels life just isn't worth living?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in four people has some kind of mental disorder.  These are the people at the grocery store, school, across the street or sitting next to you.  For most, mental illness is no different than any medical problem.  Sufferers follow a treatment plan, take their medications and function just fine.  They have good jobs, great home lives and happy families.  Some, however, have no access to care or can't follow a treatment plan.  They are the ones who can complicate the job of emergency services.

Once upon a time, those who were severely mentally ill were rounded up and dumped into institutions.  Obviously, this was not the best or most compassionate option.  In the 1960s, society demanded that the mentally ill be treated more humanely, and the focus changed to providing a community-based setting where the mentally ill could be offered both their freedom and the care they needed.

At first, it seemed like a great idea and mental hospital admittance dropped 35% within five years.  The problem was that funding for this grand idea came from the government.  When the money ran out, the institutions were closed and the patients were either sent home to families who had no idea how to care for them or cast off onto the street.  For many, 9-1-1 became the only option for help.

Often, callers are looking for guidance rather than solutions.  The dad who has a bipolar daughter doesn't want you to cure her mental illness.  He may just want suggestions on who he can contact to get her into some kind of program.  The chronically depressed man who has called 11 times today may not want to go to the hospital again; he just wants someone he can talk to about how he's feeling.  The wife of the man suffering from PTSD may be more afraid of how the police will treat her husband when they arrive than if he will hurt her.

The challenge for calltakers is that 9-1-1 training usually revolves around handling calls that need police, fire or medical -- not counseling.  The focus is on responder and citizen safety, not on talking with someone who has a green Martian in her living room.  When those calls come in, even the best calltaker can struggle with what they should do next.

Law enforcement agencies have come up with a possible solution, Crisis Intervention Teams (CIT), and CIT training is popping up across the nation.

CIT training is designed to help officers understand the unique challenges that come with mental illness.  A week-long class, the program focuses on understanding what mental illness is and how it affects individuals and their families, and introduces them to available resources.  Presentations by those who suffer from mental illness, have a loved one who does or are in the business of treating the mentally ill help demystify the disease.  Through role-playing and scenarios, students are taught to de-escalate situations with those who are agitated, reason with those who cannot understand and work with those who feel life is nothing but pain.  Officers finish the program with discussions of legal issues and officer safety.  Those who attend the class say it completely changes how they interact with people with mental illnesses.

Most CIT programs are designed primarily for law enforcement officers who arrive long after the call begins.  Wouldn't it make sense to provide that type of training to those who are a part of the conversation from the beginning?  How the calltaker handles the 9-1-1 call can set the stage for how the mentally ill person reacts when police arrive.  Providing calltakers with training helps create a safer environment for responders and could possibly lead to a solution so a response is not required at all.

Former dispatcher Courtney Janes, now a mental health provider with the Law Liaison Project in Tarrant County, Texas, is a CIT instructor for law enforcement and telecommunicators.  She says that often, the mentally ill are looking for help not for police or rescue.  "Most of them don't want the police to come," Janes says.  "Most of them are calling because this is the only number they know where they will get a live person who has to talk to them.  They want to be heard."

Janes acknowledges that asking for dispatchers to attend yet another training class may be a hard sell.  But she points out that by attending CIT training, calltakers can learn how to more effectively handle these callers, get them off the phone faster and possibly keep them from calling again.  "They can be the most difficult calls to take, especially if you don't have a background in mental health," she says.  "It's going to help you assess the risk [and] the mental health issue and [determine] the best course of action."

Telecommunicators trained in the unique challenges of dealing with the mentally ill provide a huge officer safety benefit.  Without CIT training, telecommunicators must guess the level of threat the caller poses.  Does she just want to vent about the armed green Martians in the living room, or does she want to shoot her roommate for letting the green Martians into the living room in the first place?  Is this going to be a welfare check or a potential homicide?

Although both scenarios will require a police response, only one may need it code three.  Do you know how to reason with someone raving about green Martians?  With CIT training, "you can defuse the crisis so the officer is less likely to get hurt," Janes says.

"To me, [training is] a huge officer safety issue," says Janes.  "As a dispatcher I need to recognize the symptoms of [a mental health crisis].  I need to know what somebody sounds like when they're manic.  I need to know what somebody sounds like when they are psychotic.  I need to know what somebody sounds like when they are depressed.  And I need to be able to talk to them to get the best information possible."

Getting good information and using it to defuse the situation are the main points of CIT training.  If you can get the caller to calm down long enough to talk, then you can provide first responders with an accurate picture of what's happening on scene.  If officers know they are responding to a bipolar female who is alternately crying and raging while she is screaming at her roommate for letting in the Martians, they may use a different set of tactics than they would for another disturbance.

Handling calls from those in the throes of a mental illness can also be frustrating because it can be difficult to get them to cooperate.  Are they intentionally ignoring you or are you being drowned out by all the other voices?  What do you do with someone who is hallucinating?  How do you calm someone who is paranoid?  CIT training can teach how to look for signs and symptoms to choose the best course of action to communicate effectively.

Sometimes it's as simple as finding a different way to ask questions.  Take the caller who is severely depressed and won't answer you.  It could be that instead of being uncooperative, he is just overwhelmed by the rapid-fire questioning techniques used by many calltakers.  A CIT-trained calltaker can adapt their questioning techniques to get the necessary answers and provide a clearer picture to the officer.  This, in turn, can lead to a better outcome for everyone.

As the benefits of CIT training become better known, more families and people with mental illnesses are asking specifically for CIT officers to respond -- and the results have been encouraging.  But those on the front lines also need the training so they can set the tone from the minute they pick up the phone for what the officers will find when they arrive on scene.

Local law enforcement agencies already provide CIT training to their officers.  Telecommunicators may not need the entire 40-hour police program but could attend the sections that apply to both law enforcement and 9-1-1.

No local training in  your area?  No problem.  The National Alliance on Mental Illness website offers a CIT Advocacy Toolkit designed to help NAMI state organizations and affiliates, law enforcement agencies and mental health providers advocate for CIT in their communities.  This site contains information on everything from how to start a program to where to find grants to fund it.

Look for a trainer who charges a set rate for a class rather than by the number of attendees.  You may be able to recoup some of the costs by hosting the training for other local agencies to attend.

Janes says, "My job is to keep the officer safe.  So that's why I want to go to as much training as I can so I know what I am dealing with."  Offering CIT training to all calltakers and dispatchers can help make that happen.

Staffing Crisis: Best Ways to Keep Who You Have

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2012
Written by Stacy Cotter, the quality assurance/training supervisor for Bradford County Emergency Services in Trowanda Pa.

One never knows what to expect when starting a shift as a 9-1-1 dispatcher/telecommunicator.  All that's guaranteed is that you will be in a room for eight to 12 hours and your actions will either help or hinder the general public and your responders.  You need to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for this line of work.  What happens if you have a staff member who can't keep up, struggles with day-to-day activity and eventually leaves or is asked to leave?  You may ask yourself, "What did I miss, and how can I keep this from happening again?"

Reliable staff can be hard to find.  So when you're at the bare minimal staffing numbers, do you have your own emergency?

Several studies have shown that many 9-1-1 centers in the U.S. are short staffed or not operating at full capacity.  Because this line of work is dependant on so many variables, would you describe this as a crisis?

Dictionary.com defines crisis as "a stage in a sequence of events at which the trend of all future events, especially for the better or for worse, is determined; turning point."

We don't have a crystal ball (which I remind responders of quite often), so how can you tell what future events -- for better or for worse -- can cripple your infrastructure and leave you with empty chairs?

Every center is different and may not have the same problems as the next.  So how do you know what issues need to be addressed to keep your staff?  Having input from your employees is one sure way to find out what's plaguing your center.  Some common complaints are money, stress, equipment, field units, the public and training.

With these complaints in mind, how would you address and correct them?

No matter where you live and work, you know a "complainer," either a field unit or a citizen at large.  The complainer has nothing better to do than to nitpick and criticize.  When the dispatchers have to deal with someone like that, what are they thinking during the call?  "Is my job really worth this kind of abuse?"  Many believe that it's not, and after the poking and prodding, they're gone, unable to handle the undue pressure of the job.

Have you ever heard of the "300 syndrome"?  It's when you become complacent and may miss an incident that is a true emergency or you've taken so many barking dog complaints that you sort of freeze when it's something big.  I'll admit it happened to me, shook me to my very core.  So what are we doing about employees who are having this happen to them?

Stress can cause a slew of problems for the employee and the employer.  Increased sick time and lack of respect can run rampant and spin your center out of control.  That in turn can cause friction in the comm room and it's downhill from there.

It's time to put the employee's needs up toward the top of our priority lists.  How do you keep who you have without using additional finances?

We need to find some sort of a release.  I'm thinking of getting a punching bag for the corner of our center.  That way when a stressful or just plain dumb call is over we have a place to vent and burn off some calories at the same time.

Recognition is important.  Everyone wants to hear that they're doing a good job.  It should never be taken for granted in an environment that is based on chaos and uncertainty.  Start with personally telling your staff that they are doing a great job (if they truly are).  Maybe have the superiors buy a lunch/dinner for shifts as a way of saying thank you.  Any type of positive reinforcement can bring about good things.

Time to create a battle plan.  Consider the future of your center and consider it a war zone.  Not in a negative way.  There will always be ups and downs.  You need to come up with a way to combat or minimize them for your staff.  Look over your SOPs and see if they need to be amended to suit your needs now.

Every phone call is bringing new and more puzzling challenges to your staff.  From new drugs on the streets to more violent crim due to increased unemployment or increased population.  Try to stay current with the trends that are happening all around you.  Look for training to be done either in house or close by and start sending your staff to the sessions.  Have a particular problem that's common to your area?  Make up your own training.  Offer it to the public if it is appropriate.

Let the public know what changes have been made in your center and what challenges you face.  Allow them a glimpse of what your job entails.  This will lead to a better understanding and, hopefully, more respect from them in the future, which in turn will lead to a more satisfied workforce.

The Telecommunicator's Quest for Respect

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2012
Written by Brian Brown, who has one year of dispatch experience and works for Currituck County Communications in Currituck, N.C.

"If you paln on being an officer, don't take that job at dispatch; they'll never respect you."  It is only now, as I devote my workdays to fielding both tedious and exciting calls for service from the public, all while handling radio traffic from field units who may not realize or may not care that I'm doing three or four other things while trying to answer them, do I truly understand the sentiment behind that statement I heard years ago.  As a young college student, working on a degree in criminal justice, I couldn't fathom that people who were supposed to all be on the same side wouldn't have basic professional respect for each other.  I just took it for granted that we all chose the field to help society and that this would create a common bond among us.  Of course, as we all know, this is not always the case.

I've been a telecommunicator for just shy of one year now.  As someone who always planned to be on the other side of the radio, sitting at a desk answering the phones and manning the radio simply seemed like a stepping stone to bigger, better things when I applied for the job.  Fresh out of college with a B.S. in criminal justice, I wanted to be in the field, and if dispatch was my foot in the door, so be it.  What is interesting to point out here is that in all my studies of the system, dispatch is the one topic which I can honestly say was never, ever addressed.  No time was spent pointing out that when we put on the badge one day and started taking calls that we were going to be the second responder.  There was no praise for that individual who I now realize is the "first first responder," as we like to call ourselves, no acknowledgement that it takes a special kind of person to do what we do.  The concept of communications was never addressed in classes that claimed to offer a comprehensive overview of policing.  This just goes to show that even those who work in the field of public safety are uneducated when it comes to what goes on in the communications center.

Unfortunately, lack of education is not the only catalyst when it comes to the lack of respect for telecommunicators in general.  The media is the primary culprit in generating didain for not only dispatchers, but for police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, and any number of other public service officials.  We all know the reason why: Happy stories don't generate ratings. 

More often than not you won't hear about the dispatcher who gave lifesaving CPR instructions to the man who found his wife unconscious in their living room.  Instead, major media outlets will run the audio clip of the dispatcher who gets short and snappy with a caller having problems with their child, all the while leaving out that their producers cut out bits of the tape so that you, the shocked and horrifiedd public, won't hear the fire call and traffic stops the dispatcher was trying to juggle at the same time.

This is certainly not to say that negligence or poor customer service should be ignored in our line of work; the fact of the matter is that it cannot be overlooked.  But if our mistakes are newsworthy, why shouldn't our triumphs be as well?  In a world where a celebrity's choice of outfit for their trip to the grocery store is the makings of a front page headline, why not give a small bit of recognition to those who society relies on to answer their frantic calls for help?

Another sad fact is that the media is given significant ammunition by the varying standards of training required in various locales to be a telecommunicator.  For example, we all know EMD to be a key tool in our professions, both to aid the public and to protect ourselves from liability.  Unfortunately, this was a foreign concept to me when I started dispatching: in all the times I had called 9-1-1 in my life to request an ambulance, I had never been asked a series of medical questions.  To the best of my knowledge, that 9-1-1 center where I used to live still doesn't perform EMD -- a fact that makes me cringe when I think about family and friends there needing to call for medical help.

When it comes down to it, we all know how it is.  You have some field units who are great to work with, friendly and competent.  They make the shift go by smoothly even in the worst of situations.  And then there are those who act as if we're a bother to them, simply another required nuisance to be dealt with in the performance of their duties.  They can't imagine that your job is as difficult or important as theirs, albeit in different ways.  And forget about trying to change their mind, because we all know that when field units come to visit the dispatch center nothing will happen anywhere in your jurisdiction to give you the chance to show off for them.  They don't realize that when they walk out the door the phones may very well light up and send the center into a frenzy of controlled chaos.

I never did accept that job at 9-1-1 while I was in college.  Fortunately, it wasn't due to the comment that was made about officers not respecting me; it just didn't work out with my class schedule at the time.  But I never forgot what was said to me, and it wasn't until sometime last year after my training officer cut me loose and I really got down to it that I truly understood what that friend meant.  I really doubt she even understood the dynamic behind the lack of trust and respect in the relationship between responders and dispatchers, she was just commenting on an accepted fact of how things work.

I've come to believe you can't understand this job until you do it, nor will you have the level of respect for dispatchers that they deserve until you are one of them.  Even our family and friends don't quite understand, although they know our job is important.

At the end of the day, it's okay that nobody gets it.  While the rest of the world heads off to the office, we're probably just getting off duty, trying not to think about some of the things we heard at work, and knowing that the system cannot function without us.  The past year of my life has made me realize that being out in the field and visible to the public isn't a necessity when it comes to making a difference in someone's day, if not their life.  What really matters is being there, whether in person or on the phone, in that moment when you have a real chance to help someone get through a tough situation.

One thing is certain: Regardless of where my career takes me, either further in communications or perhaps out into the field someday, I'll always have true respect for those individuals who ride the often thankless, emotional rollercoaster that is 9-1-1.

Co-worker Erin Peaden says..."The newcomers are always intrigued the first few days and sometimes even overwhelmed with what they see and hear.  At first taken back by all the computer screens and the buttons on the radios, they are under the impression that this could be a fairly sophisticated secretarial job and that answering phones and just listening to people on the radio is fairly easy...About the time they see their new colleagues in action, the respect for the job of a telecommunicator starts to form."

Co-worker Shana McReynolds says..."I applied for this job because I wanted to help people every day.  I stayed because I know it is my callling.  In the end, the respect that has the most impact on me is the respect that I have for what I do and the people I work so closely with, my fellow telecommunicators.  I learned you have to earn respect.  Just like anything worth working for in life, it isn't easy.  You have to give respect in order to receive it."