9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Showing Team Members That They Matter

Taken from Public Safety Communications, an APCO International Publication, December 18, 2013
Written by Cindra Dunaway, 9-1-1 dispatcher for the Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office.  Contact her via email at cdunaway@sheriffleefl.org

I've wanted to write about the turnover in comm centers for a long time.  No matter where you go across the country, one of the biggest complaints you'll hear is how hard it is to keep competent people in the call center.  The reason I've stayed away from the subject for as long as I have is that I honestly didn't think that I could offer a workable solution -- the holy grail of communications.

Our center offers a cash incentive to communications personnel as long as they continue to work in the center.  They also ask that you sign a two-year commitment to the center so that you're unable to transfer out to another division during that timeframe.  This serves to dissuade people from using communications as a stepping stone for a career at the department.  However, commitments and incentives don't seem to make a difference to a lot of people.

In fact, my center has been going through a mass exodus for the last several months.  It seems like this is a trend that is occurring in centers across the country.  This got me wondering, why?  Why is everyone leaving?  What, if anything, can be done to help minimize the turnover?  Does everyone offer exit interviews at their department?  If you do, do you encourage people to be honest and use the results to improve your division?  Many times I've heard people asked whether they spoke honestly in an exit interview, and many times I've heard them reply that they didn't feel that it would make a difference.  It was just easier to say "Thanks for the opportunity," and move on.

Recently our traffic division sent a letter to our director that thanked the staff for our patience with all of their traffic ops (which they do one once a week).  They acknowledged the amount of extra radio traffic that goes into our already busy days and wanted to recognize our professionalism and say "thank you!"  Just a small gesture, but recognition like that from a peer can go a long way.

I tell you that anecdote in order to ask you this: Do you appreciate your employees?  Do you spend time in your center getting to know your folks?  I have written about getting along and supporting each other, as well as gossip, bullying in the workplace and supervisors getting to know their subordinates.  And I started to realize that maybe the answer could lie in one, if not all, of these articles.

In all of the people I've trained in my 20 years, I've only had one tell me that the responsibility of calltaking and dispatching was too overwhelming for her.  So managers ask yourself, what's the percentage of people leaving to pursue another career, relocate or retire?

Why are people leaving?  I've heard some say it's the shift work, but I have to wonder how true that is when they knew about the hours from the get-go.  Instead, it has to be a combination of things and it's just easier for them to say it's the hours.

Sure, the hours can be hard on the body and family life, but if they were the one thing that was an issue and you loved everything else about your career, would you still leave?  I assume that most people wouldn't.  Instead, I think that deep down people want to feel valued.  They want to know what they do makes a difference, especially in our line of work, where being financially compensated is low on the list of "Why I work in public safety" for most people.

So I'd like to ask you: How do you take care of your employees?  Do you know them?  Do you let them shine?  Do you praise them as well as discipline them?  Are you there for the bad calls, ready to lift them up, shake their hands, or pat them on the back?  Do you remember them when they're working holidays while you're home with your family?

A lot of us old-timers came from a time when the thought was that you had to sink or swim; I like to refer to that time period as the school of hard knocks.  But times are changing.  Our careers are so specialized that you can't just throw anyone in our chairs anymore.  The length of time it takes these days to develop a well-trained and accomplished 9-1-1 professional goes far beyond showing them where the phone and radios are.

So how do we keep these valuable team members in the center?  Show them you care about them and let them know how important their job is.  The more you're involved in what's going on in your center, the less likely you'll be blindsided when someone turns in their letter of resignation.

As one of my favorite supervisors used to say, "Perception is everything."  And if the perception is that administration doesn't care or understand them then it becomes more difficult to retain an employee.  Look at it as investing in your team -- those few extra minutes of your time will be worth it.  You can also look at it this way: If you have happy and loyal employees then they will do their jobs well, and a job well done reflects positively on you and your center.  Then hopefully you'll have a roomful of seasoned veterans that you can be proud of.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Coordinating Crisis Communications: SWAT & Tactical Dispatching

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2013
Written by Christine Massengale, training and quality assurance specialist at Hamilton County 9-1-1 Emergency Communications District in Chattanooga, Ten.  Contact her at burke_c@hc911.org

The number one duty of an emergency telecommunicator is to protect the public safety at any cost, and this responsibility is never more crucial than during periods of heightened response: active-shooter or hostage incidents, terrorist attacks, natural disasters, even planned events that occur on a large scale.  The heroic actions of police and firefighters grab headlines, and behind every one of them is a telecommunicator who makes sure that information gets to where it is needed most.

This article examines the roles and responsibilities of dispatchers for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or tactical incidents in both main center operations and field-deployment situations.  It also looks at the benefits and challenges of forming a specialized SWAT or tactical dispatch team based on agency size and the levels of response and training required by the field responders supported by the agency.

There are a number of training and response options, including mutual aid and regional response teams, for smaller agencies with low call frequency.  Any agency might someday face a high-risk, large-scale incident, and such an incident could overwhelm the agency's available resources if it is caught unprepared.

How do a telecommunicator's daily roles and responsibilities differ from the response needed to properly manage crisis incidents or even planned large-scale events such as parades or conventions?

In the broadest strokes, a telecommunicator's essential duty is to gather information in order to better prioritize, allocate and manage resources.  It is then the telecommunicator's responsibility to document that activity.  A dispatcher for SWAT or tactical forces performs those same tasks, only with greater nuance and in close coordination with the incident commander or SWAT team leader.

Some responsibilities, such as allocating and managing resources, may rest more heavily with the on-scene commander, while documenting and tracking resources may become a heightened priority for the dispatcher.  A tactical dispatcher deployed to the field has even greater responsibility, as he or she will often become an indispensable resource for the incident commander and a critical point of contact between the command post and the comm center.

SWAT teams provide a specially trained law enforcement response to incidents and events outside the normal scope of daily patrol operations.  Beyond the high-profile incidents such as barricaded gunmen, hostage situations, high-risk warrant service and riot control, SWAT also provides dignitary protection details, security planning and response to large-scale planned events, and specialized patrol functions such as directed patrol, crime suppression and even search and rescue.

The application, selection and training process for SWAT teams is rigorous, and typically requires additional training in first aid, explosives, K-9 handling, urban search and rescue, sharp shooting and other skills.  Depending on location and agency size, different skillsets are parsed out among different divisions or even entire agencies, meaning there are a variety of specialists, and no one person is expert in everything.

A dedicated SWAT team is an expensive luxury that requires vast resources.  Many agencies in rural and suburban areas are unable to justify the cost of compiling and maintaining such a team.  Often, smaller agencies rely solely on their patrol officers to respond to exceptional incidents.  Those patrol officers must prepare and train to ramp up response during times of crisis, even if it is a once-in-a-career situation.

Whether crisis incidents are handled by dedicated SWAT teams or trained patrol officers, they all have one thing in common: a telecommunicator is always involved.  Thus, it only makes sense to include communications in any specialized training and response planning.

What is the difference between SWAT dispatching and tactical dispatching?

On the surface, the difference seems obvious -- SWAT dispatch indicates assignment to handling a SWAT call, and tactical dispatch is all other heightened situations, right?  Yes and no.

No national standard exists to define a dispatcher or telecommunicator, and similarly there is no single definition for a SWAT or tactical dispatcher.  In the absence of a standard to define the training, selection process and credentials necessary, each agency is left to tailor its response to meet the specific needs of the area it serves.

Generally speaking, a SWAT dispatcher is specially trained to handle the needs of a SWAT-level law enforcement response, but a tactical dispatcher is trained to handle a variety of specialized responses to a variety of situations, including but not limited to SWAT calls.  These requests might be for high-profile or prolonged law enforcement cases, search and rescue, large fires and planned events.

We know that not every agency has the luxury of -- or need for -- a SWAT team, so it is not likely that every agency will have a specifically trained SWAT or tactical dispatch team.  However, any law enforcement officer may find him or herself responding to a situation that requires a SWAT-level response, just as any telecommunicator may find him or herself providing SWAT or tactical-level dispatching, without the benefits of specific training, selection or credentials.  This means the response must be handled as well as possible, whether or not the employee is equipped and trained to deal with it.

The more advanced and better-trained team is not always the most readily available option anyway.  Incidents unfold rapidly, so sometimes a response team isn't assembled until after casualties are amassed.  This unfortunate fact was never more evident than after the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colo.  Responding law enforcement agencies were criticized for setting up a perimeter and relying on SWAT response rather than a rapid entry team.  The best option is often the most immediately available option -- the one that stops the threat first.

Columbine highlighted the need for more advanced training and different tactics at the patrol level for incidents such as an active-shooter response.  That shooting also highlighted the fact that these events don't always happen when the most highly trained and experienced personnel -- including the telecommunicators -- are ready and in position.  This does not mean every patrol officer should be trained to the same level as a SWAT officer, it simply means that every patrol officer should be better prepared to deal with the initial response to extraordinary incidents and events.  It also means that communications agencies must consider the level of training they provide to line-level telecommunicators, as they are the first response to such incidents.

Whether or not they have formal tactical dispatch teams, agencies should consider providing all telecommunicators with some formal training to respond to exceptional incidents and events.  Almost every telecommunicator has filled the role of a tactical dispatcher at one time or another -- from natural disasters to man-made incidents and planned events, any telecommunicator who has worked through localized flooding or storm damage, a multiple-alarm fire or a structure collapse, a parade or county fair has responded to some of the challenges and demands that a tactical dispatcher faces.  Whether handling calls for a specific discipline (police, fire or EMS) or across all disciplines, each calltaker and dispatcher will experience something extraordinary given enough time.

It's not a matter of if a large-scale incident will occur, but when, and knowing this can help agency administrators determine how to prepare telecommunicators to best respond based on agency size, call load and needs of the service area.  For some, a dedicated team of SWAT or tactical dispatchers is the best answer.  Others will decide to provide a higher level of response training to all telecommunicators.  To draw from the old military adage, two is one, and one is none -- if you don't have enough members to form a true team that can respond when needed, then you don't have a team.

What makes being on a SWAT or tactical dispatch team different from simply handling incidents and events with standard protocol as they happen?

As a member of a specialized team, the required skills and competence levels are structured and evaluated.  Response isn't based on the line-level employee's ability to react as each incident is encountered.  Proactive, formal training gives employees the confidence and competence to take their response to a higher level.  Just as a police officer works the street before becoming a member of the SWAT team, and must be a member of the SWAT team before becoming a sniper, skill levels for the telecommunicator are similarly built.  Being involved in a shoot-out does not qualify an officer to then be the sniper on the SWAT team any more than handling a shoot-out as a telecommunicator then makes them a SWAT/tactical dispatch team member.

The agency must decide on team selection criteria -- measurements of experience and skills -- such as tenure and written or oral testing.  Some agencies require that dispatchers participate in physical agility testing and tactical-level training with local law enforcement.

Preparing employees to properly respond, and deciding what level of response to provide, is ultimately the agency's responsibility, as is training and coordination with field responders.  The first step is for agency management to decide if and how a team is formed; the second step is to decide how and where that team is to respond.  If the team is required to respond to incidents on-scene, then the third step is to train and equip them for the specific challenges associated with field deployment.  They must train the way they are expected to work, so they will work the way they have been trained.

Mike Williams, retired deputy chief of the Chattanooga Police Department, says the training process must not take place in a vacuum.

"Just like any other team effort, all parts of the organization should train with the other respective parts of the entity in a realistic, real-time training environment to simulate an actual operation," Williams says.  "It makes no sense to expect people to work hand-in-glove during a crisis when they have never trained together prior to the event."

There are three basic tiers of response in telecommunications, and the level of response typically depends on the size of the agency.  The first tier of response is handling the incident at the primary console on the primary talkgroup for the response agency.  This is the most likely level of response that a one or two-person console agency can reasonably provide.

The second tier of response moves the incident to a secondary channel or talkgroup, and assigns another telecommunicator to handle the incident as his or her primary duty.  There may be protocol in place to consciously assign a more experienced telecommunicator to the incident, but this could present some challenges with other employees feeling usurped of their duty or deprived of valuable experience.

The third tier of response is most applicable to larger agencies and requires a formally designated or pre-determined response team based on regional or mutual-aid agreements (especially for smaller agencies that work well together).  This level of response involves sending a telecommunicator into the field to coordinate face-to-face with the incident commander at a command post.  It may also include assignment to an emergency operations center (EOC) or liaison position.

The level of response an agency can provide depends not only on agency size, but also on call load and personnel.  Even the smallest agency may determine that it can send personnel into the field if call-out situations are very infrequent -- it is simply a matter of logistics in availability, scheduling and back-filling positions.

Smaller agencies may be able to coordinate a regional response team within their county or surrounding counties.  This is often the backbone for creating a regional response team available for telecommunicator emergency response taskforce (TERT) deployments.  However, this type of coordination must be supported with a memorandum of understanding (MOU) and regular training to determine call-out procedures and procurement and allocation of supplies in order to ensure success.

Williams notes that there are benefits in deploying a telecommunicator into the field to coordinate with a SWAT commander.  "It frees up tactical operators or negotiators to do what they are trained to do," he says.  "The dispatchers are professionals at what they do and want to do it.  As a result, they do a much better job at running the communications than someone who is not trained to do it and does not want to do it."

Other benefits of field deployment include the ability to communicate and log activity that is not taking place over a radio.  Many tactics and team assignments are discussed face-to-face, so incident logging can be incomplete if only information that is conveyed over the radio to the comm center is recorded.  A dispatcher working at the command post can assist in diagramming the scene and team member positions, and physically tracking resources, such as collecting car keys or accountability tags as responders check in.

The tactical dispatcher is the greatest source of intelligence and information -- even before deploying to the scene -- because they have information from the very beginning of the incident, and because they also have access to background information such as criminal history, computer aided dispatch (CAD) records, fusion centers, records management systems (RMS) files, maps and contact numbers.  A trained tactical dispatcher should feel comfortable assisting with planning and strategy, sharing information about available resources and logistics, communicating with outside agencies or support personnel and properly addressing safety issues as they arise.

The way to determine the specific role and responsibilities of an on-scene dispatcher is through policy, procedure and training -- not during an incident.

An issue that often arises during the process of building and training a deployable dispatch team is managing expectations across client agencies.  The field responders must be aware of the level of response they can expect at all times -- whether it is knowing they will only have a talkgroup and a dedicated telecommunicator assigned to work the incident from the comm center, or knowing that a tactical dispatcher automatically deploys into the field with them.  If the dispatch team has set response criteria, then the team must be available to fulfill that obligation.  If a tactical dispatcher is unavailable for some reason, field responders must be made aware so that proper resources can be allocated in the field to handle duties that would otherwise be delegated to the dispatcher.

Other concerns associated with field deployment include various risk management issues.  Criteria must be set to determine if employees are "field-deployable."  This could include prerequisites such as a medical release or physical fitness test to ensure field dispatchers are healthy enough to perform the necessary tasks.  When operating from a comm center, the employee may not be required to wear a uniform, but in the field, they must dress and act professionally when responding to the command post.  This also means equipping the employee with the necessary tools to do the job -- everything from portable radios to command boards or laptops, cellphones, air cards, go-bag, etc.  There are certain costs associated with field deployment, and the agency must evaluate and assess their ability to meet these costs before sending employees into the field ill-equipped or ill-prepared.

There are numerous training challenges for both small and large agencies.  Smaller agencies experience high-risk incidents with very low frequency. Larger agencies must be wary of complacency as they deal with similar incidents and events on a more frequent basis.  Keeping employees' skills fresh when they are only able to practice rather than apply the skills in real settings can be a challenge.  No one wants to practice and learn skills they feel will never be used.  In these situations, visualization and "what-if" discussions can keep employees engaged, especially by looking at current news stories and case studies that mirror a similar operational setting.  After-action reviews of incidents are a must for every agency, and every member should bring suggestions to the table for making improvements.  Most importantly, there should be an implementation plan in place for any improvements or suggestions after the review.

Unexpected incidents, and even large-scale planned events, tend to draw an extraordinary public safety presence.  The overall response to Columbine included more than 600 police, fire and EMS personnel from 35 different local, state and federal law enforcement agencies and 11 fire and EMS agencies.  Whether the incident is a natural disaster, active-shooter situation or planned event, there will be challenges regarding interoperability, staging, logistics and personnel management.  National Incident Management System (NIMS) and Incident Command System (ICS) concepts should be incorporated in every agency's training and response plans.  Much of NIMS and ICS training is online and free -- it should not be overlooked as a valuable resource to help ensure that as a profession, we are moving toward standardizing our response.

Two key questions based on basic ICS principles will help even the greenest telecommunicator maintain some semblance of order during the initial response phase of an expanding incident: "Who is in command?" and "Where is the command post?"  If the telecommunicator demonstrates a firm understanding of incident management in the earliest stages of the response, it will help the first responders focus on managing the incident and prioritizing response.

Career Development with APCO Resources: Standards, Training & Educational Opportunities

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, December 2013
Written by Debbie Gailbreath, supervisor of the Professional Development Unit for the Sarasota (Fla) County Sheriff's Office Public Safety Communications Center.  She is a member of the APCO Standards Development Committee, an adjunct instructor and an APCO Life Member.

Public safety communications is a profession in which maintaining a high skill level is vitally important.  Just as important is taking advantage of skill enhancement and career advancement opportunities.  Obtaining the knowledge, skills and abilities for personal development and career advancement opportunities is essential to our success.

So here are some questions for you to consider:  Where do I want to go?  What qualifications, skills, competencies and support do I need to get there?  What actions can I take to achieve my career goals?

Creating a plan is an important first step.  Review your personal history of accomplishments.  Consider your interests and passions, your strengths and your weaknesses.  Define your objectives.  What are your goals and aspirations?  Some may be short term while others are long-term.  What performance targets are you interested in?  Are you interested in pursuing training, leadership, supervising staff, managing projects or managing programs?  What new knowledge, skills and abilities do you need?

Next, identify resources that will help you attain these goals.  Figure out what training and education is available and who can help you reach those goals.  Finally, establish a timeline and targeted completion date.

There are several APCO public safety communications standards that can assist you at various steps in your career -- whether you're interested in improving your current skills or in learning new skills.  These standards provide best practices and recommendations for training requirements, job tasks and job descriptions for the employee, and identify agency responsibilities to assist employees in meeting the standards.

Here are a few of the standards:
  • Minimum Traning Standards for Public Safety Telecommunicators: This standard identifies minimum training requirements for both new and veteran public safety telecommunicators who are tasked with receiving, processing, transmitting and conveying public safety information to dispatchers, law enforcement officers, firefighters and other emergency personnel.
  • Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications Training Officer (CTO): This standard identifies the minimum training requirements for all personnel assigned to providing on-the-job training to relecommunicators, as well as to promote the leadership role of the CTO.
  • Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications Quality Assurance Evaluator (QAE): This standard defines the responsibilities of the QAE for planning, developing, coordinating, implementing and administering an agency quality assurance program.
  • Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Training Coordinator: This standard defines the responsibilities for the employee charged with facilitating a public safety communications training program.  Knowledge and skills identified include adult learning principles, instructional design and curriculum development, instructional techniques, records management and the agency's CTO program.
  • Core Competencies and Minimum Training Standards for Public Safety Communications Supervisor: This standard identifies the requirements for managing daily operations, performing administrative duties and maintaining employee relations.  This position provides leadership and guidance to employees in order to achieve the agency's mission, while providing service to the public and emergency responders.
  • Core Competencies for Public Safety Communications Manager/Director: This standard identifies the knowledge, skills, traits and attributes required for this high-level position.  Competencies focus on the agency's vision, strategic development, fostering effective working relationships, motivating employees and implementing change, as needed.
In addition to these standards,  the APCO Institute provides instruction in everything from frontline basic training to supervision and management.  APCO also provides continuing education (CE) for all levels in public safety communications.  Many of the courses relate specifically to the standards developed by APCO and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

Institute classes are available online or in the classroom.  Some courses related to the standards noted above include: Public Safety Telecommunicator, Public Safety Instructor, Communications Training Officer, Communications Center Supervisor, Public Safety Communications Staffing and Employee Retention and Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) Communications Accreditation Manager.

Also available is the Institute's Leadership Certificate Program, a 12-month online program leading to the professional designation of Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL).  Training components of this course include communications skills, building and enhancing team performance, leading with confidence and integrity, and interpersonal negotiations.

The Institute offers several continuing education options including articles and tests in Public Safety Communications magazine, webinars, video training series and monthly online instructor-led training through the Illuminations program.  Complete information on all the institute has to offer can be found at http://apcointl.org/training-and-certification.html.

Finding a mentor is also essential to professional development.  Establishing a professional relationship with a more experienced or knowledgeable person helps guide, educate and challenge us.  Joining an APCO committee is a great way to learn about what's going on in our industry and meet professional peers.  Current existing committees that may be of interest to you include 9-1-1 Emergency Technologies, Communications Center Standards, Member and Chapter Services, and Professional Communication Human Resources (Pro-CHRT).  More information about committees can be found at http://apcointl.org/apco-membership.html

Whether you are new to the public safety communications family or are a seasoned veteran, there's always something new to learn, or skills that need to be refreshed.  Your professional development benefits the community, your agency and your own personal growth.  I encourage you to take a look at the APCO standards and the many training and educational opportunities offered by the Institute.  When committee applications are open next year, submit an application to join.  Get involved in your profession and your career development!

All APCO standards are available for download at http://apcointl.org/standards.html

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Knowing Your Team: Taking the Time to Learn Who Your Subordinates Are

Taken from Public Safety Communications, November 11, 2013
Written by Cindra Dunaway, 9-1-1 Dispatcher for the Lee County (FL) Sheriff's Office.  You can contact her via email at cdunaway@sheriffleefl.org

Supervisors, how well do you know your people?  I mean really know them?  Do you know if they are married or where they're from?

Now I'm not suggesting that you become their new BFF, but you should show a genuine interest in your subordinates.  I know, I know, there are probably one or two folks who you'd rather not get to know at all, much less work with, but that's another article all together.  In all seriousness, there are several benefits to taking a little extra time to get to know your people.

Most people love talking about themselves and their family, so it shouldn't be all that hard to get a little intel.  It really doesn't have to take a lot of your time, just take a few minutes at the beginning of your shift or during some downtime.  Ask about their significant other, if they have any special plans coming up on their next days off or how school is going if they are a student.  If you take a little time to get to know your folks, it shows you are interested in them as a person, not just another cog in the machine.  It makes them feel significant and that they are part of the team.

If you get to know a little about who your people are outside of work, you may be able to cut off any potential issues they may have while under your supervision.  For example, say you have a great employee whom you never have problems with.  They are always on time and you never have to follow up on anything they do.  Then all of a sudden, you notice they are coming in late, you start getting complaints about the way they are handling their calls and they are short and withdrawn.  What do you do?  How do you handle it?

Do you write them up and file it away in their personnel jacket, or do you try to take the time to find out if there is an underlying problem?  Is there something happening at home that is affecting his/her job performance?  Is there bullying going on in the workplace?  Are they going through a divorce?  Or is something else going on?

My point is that if you have a general knowledge about this employee's home life and background, then the red flags may shoot up a lot sooner.  You might be able to cut off the problems before they fester into larger ones that will need to be addressed by your next in command or human resources.

Can you offer them an employee assistance program (EAP) or peer counseling?  Maybe it's a call they handled that's sticking with them longer than usual.  Maybe they need critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) or critical incident stress management (CISM).  No matter how long you have been doing this job, there is always a possibility of a call getting to you.  It's OK to need a little help once in a while.

Maybe all they need from you is an empathetic ear.  A lot of us public safety workers have a personality that makes us bottle everything up.  We like to be in control at all times; people look to us for help not the other way around.  I remember at my former agency, due to staffing issues it kept getting harder and harder for us to do our jobs every day.  I remember thinking, "I can't let them know the work load is getting to me.  If I, as a senior operator, show any weakness, how are these trainees going to get through their training?"  I really wish I knew then what I have come to know and understand now.  I could have saved myself so many sleepless nights and headaches.

So how do you handle your people?  Do you try to be open and understanding?  Or are you the strict "just do your job" kind of supervisor?  I'm not suggesting that your employees don't need to take some personal responsibilities for their own careers.  But I am suggesting that you make yourself approachable if they should need to come to you about a problem they're having.  Wouldn't you rather intercept any potential incidents before they cause that undesirable spotlight that always follows us when something goes wrong to focus on your division or agency?

At a recent CISM training class, I met a field supervisor with my local EMS.  She mentioned that she had a member of her shift who had an anger issue (whenever he got stressed or impatient).  His partners hated working with him and she regularly received complaints about him from co-workers and the public.  In an effort to save his job and salvage this employee, she got him into anger management classes and sent him to an EAP counselor.  She makes sure she talks to any new partner he is assigned so she can give them a heads up on his triggers so they are aware and not afraid to call her if there are any problems.  She also mentioned that she keeps an ear out and can tell when he is getting on the verge of being stressed out by the tone of his voice.  She will then make a trip to his location and check in with him and defuse him, so to speak.  She shared that now he is doing much better and has fewer outbursts and complaints.

Did she go above and beyond as a supervisor?  Maybe, but she helped save this man's job and now he is an excellent EMT and is working on improving himself as a person and an employee.

So think about it and spend a little extra time getting to know your folks.  We all come from different backgrounds and cultures.  What is stressful to you may not be stressful to someone else due to their life experiences.  We also have to realize that we are working with multi-generations.  What was never acceptable to us older folks is totally normal for the younger generation.  So, get out there and start chatting with your people -- you might just end up liking them.

Be safe my family.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Climbing the Ladder: Making the Choice to Further Your Career

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2013
Written by Fonda M. Dixon, retired from Pa. State Police. She served more than 33 years in public safety communications, including her time as a Police Communications Operator (PCO), PCO Instructor and supervisor of Employee Training Section.

Are you looking for just a job, or do you want a career?  Does what you are looking for reflect your talent, interests, capacities and skills?  Are you committed to the goals of your employer?  These are potential questions to consider in deciding whether "the climb" is on your agenda.

When you accept a job, it's important to know what the organizational goals (vision and mission) of the employer are.  Why?  Because when everyone is focused on those goals, the agency has the greatest chance to succeed, and employees will, in turn, be successful too.  Sometimes, the longer we work for one employer, the more likely we are to forget the organizational goals and why we have them.  When this happens, we tend to put ourselves first and forget whom we work for: the public.

When we embark on a new career, we begin as followers.  How well our values and beliefs mirror those of the organization plays a part in our commitment to that organization.  In his book, The Courageous Follower, Ira Chaleff offers a new model for the follower role.  This role provides dynamic support for leaders, but does not hesitate to constructively speak truth to power.  "Courageou followership" recognizes that to be effective at almost any level of an agency, individuals need to play both the leader and follower role adeptly.

Chaleff writes about the five dimensions of courageous followership.  The first dimension addresses the courage to assume responsibility for yourself and the organization.  Employees initiate value-based actions and their authority comes from their understanding and ownership of the common purpose.  The second dimension relates to the courage to work hard to serve the organization.  The follower assumes additional responsibilities to unburden the leader.  They stand up for the leader and the tough decisions they must make.  The third dimension is the courage to challenge your leader when your sense of right is being challenged.  The fourth dimension is the courage to participate in transformation and stay with the group and the leader.  The fifth and final dimension is the courage to leave, either by questioning the order of the leader or tendering  your resignation.  This may involve personal risk, but service to the common purpose justifies and sometimes demands such action.  Are you prepared to be a courageous follower?  Are you ready to take on this responsibility?  As Winston Churchill famously stated, "The price of greatness is responsibility."

On the law enforcement side of our profession, graduating and working to be the best officer possible is success enough for some; others will strive to become corporals, sergeants, detectives and so on.  In the communications center, passing various certificates and becoming a calltaker is the height of success for some; others may choose to become dispatchers, supervisors or managers.

How do you measure success?  Many factors make up a person's succss: happiness at work, quality of life, interests outside of work and relationships with family and friends.  Do you measure success by the type of car you drive?  The clothes you wear?  The house you live in?  By the number of possessions you have?  Success means different things to each of us.

We spend a lot of our time at work, therefore we usually measure success by the position we hold or how much money we make.  But the title you hold does not define who you are - it's what you do.

Once we have identified what success means to us, we can create a strategy and develop a plan to get there.  What's your vision?  What's your mission?

Making the decision to step out of your comfort zone and go for a promotion is not always an easy choice.  It takes a lot of hard work and determination.  Once you  make that decision, find someone credible to support you and mentor you through the process.  Attending additional training requires extra effort, but you should be willing to give more than what is asked for, and be ready to take on new challenges.

By now you are probably asking yourself, "Why do I have to do all of that when I am starting in a new position?"  The promotion path begins very early in our career.  We are responsible for making ourselves promotable.

Once a promotion is available, those making the decision to fill that position will review your past performance.  Recognize that taking too much time off can lesson your chances for promotion.  Would you want to work for someone what was constatnly absent?  Think about sick time and paid time off as money in a checking account.  Those days are yours, but you should make sure you have some days leftover in your account.

It is a personal decision whether we want to put forth the effort to accomplish great things in our career.  It is certainly not a path for everyone.  Personally, I have found it is a journey worth taking.

According to Mike Sisco, founder of IT Business Manager Certification (ITBMC), finding a mentor is the best place to start once you've made up your mind to pursue a promotion.  "Find a mentor or someone with experience you trust to help you think about your situation - to openly and honestly discuss a realistic plan to achieve more success."

Sisco writes that having a plan that's within your control comes down to:
  • Knowing what to do to be successful
  • Understanding how to go about it
  • Having the tools and examples to help you succeed.
Remember: Success is a choice.  We can choose to stay on the bottom rung of the ladder, or see if we can make it to the top.  The point is, success is in the mind of the individual and it's a bit different for each of us.

Your attitude determines your altitude (cliche statement, yet remarkably true).  Have you done an attitude check lately?  How are your actions (or inactions) perceived by others?

We often hear people in our communications centers say, "If I were the supervisor, I would do things differently."  Why not make that statement a reality and strive to reach that possibility?  What are you doing, in the position that you hold, to make positive changes?

If you make the choice to climb the ladder, you need to decide what you want to achieve and create a plan that will get you there.  Your vision and mission will play a part in helping you climb those rungs.  Let them guide you purposefully as you approach your destination.

When you make the decision to further your career, start by asking yourself "Where do I want to be in two years?  In five years?"  Then set some goals to get you where you want to be in the time you have allotted.  Would you travel the world without an itinerary or directions to your destination?  No; thus in life, we should have a career plan.  What level do you want to reach in your career?  What do you want to achieve?

I had the good fortune to work for someone who required his employees to write down their vision and mission statements.  He encouraged us to display them where we, and others, could read them.  The idea was that if others read it, we would be held accountable for what we wrote.  Goal setting is a powerful process of thinking about your ideal future, and motivating yourself to turn this vision of your future into reality.  Are you deciding to climb the ladder or stay on the first run?

As you climb the ladder to greater professional responsibility, keep in mind that money will not make you as happy as making a difference will.  In a 2006 article for Public Safety Communications, Angela Bowen, communications training coordinator for Georgia Public Safety Training Center, said, "Happiness in your job is more important than a lot of us realize.  It affects every other aspect of our lives, including the morale of
our families, our health and our performance.  Do yourself a favor and embrace your calling.  You do make a difference.  Allow yourself to be happy in our career and everything else will follow."

As someone who has chosen to work in our profession, we should constantly strive to be a valued contributor - to be all we can be!  When it comes to professional development, APCO International is the largest education provider in the public safety communications industry.  Professional development opportunities are available either online or in the classroom starting with Telecommunicator 1.  This certification starts you on your career path in the public safety arena.

Here are some additional runs on the APCO ladder:
  • Public Safety Telecommunicator Instructor
  • Communications Training Officer/Instructor
  • Communications Center Supervisor
  • Leadership Certificate Program
In his book Courageous Follower, Chaleff discusses courageous leadership.  He states that a "courageous leader creates the conditions in which it is easier for followers to speak the truth as they see it and for leaders to give appropriate consideration to what they are being told.  It offers a developmental path to true partnership between leaders and followers in the service of the organization's mission."  Studies have shown that employees leave an organization because of perceived poor leadership.  Keep in mind, once we achieve our goal and become a leader, we should continually be cognizant of what our followers need to be successful.

If you are reading this article, and you have already climbed the ladder of success, what are you doing to help other employees who have also made that choice?  Are you developing your employees to take over when you transfer, promote or retire?  As a leader, this is your responsibility.  Are you affording your employees the opportunities to attend training for future development?  The same gratification of climbing the ladder of success can be obtained when you watch those who work for you climbing too.

When we make the decision to work in the public safety profession, we never know where that journey will take us.  One thing we do know is that we can strive to be a calltaker, dispatcher, trainer, supervisor, manager or director.  No matter the position you choose, you can make a difference in peoples' lives internally and externally.  In whatever position you decide to own, taking pride in your work, being professional and serving your "customers"should be first priority.

Regardless of the ladder's height, we all start at the bottom rung.  We can climb as high as we want.

Before the Call: A Step-By-Step Guide to Educating the Public

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, September 2013
Written by Bryan E. Wolfe who began his public service career as a dispatcher in 1996.  He has a bachelor's degree in criminal justice and has served the Central Indiana public safety community is many capacities, including dispatcher, police officer, deputy sheriff, fire dispatcher, field training officer, detective, sergeant and director of communications.  He has worked as a watch officer for the Indiana Intelligence Fusion Center, and as a member of the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. 

A quick search engine query suggests that the average citizen calls 9-1-1 once or twice during their lifetime.  Unfortunately, most emergencies do not make advance appointments or delay their untimely occurrence based on human convenience.  Therefore, it is advantageous for all citizens to preplan and become familiar with best practices regarding the utilization of 9-1-1 emergency services.

What does this have to do with those who work in the call center?  In the last several years, public safety communications professionals have begun to value the importance of educating the public we serve.  Programs that speak to varying segments of society serve to provide a better understanding of how 9-1-1 and emergency services in general work.

In this article, I suggest some critical points that those involved in these education efforts should relay to their audiences.  Readers can use this article as a template for public education engagement to ensure a uniform and consistent message, providing a comprehensive, yet easily understandable, overview of the system.  Note: For this reason, the article speaks directly to the citizen, not the communications professional.

The public safety communications community is hungry for new and better materials to support their programs.  This article can help provide just that.


Make sure your address numbers are clearly displayed on the front of your home and mailbox.  The numbers should be made from a reflective material and visible from the street - not just on a sunny day, but during inclement weather and at night.  If responders cannot quickly and clearly see your address, help will likely be delayed.

Determine your dispatch center's non-emergency telephone number and post it on your refrigerator or in another prominent location near your phone.

Do not program the number 9-1-1 into a speed-dial button on your cellular or home phone.  Thousands of inadvertent 9-1-1 calls are placed when phones with 9-1-1 programmed into a speed-dial button are jostled around in pockets or purses.  When the pre-programmed button is inadvertently depressed and a call is placed, emergency dispatchers have an obligation to listen to private conversations, karaoke, lawn mowing or other activities occurring in the background of the unintentional 9-1-1 call in an effort to investigate whether an emergency is occurring.  This is a substantial problem for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

Know when to utilize 9-1-1 and when to utilize the non-emergency seven-digit number to your dispatch center:
  •  If you're reporting a crime in progress, a crime that just occurred or if you need a fire or emergency medical service response, you should call 9-1-1.
  • If you're reporting a non-emergency incident, such as an incident where the suspects have already departed a scene and there's nothing life-threatening occurring, call the non-emergency number for your dispatch center.
Example: If you arrive home and observe a man you don't recognize running out your front door with your television set, you need to dial 9-1-1 immediately.  However, if you want to report that your cousin stole your flat screen television last week and won't return it, use the seven-digit non-emergency number.


When you dial 9-1-1, stay on the line and do not hang up.  You might notice a longer-than-normal silence before the phone starts ringing because 9-1-1 calls are routed differently than any other call you make.  Do not hang up; the call will ring through.  Remain on the line until you are told by the 9-1-1 dispatcher that it is OK to hang up.

Emergencies don't occur to most people every day, so your adrenalin will be pumping.  Take a deep breath and listen very carefully.  If you focus intently on listening, you will be less likely to become excited and shout.  Because many dispatchers wear headsets, shouting is unpleasant for them.  Do the best you can to speak at a normal speed and volume.

The dispatcher is going to ask you questions that they need answers for and will input that information in a particular order into a Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system.  Answer only the questions asked, then stop talking and be quiet.  Do not speak unless you are spoken to; this is critical because what seems like silence to you may not in fact be silence at all.  The dispatcher may be speaking on a radio to responding police, fire or EMS to get help directed to your location.  It's important to understand that many times their voices will be muted to the caller on the 9-1-1 line during these radio transmissions, so while the caller only hears silence, the dispatcher may be listening to multiple users of a complex multi-channel radio system.  If you begin talking, it could force the dispatcher to stop talking or stop listening to emergency responders, which in turn will delay help getting to your emergency.


By avoiding some common mistakes, you can help make life a lot easier for 9-1-1 dispatchers.

First, never provide a phone to a child to use as a toy - even if the phone is no longer subscribed to an active cellular account.  Unfortunately, many people give their old cellphones to small children to play with, not realizing that even though the phone can no longer make standard phone calls, the phone will never lose the ability to place a 9-1-1 call.  Some parents opt to simply remove the battery from a phone, but even so, providing phones as toys is not recommended.

Second, if you're in a public place when an emergency occurs, take a moment to survey the scene around you.  Are others already dialing 9-1-1 for help?  Communicate with those around you.  It's not necessary for more than one person to call for help for any particular situation.  More 9-1-1 calls about an incident will not make help appear faster; in fact, more phone calls will only make the handful of 9-1-1 dispatchers answering those incoming calls busier, and could quite possibly delay their ability to send apparatus and emergency personnel to the incident.  An incident such as a motor vehicle crash or vehicle fire on a highly traveled roadway will often result in many dozens of 9-1-1 calls to dispatchers reporting the same details.  Look around and attempt to determine if someone has already called 9-1-1.

Third, many times an individual will be hesitant to call 9-1-1 for assistance and will instead call a trusted friend or family member to report a problem.  The friend or family member will then recognize that the situation calls for an emergency response, and call 9-1-1 to request that emergency responders be sent to their friend or loved one's address.  Instead, you should instruct the person in need to hang up and immediately dial 9-1-1 themselves.  Whether it's a medical emergency or a police response, the 9-1-1 dispatcher needs to ask questions that often only the individual in the midst of the situation will be able to effectively answer.


Periodically, information will surface on social media suggesting that callers can dial certain other three-digit numbers to reach particular emergency dispatch centers.  Many of these numbers are international emergency numbers used in other countries.  Many telephone companies in the United States try to accommodate routing these same numbers just as 9-1-1 calls are routed, but these alternative numbers were never intended to be utilized in the U.S. and using them is highly discouraged.  If you're in the U.S. and you need emergency assistance, dial 9-1-1.


Know how to dial 9-1-1 from your workplace phone.  Do you need to dial a particular number to obtain an outside line before you dial 9-1-1 for emergency assistance?  Some workplaces, such as certain large corporations, post-secondary educational institutions or military installations, may want those requesting emergency assistance to dial a local "on-campus" number instead of calling 9-1-1 directly.  Although it's best that a 9-1-1 caller can see an emergency so they can answer detailed questions about the situation, check with your employer or location to determine how they prefer you to obtain emergency assistance.


If you accidentally dial 9-1-1, do not hang up the phone.  Simply stay on the line and explain to the dispatcher that you accidentally dialed 9-1-1 and that there's no problem at your location.  Depending on the agency's policy concerning misdialed 9-1-1 calls, you may or may not still have a law enforcement officer show up to ensure that no one is in need of assistance, but it's important to let the dispatcher know that it was an accident and that there is no emergency at your location.  This simple action could prevent the needless injury of a first responder racing to make sure your incomplete call is not an actual emergency.


If you have a loved one who has a chronic medical problem or special needs or disabilities (severe diabetic, severe epileptic, autistic, deaf, blind, wheelchair-bound, etc.) it is a good idea to call your local emergency communication center and ask them if they want to place information in their CAD system about your loved one so that it's available in a time of need.  It's important to note that a caller should never assume that the dispatcher is looking at or has access to this pre-provided information, because even emergency dispatch centers are not immune from computer or human failures.  But it cannot hurt to offer to provide the information before an emergency occurs.


As a standard practice, most alarm companies offer subscribers "panic buttons" on their alarm panels, which afford them the opportunity and ability to simply hit buttons for police, fire or medical services and then await a response.  Generally, these buttons are a dangerous nuisance.  They are often poorly placed in locations on the keypad where residents accidentally hit them when attempting to activate or disable their alarm upon their arrival or departure from their home or business.  Accidents like these cause unnecessary false alarms and could result in the needless automobile crash and injury of a first responder responding to the false alarm.  In addition, children often enjoy pushing the colorfully labeled blue, red and green buttons, not realizing their actions set into motion an emergency response of many variations.

Although these silent panic buttons are valuable if a subscriber needs to summon assistance and is unable to speak, it's always recommended that when someone needs emergency assistance, they actually pick up a phone and dial 9-1-1 to speak with a dispatcher rather than simply hitting a button on an alarm panel.


Many different brands and styles of medical alert devices are available to consumers.  Some are monitored by an alarm company, some ring into registered nurses while others simply dial 9-1-1.  Sometimes these devices are worn on necklaces while other times the devices are a box that sits near a phone connection.

Unfortunately, there are very few regulations governing the industry that operates and programs these devices, and the results are dangerous.  Some of these devices utilize cellular technology, similar to cellphones that are no longer active but can still dial 9-1-1.  Although this type of device is convenient since there's often no monthly monitoring or subscriber fees, they don't allow the emergency dispatcher to call back the individual needing assistance if their call becomes disconnected.  Citizens who desire to use a medical alert device of this nature should make sure 9-1-1 dispatchers can call back the monitor and re-connect with the individual needing help before they purchase the device.  Units that aren't monitored by an alarm company or registered nurse, or that cannot be directly called back by a 9-1-1 dispatcher are not recommended.


In today's tech-savvy and gadget-filled society, texting has become a common method of communicating.  Public safety dispatch centers are slowly adding this capability, but they're doing so with very restrictive budgets.  As a result, only limited jurisdictions throughout the country have systems in place that allow users to text and/or send pictures or video to 9-1-1.  As 9-1-1 centers across the country replace their older technology with newer equipment, these capabilities will become more commonplace; however, at this time, it's recommended that if you need emergency police, fire or medical assistance from your local first responders, you simply call 9-1-1.


Citizens have clear expectations of the dispatchers who take their call at a 9-1-1 center: They want assistance as quickly as possible.  However, many citizens have never considered that dispatchers also have certain expectations of the callers requesting assistance.  Taking a moment to familiarize yourself with the best practices of the 9-1-1 system outlined above will allow you to meet these expectations and make you and your loved ones better prepared to face an emergency.  In fact, it may just save your life.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Social Media During Evolving Incidents: 5 Tips for Emergency Managers

Taken from EMS1.com, 7/30/13
Written by Joshua Shanley, Adjunct Faculty at Kaplan University in the School of Public Safety .  Has also been a Firefighter-Paramedic for more than 20 years. He participated in the response to the World Trade Center attacks in 1993 and again in 2003.  He is currently the Emergency Management Coordinator in Northampton, Massachusetts.

As social media sites have become ubiquitous and the primary news source for many, this major paradigm shift has had serious implications for emergency managers.  Like it or not, emergency management directors must not only buy into a dedicated social media presence, but continue to embrace it as an important tool to efficiently reach and listen to a mass audience especially during emergency situations.

Social media was credited with playing a huge role in the developing stories surrounding the recent tragedies in Boston and Texas, both incidents just days apart from each other.  Information was shared by public safety officials, journalists and the general public by posting and disseminating photos, videos and news updates on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Vine.

Emergency managers can take lessons from these horrific events to better prepare themselves for the next emergency:

1. Luck favors the prepared: Prior to the arrival of any incident, emergency departments should set up social media accounts on all relevant networks and use the tools initially to distribute preventative messages.  This approach allows departments to master communication via the platform without pressure and establish the channel as a reliable source of information during an emergency.  Also, understand the capabilities (and limitations) of social media before they may be needed.

2. Drinking from the firehose: Once social media accounts are set up, remember these tools are for two-way communication.  Social media can be used to listen to ongoing conversation to identify and assess emergency situations, as well as addressing community questions and concerns.

Depending on the size of the audience, interactions during an incident can be overwhelming.  Be prepared to have dedicated staff available to focus on social media presence during an event.  Create a social media officer position, who in many ways will act like a public information officer.  This person should be informed, a great communicator and has the ability to think on their feet.

3. Brevity is the soul of wit: Cell phone  networks are not reliable during emergencies.  Text messages are often transmitted more effectively than voice when the network is crowded (or "jammed" to protect the general public as was the case in Boston).  Emergency managers should post short bites that are easy to pass along, especially by text.  Crafting a message that is short enough to pass along via text or IM may be vital in these situations.

4. Worth a thousand words: Remember social media sites allow for real-time dialog with a community but can also be an excellent way to share pictures.  Photos can not only be distributed by public safety officials, but also images can be received by the emergency management officials to create a virtual damage assessment of neighborhoods that have been impacted, or identify suspects and vehicles.

5. Slow is smooth, slow is fast: Getting information out quickly is important, but don't sacrifice accuracy for speed.  Disseminating inaccurate information may be worse than not any information at all.  It is vital for a public safety agency to maintain credibility and nothing can undermine that more than unclear, inconsistent or wrong statements in a breaking situation.

When communicating with the general public, provide context and interpretation of a situation - not just what is going on, but what it means to them.  Beware however that communicating risk and threats in a dynamic environment can be complicated and if not done properly can create unintended consequences.

The bottom line is that the focus of a social media campaign during an emergency should be on increasing situational awareness for the public and reducing further damage, harm or injury during ongoing events.

You Can't Just Do My (Dispatcher) Job

Taken from Officer.com, 6/11/13
Written by Michelle Perin

Recently I finished an amazing novel, Baking Cakes in Kingali by Gaile Parkin.  It tells the story of Angel Tungaraza who lives in Rwanda and runs her own cake bakery (as well as being the town's voice of reason).  My favorite thing about Parkin's main character is that Angel feels deeply devoted to her craft and the tasks she must perform to produce the product and the service she feels is important.  She refuses to devalue her work and constantly reminds herself as well as others that she is a "professional somebody."

This is how I feel about being a 9-1-1 Operator/Dispatcher.  Many of us believe it is a calling and it takes a special person to be able to handle the stresses of the job while at the same time being really, really good at it.  I agree.  The belief that those of us who work the phones and radio are professionals leads me to great annoyance when I hear people say that someone can just fill in.  I've heard that understaffing can be solved by just putting some officers in there.  I find this as ridiculous as saying that you could take a dispatcher and have him or her work in patrol because the beat officer took a vacation.  Although there are numerous reasons why public safety telecommunications operators are uniquely trained and qualified (as well as having nuanced personalities), here are four main reasons I think it's ridiculous that someone can just "step in".

All those Computers and Software and Stuff

If you haven't been to the 9-1-1/dispatch floor lately, I highly recomment you head down there.  The days of writing and reading off of cards are over.  Even the days of having one computer screen and a telephone are long gone.  Now a telecommunications operators console looks like someone played Tetris with technology.  At my former agency, 9-1-1 operators have three screens: Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD), telephone and 9-1-1 Map.  In radio, there are 7: phone, 9-1-1 map, Calls Holding/Available Units List, Working Screen (which shows call details, hits, messages from officers and 9-1-1), Status List, AVL map (GPS for units) and a radio board (all the talk groups you could imagine).  All of this at our hot little fingertips.

Along with all the screens are all the programs that those screens allow you to access such as criminal history checks (both local and national), internet, MDTs, SMART911, ANI/ALI information, etc., etc.  Not having a clue about the technology or where to look when would be a show stopper for most who think they could walk into 9-1-1 or dispatch, sit down and just start answering a phone or talking on the radio.  Guess there's a bit of training that has to happen first.

Octopus Queens (and Kings): Multi-Tasking

No one quite appreciates a dispatcher's ability to do seven things at once until they really need him or her.  During a pursuit or an officer-involved shooting the controlled chaos that occurs at the console is a sight to behold.  The dispatcher is listening to all the units on the air, getting a supervisor or the fire department or another agency on the phone, patching in other frequencies, answering questions thrown at her by her own supervisor and the dispatchers around her with adjoining interests while at the same time typing everything everyone says and keeping an eye on the location of all her officers.

You have to be able to retain information in your head.  You have to be able to decipher what someone is saying to you.  You have to be able to talk and listen at the same time.  All while craziness is occurring around you.  You don't have time to stop and say, "I need time to process."  You have to just keep plugging away and this is a true talent.  Watching a really good multi-tasking dispatcher at work is an amazing thing.  He or she will look like it's the easiest thing in the world.  They won't even break a sweat.  I don't think we could say that about someone stepping in from the outside.

Keep your Butt in the Seat

This is a tough one even for those who have worked the floor for a long time but we continue to do it.  We are solution driven.  We want to figure out what the problem is quickly and find an answer for it.  Ultimately, most of the time our answer is to send an officer out to sort through the mess.  But, we must remain attached to our desks.  We have to be able to find solutions while being physically removed from the action.  We cannot get up and walk away.  We can't go get a soda or take a bathroom break without someone relieving us.  We can't make ourselves busy or stay on a traffic stop just a little bit longer after the driver has left so we can take a breather or even finish our paperwork.

You become completely immersed in your 9-1-1/radio world.  Often hours will pass and you won't even notice especially on a busy night or during an emergency.  You have to be able to stay in a fixed position while providing essential services.  Most officers would run from the room heading straight to the scene.  We have to protect in place.

Controlling the Scene - With Just your Voice

This one is a lot like keeping your butt in the seat but it speaks to what a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator does while in the seat.  A public safety telecommunications operator must control a scene with just his or her voice.  We cannot use our physical presence or handcuff one party and make them sit on the curb.  We cannot separate people physically.  What we can do is control the tone of our voice, the way we talk to both 9-1-1 callers and officers and what we say.  Like that look that all mothers seem to have down perfectly (you know that one that still makes you cringe and feel like you want to hide under a rock even now as an adult), public safety telecommunicators can control most scenes with just a tone.  We know when to be hard, when to be soft and when to have someone else get on the phone.  This part of the job is both nature and nurture.  It's an instinct that is groomed with experience and training.

I'm not saying that some of the tasks of being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher couldn't be handled by others.  I'm sure some people (especially officers who know how things work and understand how to give customer service) could come and do an adequate job with portions of our job.  What I am saying is that public safety telecommunicators have unique qualities, training and abilities.  We are definitely professional somebodies.

The Power of Recognition and Praise

Taken from Officer.com, 4/9/13
Written by Michelle Perin

"Mr. Speaker, every day, in all of our communities, dedicated public safety telecommunicators answer our calls for assistance.  They dispatch our calls for help to local police and fire departments, facilitating the execution of emergency rescue and law-enforcement operations in all of our districts.  These public safety personnel serve as the vital links within our cities and towns, although rarely appreciated because they are not physically at the scene.

It is time that we show our appreciation for these people who make our Nation's police and fire departments professional and responsive.  In order to recognize the high-quality communications services provided by police and fire dispatchers, 911 operators, and emergency medical technicians, I have sponsored House Joint Resolution 284, to designate the week beginning April 12,1992, as 'National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week."

These are the words spoken by Mr. Sawyer to Congress out of respect for the over half-million men and women wokring in emergency response in 1991.  This joint resolution was passed that year, and then in 1993 and then in 1994.  After that, it became permanent without the need for a yearly introduction.

National Public Safety Telecommunicators or Telecommunications Week (NPSTW) is designated as a time when citizens can thank public safety men and women who respond to emergency calls and dispatch emergency professionals and equipment during times of crisis.  Each year when NPSTW comes around, many departments celebrate and praise their telecommunication employees.  This made me stop and think about being thanked and what kind of praise/recognition made a difference to me during my time as a police dispatcher/911.  I din't have to think long.

The Letter

It had been about a week and a half since I had worked that particularly stressful shift.  That night had been busy, even for a metro-area like Phoenix.  It felt like I had responsibility for over a hundred officers and all of them wanted to find trouble at the same time.  I banged away at that keyboard, looked things up, dispatched calls and kept my frequency under control (at times it felt by the skin of my teeth).  It was one of those nights where once I was relieved I finally dropped my shoulders down from beside my ears, looked  up at the clock and couldn't figure out where the last three hours had slipped away to.  I barely was able to manage a mumble to my co-worker as I slipped off my head-set and shoved it into my bag.  I had just spend 10 hours talking (felt like non-stop) and parting my lips to form a coherent sentence wasn't going to happen any more that night.  I was exhausted but satisfied things had gone well.

Then, I got the call into my supervisor's office.  I walked in and she handed me a piece of paper.  Trying to calm the, "Oh, crap what have I done now?" voice in my head, I flipped the paper over and read it.  It was a Letter of Appreciation from one of the sergeants who had been working that crazy night a week or so ago.  She specifically detailed how I had assisted several officers and expressed her appreciation for my calm, professional demeanor.  I had gone into my supervisor's office with my heart in my stomach but I left with it fluttering in my head.

I still have that letter and I pull it out once in awhile to read it.  That written expression of how my actions had made the shift better for others was a powerful tool.  It made me feel wanted, appreciated and purposeful.  The fact that she sent it to my supervisor was icing on the cake.  Twelve years later it still makes me feel good.  It probably took her five minutes to write.

Negatives Scream; Positives Whisper

As a public safety telecommunications operator, it often feels the only time you are recognized is when you mess up.  When you do something wrong ( or even if it is only perceived as wrong), it seems everyone knows about it and everyone is talking about it.  When you do your job well, often it goes unrecognized.  Just a day in the life of a good dispatcher who cares about doing his or her job well.  It shouldn't be like this.  Recognition of doing our jobs well should be carried across the dispatch floor as loudly and quickly as the negative.  We can help with this by repeating praise if we hear it.  If someone compliments another operator, let them and their supervisor know.

The Little Things

Being recognized means you make a difference and often in our line of work there are times that we just don't feel like we did.  Every call that came over 9-1-1 was the same old thing.  All I could do was sit there, ask questions and hope the officers arrived on time.  I could handle my radio to the best of my ability and sometimes it just erupted into chaos.  I would just keep slapping band-aids on all the problems and hope nobody bled to death.  Sometimes it just felt like all the hours of shift work I put in and all the family time I gave up just wasn't worth it.  It didn't matter.  Then, I would get a call from an officer who would say thanks for helping me with this or my supervisor, or better yet, a co-worker would stop by the console and tell me, "Good job."  That was all it took to make me keep sloshing through the calls and the dispatches.

Write it Out; Shout it Out

Although giving verbal praise is important and adds to job satisfaction (and motivation), putting it in writing takes it a step further.  Like the letter I received, it is something tangible.  Something that goes into your employee file.  You can put it in a scrap book or tack it on your I Love Me wall.  Research shows that when we hear something we like our brains send out a burst of dopamine.  Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of joy, pride, satisfaction and well-being.  Just think about how much feel good juice the recognition you wrote will produce over the years (especially if they are still looking at it and smiling over a decade later).

Feeling appreciated is an important aspect in the work environment especially when you work in a stressful one like public safety communications.  Supervisors and supervisees can increase the praise by recognizing the hard work so many dispatcher/9-1-1 operators put in every day.  Congress gave us a week of praise.  Let's recognize each other 365 days a year.  Look for ways to recognize your co-workers, supervisors and supervisees, as well as, those out in the field.  Together we can spread the appreciation.

So You Want to be a Dispatcher...

Taken from psc.apcointl.org, 3/21/13
Written by Cindra Dunaway, 9-1-1 dispatcher for the Lee County (FL) Sheriff's Office.  You can contact her via email at cdunaway@sheriffleefl.org

So you want to be a dispatcher?

Have you thought about what goes on in a communications center?  Or better yet, have you thought about what goes on out in the field?  People often have a preconceived notion about what it's like to work in the public safety field.  I think we have movies and TV shows to blame.  As much as I love to watch crime shows and action movies, they sure don't do us public safety folks any favors when Mrs. Smith wants us to take tire track impressions from her yard after her trash cans get knocked over.  I once watched an episode of CSI Miami where they calculated how long it would take a vehicle to run out of gas after the fuel tank was hit with a bullet at a shootout.  I have never worked in, or even seen a comm center where the equipment and computers are as sophisticated as the ones they carry in their vehicles.  The response and images they get in an instant always make me laugh.  I would love to work in the center that has access to these computers!  Maybe NASA or the NSA, but not here in little ol' Florida.

Do you know what it takes to be a public safety telecommunicator?

First the logistics of the profession are enough to send most sane people running for the hills.  So let me get this straight.  I will be working under moments of extreme stress that may turn into hours or even an entire shift?  I may be mandated to work overtime, even after I just finished a 12-hour shift and haven't had a day off in a week?  I am responsible for every call I take, dispatch or transfer?  Every mode of communication in my center is recorded and may be pulled by the media, supervisors and members of the general public?  I will be scrutinized for any mistakes I may make, and those mistakes have the potential to harm someone and may prove to be fatal?  I am expected to be professional and polite to every member of the public that I come into contact with no matter how they treat me?  I get to work nights, weekends, holidays and my daughter's birthday?  I will probably not get a raise, and may even face working short staffed due to budget constraints?  I will be expected to be able to multi-task under the most demanding situations ever and be expected to do all of this with absolute accuracy?  I will be exposed to some of the most horrible situations, see and hear the worst of the worst - so much so that I will need to be aware of things like crisis situations, critical incident stress and accumulative stress?  And I can have all this for under $25,000 per year, with little to no recognition?  Where do I sign?

And that is just the beginning.  We are ever evolving in our profession.  Technology is changing at lightning speed, introducing Next-Gen 9-1-1, interoperability networks, VoIP, FirstNet, and much more.  We are expected to know and stay up to date on new trends and policies in our field.  Some of us are now required to be certified by the state, which requires hours and hours of classroom and hands-on training, and in addition to our on-the-job training.  Training is moving toward standardization and, hopefully, someday soon we will see a national training standard for all 9-1-1 public safety workers.  We have multiple screens in front of us every day and are required to know how to operate and monitor all of them.  Our phones are now computerized, and you have to be logged in before you can even answer a call.  Continuing education is crucial now.

Sometimes our work environment can be as trying as the job itself.  Some of us work in cramped spaces, with little time for breaks -- if we are lucky enough to get one at all.  Eating at our work stations, our food usually goes cold because we have discovered that there is a direct correlation between a foot chase and the bell on the microwave.  Personality can be a big problem for some of us.  Stuck in close quarters with a roomful of type A personalities can make for a long shift.  Cranky field units, even crankier members of the community calling in to complain to us, and about us.  They like to tell us how to do our jobs and want everything immediately.  Calls for service that don't really fall in our line of work, like parenting or civil issues or my personal favorites, electric or plumbing problems.  When does the parade start?  When can we take our kids trick or treating?  When is daylight savings time?  What time does school start?  Did they cancel the fireworks?  The school bus didn't pick up my kids.  Wow, I could really go on and on with this but I think you get the idea.

So, you still want to be a dispatcher?

If you can take on all the things that I just mentioned and many more that I am sure I missed, then you my friend are in for the most demanding and challenging job you will ever love.  If you can overcome and adapt, if you can perform on a team and be a forward thinker, if you can prepare for the worst day in and day out, then you just might find yourself in the most rewarding career there is (in my humble opinion): public safety.  If you can handle all the cons, let me tell you about the pros:

You will find the most awesome people in public safety.  It is so true when we say "family."  We have that love-hate relationship that you find so common with siblings.  You might hate your co-workers one minute, but the next, when the chips are down, they will be the first ones to back you up or if needed, pick you up.  We all feel the pain when one of us falls or makes the ultimate sacrifice.  We are the first ones to have that bake sale or car wash to raise funds for someone in the family in need.

Along with the bad, there is good.  Helping bring a baby into the world that didn't want to wait for mom and dad to get to the hospital, assisting in locating a lost child, helping calm someone who has just been victimized, getting that officer his backup when he can't speak for himself, organizing all your resources for your command staff on scene at a huge multi-jurisdictional incident and giving pre-arrival instructions until help arrives can be the most gratifying moment of your busy day.  Of course, getting that call from someone in the field to say thank you for doing a good job on a particularly challenging incident is always wonderful.  We adrenaline junkies live for that high or catching the bad guy or that rescue just as much as the field units do.  Hearing them say "one in custody" after a rough foot chase, "scene secure" on a search warrant, or "no injuries" will start you breathing again.  Just yesterday, the whole comm center could be heard cheering when our K9 finally caught an armed bank robber that had hit his 3rd bank in five days.  We love when our K9s get their man.

There is always going to be the good, the bad and the ugly when it comes to the public safety industry.  But if you are strong enough to get through the bad and the ugly, the good can be pretty great.  If you think you have what it takes to be on our team of gold, I would suggest you go to your local communications center and sit in.  Get an idea for the real deal and meet your hidden heroes.  We all have our highs and lows, but if you are part of this family, we will celebrate your highs with you and be there to comfort you during your lows.  And to the rest of you:

Be safe my family.