9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Everyone's a Customer: For Telecommunicators, Customer Service Doesn't End With the Caller

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, February 2015
Written by Christina Dravis, RPL, communications center manager at Tompkins County Department of Emergency Response in Ithaca, NY.  She previously dispatched in the San Francisco Bay Area for 21 years and trained NYPD on their new CAD system.  Contact her at cdravis@tompkins-co.org.

In the 1990s, fire departments across the country began changing how they did business thanks in part to Alan Brunacini, chief of the Phoenix Fire Department at the time.  Brunacini brought to light that even though fire departments were basically doing a good job, they could do even better serving the public -- especially when it came to human relations.  In his book Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service, Brunacini describes eight essential qualities when dealing with the public.  While geared toward firefighters, these are valuable lessons for everyone involved in public safety, including telecommunicators.

What follows are summaries of the customer service categories promoted by Brunacini, along with suggestions on how they can be adopted by telecommunicators.  Even if a communications center doesn't have customer service standards or policies, telecommunicators can easily take steps to improve their own performance when dealing with customers.

Regard Everyone as a Customer
Some telecommunicators think their only customers are the citizens calling for assistance, but this couldn't be farther from the truth.  Everyone you come into contact with is, in fact, a customer.  This includes police officers, firefighters and EMS personnel you dispatch to incidents, as well as fellow telecommunicators who work at your own center and at neighboring departments.  Other employees within your jurisdiction that you make callouts to, such as the highway department or social service workers, are also your customers.  Repair technicians and custodians working in your center are your customers.  Even your supervisors and their bosses are your customers.  By considering everyone you interact with as a customer, you will start to treat everyone equally and, hopefully, better than you did before.

Deliver the Best Possible Service to Your Customers
Of course you offer as much assistance as you can to callers, but do you offer the same to your field units?  If units are responding to an incident, relay all pertinent location information to them so they don't have to check their mobile data terminal (MDT) or ask for clarification over the radio.  Allow them to focus on their driving, it's the telecommunicator's job to multi-task, not theirs.

Similarly, if emergency units are responding to incidents with suspect information, provide them with descriptions of vehicles and persons in case they encounter them while responding to the scene.  Most computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems allow the agencies to flag people and residences for hazards or scene safety information, so don't forget to check for that information and share it with responding units.

Be present and focused on your CAD so you can perform status checks on officers conducting traffic stops or firefighters battling structure fires.  Anticipate worst case scenarios and be ready to respond quickly to radio traffic if the worst case happens.  Do your part to make sure all of your units stay safe and go home at the end of their shifts.

Always Be Nice
Treat everyone with respect, kindness, patience and consideration.  I was taught by my first trainer to treat every caller as if they were a member of my family (specifically, as if they were my grandmother).  Statistics have shown that most people only call 9-1-1 once in their lives, which is why it's really important to leave them with a positive impression.  Even if someone calls with an obvious non-emergency, it may be an emergency to him or her.  Don't criticize or lecture the caller.  You can still educate them while being nice and respectful after taking the caller's information (unless your agency has a policy prohibiting non-emergency calls being accepted on emergency phone lines).

You should always strive to be pleasant and professional with field units also.  Even if they come across the radio as snippy or sarcastic, they may be dealing with things you can't see.  Maybe the police officer is juggling several radios while driving 100 mph and using his knees to steer.  Perhaps the fire captain can't hear you over the loud engine idling next to her at a fire scene.  Maybe the medic can't answer right away because eight family members of a patient currently receiving CPR are crying or screaming at him.  If a unit comes across the radio screaming, hearing the calm and patient tone of the dispatcher may help the first responder on the other end of the radio not be so frantic.

Always Attempt to Execute a Standard Problem-Solving Outcome
Just as fire departments did for years, telecommunicators often do nothing more than what is expected: provide assistance to citizens requesting help.  But providing assistance is just the minimum you can do.

In his book, Brunacini describes meeting a fire chief for the first time as a newly hired dispatcher.  One of my previous fire chiefs had the following take on customer service in his department: "If a citizen calls and tells you they've been transferred from department to department, that phone call stops with you," the chief said.  "Even if you aren't the person who can help them, I expect you to put them on hold or get their name and number, find out the information or who they need to speak to, and provide that information to the caller,"

I still follow his advice to this day, except I don't limit it to citizens.  I always go out of my way to help everyone, even if it's another telecommunicator or field unit.  New employees are especially thankful for your help and often end up paying it forward many times over the course of their careers/

Consider How You & Your Actions Look to Others
Anytime you are working, or donning the official or unofficial uniform of your center, you are the face of your center to everyone who sees you.  Whether or not you are required to wear a uniform, it is important that you take pride in your appearance.

Some agencies I've worked for didn't allow us to wear T-shirts or faded polo shirts even if the chances of the public seeing us were low.  The belief was that if you looked professional, you acted professionally.  Never badmouth your agency or gossip about your coworkers.  The old saying, "if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all," applies even in public safety.

Some agencies have strict social media policies and don't allow employees to post anything work-related, while other centers don't but should.  I  used to cringe over some of the comments one dispatcher I knew made over social media -- calling citizens stupid for calling 9-1-1, or complaining about coworkers who called in sick or police officers she perceived as lazy.  You never know who will have access to your comments, so it's best to always be professional or, better yet, not post anything at all.

Don't Disqualify the Customer with Your Qualifications
Just like you wouldn't blow off the same citizen who calls 9-1-1 every other day reporting the same medical ailment, you shouldn't blow off a police officer who spends all day conducting traffic stops or serving warrants.  You know from experience that the caller never has a severe medical emergency, yet you go through your EMD questions and instructions every time because one day it may be an actual emergency.  The same goes for that police officer.  Even though he or she performs hundreds of traffic stops every year without incident, you should treat each and every one with the same importance, because one day the driver may be the armed parolee who doesn't want to go back to prison.  Don't get complacent.

Basic Organizational Behavior Must Become Customer-Centered
"Being customer-centered," according to Brunacini, "means that customer needs, perceptions and feelings begin to drive how the service delivery system looks and behaves."  First responders "must possess a basic characteristic of liking people and an overriding inclination and desire to help those people."  To accomplish this, agencies should focus on recruiting, training and supporting the right people who will want to continue helping others throughout their careers.

Everyone is best served when individual first responders, ranging from calltakers and dispatchers to field units, perform as members of the same team with the common goal of providing superior customer service to the public, as well as to each other.  Customer service is a two-way street.  Just as telecommunicators should be nice, professional and helpful to first responders, first responders should also be courteous to their telecommunicators.  A great place to start is to recognize each other during your annual appreciation weeks and holidays.  At one of my previous centers, we used to fax holiday greetings to all of our agencies and neighboring dispatch centers, in addition to sending holiday cards with all of our signatures.  Eventually, we started receiving greetings from some of them -- proving that customer service is contagious.

Continually Improve Your Customer Service Performance
Even if you feel you already excel at customer service, there is always room for improvement.  Attend a conference or seminar on customer service, or read a book (Brunacini's Essentials of Fire Department Customer Service is a great place to start).

The APCO Institute now offers a one-day "Customer Service in Public Safety Communications" course.  Pay attention to what agencies around you are doing well and learn from them.  Help define a standard within your own agency that everyone will follow.

Even though Brunacini retired from the Phoenix Fire Department years ago, his agency is still referenced in classes citing "best practices" all over the world because of its mission statement, which states:"Our members will prevent harm, survive, and be nice!"

That's just, well, nice.

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