When We're Bad, We're a Disgrace

It doesn't take much effort to find emergency communications operators doing things wrong. Criminal behavior and poor choices show up in the newspaper, on television, and in thousands of e-mails sent from government watch groups. Sometimes the behavior warrants front page placement, but most of the time it's the person's employer which makes it newsworthy. For example, since October, 2006:

  • Guilford Metro (NC) dispatcher Shannon Crawley was charged with murder
  • Austin (TX) 911 dispatcher Eric Mackey received a written reprimand after ignoring a call about smoke from a restaurant which subsequently burned
  • Cleveland (OH) dispatcher Tina Wickline faced administrative trouble over saying "shoot to kill" to a detective who soon shot and killed the teenager they were discussing
  • Milford (CT) fire dispatcher Teresa Burrows, and police dispatcher Steven Gifford were terminated over comments such as "he's doing the funky chicken" while getting medical assistance for a prisoner who eventually died
  • Carbon County (PA) 911 dispatcher Joseph D. Homanko Jr. received community service for sending police and fire units to a non-existent brushfire
  • Hudson (OH) dispatcher Russell D. McCormick was charged with felony theft in office for stealing $1,400 in cash payments for parking tickets
  • Philadelphia (PA) dispatchers Patricia Bradley and Tamara Mitchell were charged with extortion for selling information to an individual who stated he was going to rob the houses

These examples are just a few which made the news and a small portion of the incidents of bad behavior occurring within police departments. Communications operators, like any other members of society make both good and bad decisions. But unlike most citizens, when they make a mistake, their title alerts the media.

Most communications operators perform well, but when they don't everyone knows. For example, when one of my co-workers was found having sex with an officer in the back of his patrol car in our bureau parking lot, we all knew. Supervisors managed to keep it out of the papers, but internally everyone was talking. Even in situations not as extreme, such as when a 911 operator makes a bad choice in wording to a caller, the incident is gossiped about. But, what if an operator does something good? What about when a 911 operator comforts a child who just witnessed his mother's murder? What about a dispatcher who works an officer-involved shooting with poise and efficiency? Will a good operator be recognized in the media, or even in the supervisor's pod? Sadly, the answer is, most likely, "no."

In their 2005 book The Effective Corrections Manager, Richard Phillips and Charles McConnell state lack of recognition is one of the most frequent reasons people quit their jobs. Everyone likes to be acknowledged, especially when their job is stressful and externally thankless . For the most part, a citizen is not going to ask to speak with your supervisor to say you did an excellent job, even if it involved a carjacking with small children in the back, and you managed to track down the car, calm down the caller, direct officers in to rescue the kids, recover the car without damage, and arrest the criminal. It's not that many citizens aren't appreciative. They are. It's just often the officer at the scene gets his rightfully-earned gratitude, and also yours. And, many times, citizens intend to call and commend you, but things are forgotten. And, generally if a call is handled correctly on the part of the police department, the information goes straight from the media employee's hand into the trash can. So, where should recognition come from? Supervisors.

Credit where credit is due

Morale is one of the biggest complaints in the emergency communications business. The job is stressful. The hours are long. The work can be sedentary and boring, or it can be overwhelming. Employees work bizarre shifts while still trying to maintain a life away from the department and include a bit of time for their families, and maybe themselves. For all these reasons, it is important that supervisors recognize an employee doing a good job. Many departments have established rituals like the Employee of the Month, but if my former employer's record is any indication of other departments, the board had huge gaps when nobody was nominated. Knowing the exemplary work my peers did, I don't believe this was due to no one qualifying for recognition. Having a supervisor say you do a good job can lead to a positive work environment.

Another important aspect about employee recognition is to make sure the employees know when they're recognized. Recently, a police communications operator was reviewing her personnel file and was surprised to find a myriad of commendations and letters of appreciation she had received over her career. She didn't even know she had many of these. This is unfortunate, because the writer took the time to get these letters of recognition approved and would not be happy knowing their gratitude and recognition were shoved into the receiver's file without presentation. Recognition isn't any good if it is silent. Operators need to know when they do well.

If you are a supervisor, recognize your employees. Tell them when they do something right or are performing well. Advise them when someone else, whether a peer, a supervisor, or a patrol officer, recognizes them. Encourage your employees to recognize each other and let you know when someone does something worth praising. An increase in positive reinforcement could mean the difference between an average employee and one maximizing their potential.

If you are an operator, do your job well. Insist on a work place which includes recognition. If you do something worthwhile, nominate yourself for recognition if you have to. Check your personnel records; you might find a letter of commendation you didn't know you had. Encourage field units and supervisors to speak up when you and your peers excel. Let a supervisor know when a co-worker does something well. A positive atmosphere with mutual respect and recognition can be one of the best places to work.

When a communications operator does something wrong, people will hear about it. Headlines will remind every public servant how easy it is to make a poor decision and end up disciplined, fired, or worse. Every conversation with internal and external customers is a chance to make a personal and professionally devastating mistake. Every action outside of the work place also holds the possibility of ruining a reputation and career. But, more times than not, operators are not behaving badly and making the news. Usually, they are doing an exceptional job and being ignored.

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