If there is one thing that is harder than being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher, it’s training someone to be one. Not everyone chooses to be a trainer. Not everyone who chooses to be one is a good one. Everyone who does choose to take on the task of molding future operators has a tough job ahead of them. It’s a delicate balance of letting go of control while still maintaining safety. It’s a job requiring finess and tolerance and patience. Trainees come to us mostly as blank slates (those who have the challenge of re-training operators who have come from another department have unique issues to deal with). Most new operators want to do well. They just have no idea what they are doing. Even with several weeks of classroom training under their belt nothing can prepare them for the delicate dance each of us does on a daily basis. There is no template for how a call is going to go. There is no script for an officer’s traffic stop or fire or even running a DUI check-point. We learn constantly as each second passes. So, how do you train that? With a few things in mind, we can train and in the process produce operators that can handle the job.
In the Beginning
When that fresh face hits the floor, amidst the eye rolling and the bets they won’t make it, we, as trainers need to keep in mind that it is our job to invest in the investment our department has already made. Too often, during my time on the floor, both as a trainee and a trainer, I heard comment after comment and saw so many behaviors that were designed to flush out new hires. I understand that we who make it in this job feel elite. We are elite. Not everyone can do our job. I also believe that we shouldn’t try to build ourselves up by scaring off those who want to do what we do. There were probably a few people that left our department that would have made it with a little more encouragement and maybe a smile or two from co-workers. As operators, and especially as trainers, we should be kind, remember what it was like to be new and focus on the strengths each new individual brings to dispatch rather than the weaknesses (especially since most of the weaknesses are imaginary or blown way out of proportion).
Being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher is overwhelming. There are half a dozen screens, immense amounts of information, beeps and chirps and whatnot in our ears that all mean different things, codes to remember, directions and locations, names, call-signs, jurisdictional lines, policies and procedures, etc., etc., etc. It’s a mad world of information and a new operator is required to acclimate and retain all of this while working in it. There is no such thing as a training call when you are in this business. Every call is live and every call matters. Due to this, try to feed your trainee little bites of their job at a time. It might seem funny to some to see how overwhelmed and frustrated a new person can get especially if it allows us to say, “I told you he or she wasn’t cut out for this,” but as a trainer it is our responsibility to direct the training. Let them learn at a comfortable pace even if it feels too slow. Keep track of how things are going. That way you can let the training supervisor determine if their pace is too slow. Often our expectations as trainers are not realistic and not conducive to encouraging a person to stick with it and be successful.
Not every moment of training is filled with a screaming domestic or a car chase. Often there is dead air. Use this time to explain some of that technology we use. Show him or her how to move around the screens or how to find information utilizing our databases. Encourage them to ask questions and answer those questions honestly. If you don’t know the answer, let them know that you will find out and get back to them. Don’t waste this valuable connection time filing your nails or reading a book. Many departments have policies against trainers doing anything other than taking calls or dispatching while they are actively training. If so, don’t spend the dead air time just talking to other dispatchers. You’re getting paid to train, so train.
Letting out just Enough of the Apron Strings
One of the toughest things about being a trainer is letting go of that control. Once your trainee shows enough aptitude to do some things on his or her own, we have to let them take more and more control of their own call taking. This is tough to do. It’s hard to bite back on the urge to take over. After all, we can determine the nature of the call, get it into the computer and direct the call to a conclusion so much faster than they can. But, that’s not the point. Unless they are seriously messing up or they are putting someone’s life in danger, as a trainer, we have to just let them do it. If we train them well, they will eventually be just as astute and efficient as we are.
Cutting the Strings
Eventually this has to be done. I don’t know who was more nervous each time one of my trainees went on their own. For me, I believe the only thing more stressful that the first day one of my trainees was on her own was the day I went on my own.
Training new 9-1-1 operator/dispatchers takes a special person. I’ve seen trainers who were the epitome of patience. They were zen-like. I’ve also seen trainers who reminded me of slave drivers. As a trainer, I had my strengths and my weaknesses. I was lucky to have a strong training department to keep me on task when I went askew. I even had a trainee taken away from me once because I was sure she never was going to make it and she just wasn’t performing up to my standards. I found out my standards were a bit high and the department wanted a second opinion. Although I was miffed at the time, I understand now that putting her with another trainer just to see was a good way to protect their investment. I tried to keep in mind all the overtime and stand-bys I had to work due to being understaffed when I was feeling high and mighty and like it might be fun to jump on the bandwagon and flush someone out. We want to make sure our officers, fire fighters and citizens are safe. We won’t be there forever and would actually like to not have to be there all the time during our careers. With that in mind, be kind to your trainees and help them succeed.