Preventing the haunting silence

Emergency communications operator training keeps dispatchers from freezing up when they're needed the most

     Many large agencies, such as Phoenix, train in-house, teaching new employees completely on-site. Other agencies, including ones in Oregon and Utah, utilize a certification academy. Employees learn according to standards often set by the state. A third way to train is by using outside organizations. "The majority of agencies lack the ability to provide in-house training," states Richard Mirgon, APCO first vice president. Therefore, agencies have to look outside their walls to find quality instruction. "It would be rare to find a public safety employee with all the skills and the time required to research and develop training courses," says Carter. "That is why training institutions are in the training business, and public safety is in the business of providing public safety." NECI's primary objective is to certify in-house trainers so they can go back to their agencies and train others.

Training components

     Emergency communications operator training should consist of three stages: classroom, on-the-job (OJT) and continuing education. New employees need to learn many things before they can be successful out on the floor.

     To effectively master the communications skill set, trainees require an agreeable classroom atmosphere. "A good learning environment (is essential)," states Mirgon, adding the environment should be functional, comfortable and without disruption.

     The instruction also must be interactive, provide lots of problem solving opportunities and use adult learning principles. "Adults learn better by hearing, seeing and doing," Carter explains. Sue Pivetta, president of Professional Pride and author of The Exceptional Trainer, adds, "A child goes to a class, sits down and assumes the teacher is the expert. An adult goes and assesses whether or not the teacher is an expert. An adult learner can buy-out. A child won't buy-out. A child can be poorly taught but they still believe the teacher is the expert. A trainer can be very good at the work but not be good at the training."

     After an employee leaves the classroom, they require a period of OJT. During this phase, trainees practice what they learned. Here, the trainer should be experienced, empathetic and qualified to train. Alissa Gunning, operations training coordinator for the City of Lincoln (Nebraska) Communications Center, states "supportive, qualified trainers" are essential in the OJT setting. Pivetta agrees and points out many trainers try to phase out trainees to see if they're tough enough. "This is an immature way to look at the work," she states. "Honor the people who get through the hiring process. Give them a safe and effective place to learn with trainers who know adult learning and want to train."

     Everything trainees do in the OJT environment must be structured, adds Graham, noting written standards are important. "It should not be a person ad-libbing," he says. "The person actually needs to know why they are doing what they are doing."

     During OJT, the trainee should become comfortable with the equipment, techniques and atmosphere in the emergency communications center, and once a person passes initial training, an agency should not consider their education complete. Mirgon suggests consistency in continuing education. "You need to have the ability to provide it on a regular basis and have it be meaningful on current topics," he states. Training should address changes in policies and procedures, legal rulings and ongoing issues, such as fitness and nutrition.

     According to Graham, another topic agencies need to keep on top of is technology. "It is essential because communications is a very large part of technology and technology is changing every day. If you don't follow technology, it will leave you behind," he explains.

Building a good trainer

     "Everyone cannot train," Graham states. Often, the quality of the trainer determines the success of the trainee. Essential characteristics include: patience, desire and the ability to communicate. "The ability to give good usable feedback (is important)," says Dejung. "A part of that is to be bluntly honest in a diplomatic way, and have the bravery to give negative feedback along with the positive."

     According to Pivetta, attitude becomes extremely important. "The trainer and the trainee are equals," she says. "The trainer is not the boss. He or she is a mentor, their hero. They are not trying to rule them out, but in."

     A good trainer also has practical hands-on experience. "They need to be trained in adult learning and possess the ability to train a large cross-section of people," says Mirgon. When an employee incorporates the characteristics of a good trainer, this should be accentuated with a quality Train-the-Trainer program.

Facilitating training

     Agencies can do many things to improve training.

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