9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Risk Management: Expert Advice on Identifying & Preventing Risk in the PSAP

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, March 2014
Written by Craig Scholl, RPL, a senior emergency communicator at Clinton County (NY) Emergency Services, member of APCOs Editorial Advisory Committee and past president of the Atlantic Chapter.  Gordon Graham and Tom Catino also contributed to this article.  Coupled with his extensive background in law enforcement, Gordon Graham's education as a risk manager and experience as a practicing attorney have allowed him to become recognized as a leading professional speaker in both private and public sector organizations.

The importance of risk management is such that I'm asking you not to read this article unless you promise to share it with at least one other person - whether they're a coworker, supervisor or manager.

Every profession has a certain level of risk associated with it, but the nature of our work in public safety communications leaves us and our employers especially vulnerable to legal liability.  A mishandled call for help can mean the difference between life and death, so it's critical that telecommunicators remain diligent and always follow the procedures laid out in agency policies and official documents.  Taking personal responsibility for managing risk and protecting both the public and the agency is the first step to a secure and satisfying career in public safety.

I spent the early part of my career listening to various managers refer to my colleagues and I as "the dispatchers."  This mindset was prevalent in the early to mid-1980's, but thankfully not so much anymore.  I often wondered how someone could think in this way -- I was expected to keep first responders safe and informed, represent my agency in a professional manner when someone called for assistance, and protect members of the public when they were faced with an emergency, not to mention all the other duties assigned on a day-to-day basis.  I was so much more than just a dispatcher and I knew that I made a difference.

The first time I heard the term "risk management" was early in my career when I took the basic course for public safety telecommunicators from the APCO Institute.  As telecommunicators, avoiding risk is instilled in us as an inherent part of our jobs. We participate in risk management activities on a daily basis, often without even realizing it.  In most cases, risk management strategies are hidden in the policies and procedures we follow on a daily basis.

One of the best resources for developing these policies is the staff who will ultimately be responsible for abiding by the directive.  As telecommunicators, we use policy and procedures on a daily basis.  These are living documents that are changed when needed.  We may assume that these policies exist simply because it's what the boss wants us to do, but in fact they are generally documentation of lessons learned.  They were developed (perhaps even with our own input) and then evolved through trial and tribulation before being enacted by our agency.  This is what we do in our field; we learn from each other and make changes based on what we learn in order to improve our operations.

In August 2003, on the eve of the APCO International Conference & Expo in Anaheim, Calif., APCO's executive council met for two days of business sessions.  The first day included a presentation by Gordon Graham, founder of risk management service provider Lexipol and a 33-year veteran of California law enforcement.  Graham's work in risk management spans many different disciplines, and his extensive experience make him a valuable resource for PSAP managers, supervisors and dispatch staff.

Lexipol's aim is to standardize policy, procedure and training in public safety operations.  Most law enforcement agencies in California currently use the Lexipol Knowledge Management System, and many other states also use this approach to their law enforcement operations.  The system has greatly improved the safety of police personnel and influenced a dramatic reduction in claims, settlements and verdicts against law enforcement agencies.

In Anaheim, Graham presented a number of his rules for risk management, which I've received his permission to share with you here.  Much of his strategy is centered on personnel.  Agencies must strive for continuous improvement in staff members, and continuous training, recertification and education are pillars of a strong risk management policy.  In the same vein, organizations must start by hiring quality people.  "If you hire stupid people, they are not going to get better over time," Graham says.  This is especially true for supervisors, who are responsible for spotting problems -- whether procedural or personnel issues -- before they become tragedies.

A sound risk management strategy is one in which the agency and all of its members have a healthy respect for the dangers and risks they face.  Personnel must be willing and able to learn from their mistakes, and the organization must establish performance metrics by which to hold individuals accountable.  As Graham says, "Rules without enforcement are just nice words."

Many of us in the public safety communications field share a common concern for the quality of our profession, and we often feel that the public deserves better.  We must improve the quality of the way we do business.  We need to constantly strive for improvement and deliver the public better than minimum standards.  We need to up our game, especially in light of national trends in video and audio recording and public records access.  What we learned from Graham's presentation in Anaheim is that we need to do more than get things done, we need to do them right.

We're all familiar with the fire service's Everyone Goes Home initiative, which is aimed at reducing the number of line of duty death calls.  The law enforcement community has a similar program called Below 100, which strives to reduce the number of line of duty deaths to less than 100 per year, a number not seen since 1944.  What about us in the communications field?  What can we do to assist in these endeavors?

Identifying risk is the first step in the proactive risk management process and provides the opportunities, indicators and information necessary for an agency to identify problem areas before they adversely affect operations and staff.  In our high-risk jobs, complacency is the biggest culprit of human error.  Dispatchers and calltakers must not get overly confident in their jobs, think that they know and have seen everything, or fall into the "it won't happen to me" way of thinking.

I asked Graham what his advice would be to telecommunicators, and he shared that whether you are fresh on the job or have several years under your belt, his advice remains the same:  "Never get complacent."  Graham comes from an extensive career in public safety, so he knows all too well the calls we handle on a daily basis:  "Hey, is it raining outside?" "Was that an earthquake?" "Did the Dodgers win tonight?"  Of course we get fed up with these calls, but never forget that the next time that phone rings or the radio crackles, it could be a life-changing event -- a baby choking or an officer who needs help.  You have one opportunity to make a difference, so answer that call with a clean slate and without assumptions.

There are other factors that contribute to errors and situations in which the telecommunicator places themself and their agency in jeopardy.  Fatigue is a big risk factor.  How many of us are working excessive hours or suffer from lack of sleep?  Staying alert is a dispatcher's imperative.  I'm also a firm believer that cellphones, tablets and other personal devices have no business being in the PSAP.  It only takes a few seconds of distraction to have a serious impact on our citizens, ourselves or our agencies.

Evaluating risk is the responsibility of not only supervisors and upper management, but of the dispatchers and calltakers as well.  Whatever your title is, you make a difference.  On a daily basis, you are the frontline of communication with the public and first responders, so remember Graham's mantra:  "Predictable is preventable."

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