Before the lights and sirens, before the boots on the ground, before the storyline moves fast enough to have a middle and an ending, it must first have a beginning. And that beginning starts with calls routed to tiny cubicles tucked into corners of old buildings, or sprawling modern complexes twinkling with more lights than the White House Christmas tree.
But whether the drama is born in a communications center manned by one, or in a state-of-the-art concrete tower bristling with up-to-the-second technology, almost every emergency call starts with the person who answers the radio or telephone: The dispatcher. The guy or gal who works in an environment as tightly sealed as a research laboratory. Only instead of trying to figure out what makes nature tick, dispatchers duel with life and death situations with liberal doses of training, experience and common sense.
In the process, they also save lives, but it often comes at a price. Sure, police officers, paramedics, firefighters and other emergency professionals — all of whom rely on competent dispatching to get them where they need to be and with enough information to do their jobs — appreciate dispatch and the people who work there. But not many outside the telecommunications centers confront the stress under which dispatchers labor or understand the misconceptions others have about the jobs they do.
In the call center
Gail Klanchesser has been a dispatcher since 1986. She currently works for the Rockingham Sheriff's Department, in Brentwood, N.H. Klanchesser says the most difficult part of her job is the unknown, as in not knowing what's on the other end of the line when she answers.
"It could be a wrong number, it could be a major incident," Klanchesser says. "You have to be prepared for just about anything."
A major pet peeve? "The officer(s) that don't call in their activities until they're over, [for example] calling in a stop after they've stepped out of the car and spoken with the driver. What if something happened? We wouldn't know where they were," she says.
The candidates who succeed at dispatching are the ones who, according to Klanchesser, have "patience, thick skin, and a serious ability to multitask and [pay] attention to detail."
Klanchesser, who works at a consolidated call center, says she sees the advantages of big centers. "I think it slows dispatch to receive the call, but then have someone make an additional call to the other dispatch center." But she believes it's important to keep dispatching local, and says she feels frustrated when she's dispatching for towns she only knows on a map.
Like a small town of its own
Law enforcement has its own culture. Officers work so closely together with the others in their units that they develop an almost familial relationship. As a result, they often spend off-duty time together, gossip about one another and generally "get into each other's business." Dispatch is no different.
Corrine Begg, a veteran dispatcher who also owns and operates a coaching service for dispatch professionals says it is perfectly normal for groups with common interests to form tight bonds. But that tight bond isn't always a blessing.
"I think gossip is a big issue. In our center there are two levels — the ones who talk and the outcasts, the ones whom the others tend to gossip about. The big problems come about when supervisors don't put a stop to it," Begg says.
Part of the issue stems from the personal relationships that form inside call centers. Friends, lovers, ex-lovers and enemies all end up working side-by-side. Throw into the mix a job that is highly stressful and requires constant interaction and you have the ingredients for potential toxicity.
"As far as interpersonal interactions, I find it on some levels fantastic — that the bond with my coworkers is amazingly similar to the one you get when you work on the streets," Begg says.
And sometimes, the mixture is a lot like reality television: High drama, life played out on a small stage, with good guys and bad guys (and often it's hard to tell the difference). But there are ways to make it more pleasant and professional and less like an episode of Survivor.
Who's minding the store?
A first line supervisor who is unable manage people is like an extra appendix: It serves no real purpose and has the potential to cause all kinds of problems. In dispatch, a supervisor must relegate the personal fall-out to a minimum, yet always keep the mission in mind. It helps to have a supervisor who understands both the objective and the people who must accomplish it.
Dean Rumel, an Austin, Texas, firefighter, has seen both sides of dispatching. Rumel, a 24-year veteran, recently returned to active fire fighting after spending five and a half years as a dispatch supervisor. Rumel says he moved to dispatch because he was burned out and thought he could do a better job than was currently being done.
"This was probably the most skewed perception that I had before going to dispatch and continues to be the biggest misconception," Rumel says.
"I realized immediately that there were countless factors, often beyond the control of the dispatchers … that were at play most of the time. Callers were not sure of where they were, gave bad information, and were just plain hard to understand — especially when they were under duress. I also found out quickly that CAD-based dispatching had many internal quirks [in reference to] addressing. I just didn't realize how many factors were involved in getting the rubber on the road," Rumel says.
One of the major problems Rumel saw repeatedly during his stint in telecommunications involved the attitudes of operations personnel.
"It was extremely frustrating to me to have my peers thinking we were incompetent when there were so many factors beyond our control," says Rumel. "The dispatchers are quite a bit more dedicated and hard working than most realize. The concentration level is high and constant … and most outside dispatch have no idea [how hard it is]."
Making it better
Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, author of "Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others" and an expert on the trauma that those who care for others experience, says dispatchers often suffer from the stress of dealing with the stress of others. And, says Lipsky, it doesn't help that they often work in environments that are hostile to good health and peace of mind.
"Buildings with fluorescent lighting, no windows and [poor] snacks options" only add to the problem, Lipsky says.
Many of the changes needed to take a call center from a place where health — both mental and physical — is negatively impacted to one that's the complete opposite can be found in the hands of supervisors. "If leadership takes on the persona [of supporting those] who come in most when sick, take the fewest vacation days" it sends a negative signal to employees, says Lipsky. Instead, supervisors should seek to head off burnout, encourage employees to center their lives around their off-duty activities and refuse to exploit their subordinates.
Lipsky says proactive leadership can prevent many of the problems inherent to working in a 911 call center. She suggests encouraging dispatch personnel to take walks during meal breaks, join a gym, make sure healthy snacks are available, discourage gossip and insist they take time off when they're ill or have too much vacation time on the books.
Call center supervisors should also discourage employees from running to them to share the latest gossip, publicly frown on the establishment of cliques within the center and counsel employees who center their lives on their jobs.
"When they won't integrate anything else into their lives, become very isolated, only hang out with people who 'get it,' start sharing the same sense of humor, same language, same culture, same self-righteousness — it becomes incredibly detrimental to make the world that small," Lipsky says.
The result of that kind of telescopic world view often means minimizing the experiences of others. "Nobody in your life feels they can get any compassion unless they, too, are getting airlifted into a trauma center," Lipsky says.
How to help
James Azuero, chief of communications for the Paramedic Division of Denver Health, has a long track record in his field, and all of that experience has taught him how to build a positive relationship with telecommunications personnel. Azuero says one of the most important things any supervisor can do is earn an employee's trust — then keep it. He also says a supervisor must have advanced technological and organizational skills.
"Knowing and understanding your system as well as protocols is key to your success," Azuero adds.
But ultimately, it's the people part of supervising that separates the good places to work from the bad. Approachable, fair supervision goes a long way toward reducing stress in the workplace. Azuero also recommends that supervisors stand available to assist the dispatcher throughout the shift, not simply disappear into an office with a closed door.
Here are a few additional recommendations from Azuero to keep stress levels lower. He says supervisors should:
- Remain involved by staying on top of the types of calls coming in. If there is a particularly stressful call, the supervisor may need to debrief the dispatcher on the spot.
- Establish a peer support group for the communications center to give employees a safe, professional way to deal with stress.
- Use a triage standard in which the dispatcher asks scripted questions, giving callers consistency in how each call is approached (this also helps ensure the quality of each response).
- Audit calls on a regular basis to give immediate feedback to the dispatcher, particularly in difficult situations.
As for the overall success of the communications center, that often boils down to simply hiring the right people. Azuero says a good supervisor should be able to make quick decisions, have experience with 911 calls and exhibit both understanding and flexibility. As for the telecommunicators, he says "the ability to stay calm in very tense situations, multi-tasking and utilizing all different types of resources and thinking outside the box," are the minimum he looks for in new employees.
Before a call rolls code
Sure, there are a lot of technological programs out there that can make telecommunications easier or more accurate and productive, but the underlying health of a communications center can be summed up in the health of its individual employees.
Dispatchers with readily available healthy foods, convenient exercise opportunities, who get enough sleep and don't work in a poisonous environment with rampant gossip and backstabbing (particularly when it's encouraged by management), will produce a higher quality product. That means the officers on the street will be safer, the public more satisfied and the media won't find your center an easy target.
And, although it's impossible and unrealistic to hold a supervisor responsible for all aspects of a subordinate's private life, it is reasonable to expect that supervisor to be aware of other dynamics. Minding the shop these days includes paying attention to what's on the other person's plate. Good dispatching can make or break a call — and the way to ensure good dispatching is to make sure the men and women using the technology are at their personal best — at work and at home.
A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.