9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

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.

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