9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Training for Success: Tips for Onboarding New Telecommunicators

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2015
Written by Melissa Kumle-Hammes & Rachael Elvers; Melissa is a Public Policy and Administration PhD student.  She also works as a 9-1-1 dispatcher for the Joint Emergency Communications Center of Johnson County, Iowa, and serves on APCO's Editorial Advisory Committee.  Rachael is a 9-1-1 dispatcher and certified training officer for the Joint Emergency Communications Center of Johnson County, Iowa.  She is also a licensed paramedic.

After an exhaustive, extensive and likely expensive hiring process, the "right" candidate is selected to fulfill the duties of a dispatcher or telecommunicator in an emergency communications center.

So, now what?

Quite often, the new employee fills out paperwork and then begins training with their assigned certified training officer (CTO).  Unfortunately, onboarding -- the process in which new employees acquire the necessary knowledge, skills and behaviors to become effective organizational members -- tends to be overlooked or skipped altogether.  Onboarding is a communications center's one and only chance to make a positive first impression on, and ultimately connect with, the new telecommunicator.  More specifically, successful onboarding will help a new calltaker or dispatcher to not only learn their job duties, but also understand the social, performance and training facets of their newly chosen communications career.

Why is onboarding important to your communications center?  Research indicates that onboarding creates happy and productive employees, and reduces the likelihood of turnover.  With an average cost of $18,388 per new hire, most communications centers cannot afford to lose trained dispatchers.  Yet, the nationwide turnover rate of emergency communications employees is nearly 20%, which means two out of every 10 telecommunicators exit the occupation each year.

Onboarding is a proven method to mitigate turnover is many industries, and it can be easily applied to any communications center.  Here are a few tips to create or improve the onboarding process for all new hires at your communications center.

Make the First Day Count
Use the employee's first day on the job as an opportunity to impress the new telecommunicator and reinforce their confidence that they made the right decision to accept the job.  While mundane human resources paperwork is a necessity, do not let it consume the entire day's activities.

Instead, construct comfortable situations to make staff introductions and then provide an opportunity for the new employee to be social with other staff members.  Create a "welcome kit" -- this can comprise items as simple as company pens or notepads -- designed to make the new telecommunicator feel like part of the team.  Make the first day as fun as possible.

The training process for a new telecommunicator can last upwards of a year depending upon the size of the communications center, and new employees may not count toward minimum staffing during that time.  But even if they don't count toward your minimum, they still matter and it's important for supervisors to demonstrate this.  Therefore, confidence reinforcement is extremely important during training to ensure the new employee knows they matter to the team.  In other words, create training tasks that help them feel like a contributing member whose efforts are valuable.

Introduce Stress & Teach Them How to Cope
Emergency calltakers and dispatchers are expected to possess significantly greater knowledge than ever before in order to provide quality and efficient life-saving services to their communities.  In fact, research indicates that telecommunicators experience comparable levels of stress to police officers on the street.

A relevant study details how 9-1-1 telecommunicators are subject to the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress and PTSD due to compassion fatigue.  Fundamentally, compassion fatigue is defined as being overwhelmed with compassion or concern for others.  For these reasons, a newly hired telecommunicator needs to be introduced to the stress of the job, but also given the tools to cope.

First, make certain the new hire is aware of any employee assistance program or mental health-related services offered by your agency.  Second, prepare them for the negative aspects of the job while still ensuring that their day is predominated by the positive and achievable aspects.  Third, teach the new telecommunicator how to separate their emotions from the necessary tasks of their job.  While empathy is important, calltakers and dispatchers need to maintain control of their emotions.  Finally, emphasize that every day will be filled with opportunities to help their community.  The new employee needs to feel proud that they will possess the skills to help people during what may be the worst event of their life.

Set Them Up to Succeed
The new telecommunicator may be the perfect person for your communications center, but they need to be treated, trained and valued properly from day one in order to succeed.  First, ensure your training program is up-to-date, adequate and measurable.  Second, create an organized orientation week to guarantee the new employee is immediately able to build relationships and feel comfortable at your center.  Third, provide the new employee with plenty of one-on-one time with their training officer (with and without the stress of the trainer counting toward minimum staffing).  Finally, vary the new telecommunicator's daily training tasks as much as possible.  Challenge them every day in new ways to keep them motivated and productive.

Do not waste the time, effort and money put into finding and training the "right" new telecommunicator by improperly introducing them to your communications center.  Take the time to prepare all new employees for their careers by incorporating a strategic and calculated onboarding process.  After all, research proves that proper new employee onboarding leads to higher job satisfaction, higher organizational commitment, higher performance levels, lower stress, and lower turnover.

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