In the typical workplace, understaffing can lead to decreased sales, a lost client or the requirement that other employees work harder, more quickly, and longer hours. Certainly, this can be difficult for existing employees. Understaffing at the office, however, isn’t likely to lead to injury or death of another person. Things are different in public safety communications. Here, adequate staffing levels can mean the difference between life and death. While a direct link between a 9-1-1 communications center being understaffed and major injury or death hasn’t been established, the possibility always remains. A 2005 article in Firehouse magazine sums it up well: “…a lack of personnel has also had a significant, but many times less publicly visible, impact on emergency communications centers as well, adding to rapid burnout of dispatchers and creating the potential for delayed alarms. Throughout North America, public safety agencies report continuing shortages in telecommunicators.”
There are various reasons for the personnel shortage. Stress and burnout can be a big part of it. In some centers, telecommunicators are paid significantly less than their police officer and firefighter counterparts. I think most of us would expect somewhat of a pay gap, but for some agencies, it is significant. According to Glassdoor, the average annual pay for a law enforcement official at the Ohio State Highway Patrol is $70,568 while the average pay for a telecommunicator at the same agency is $41,600, a gap of almost $29,000/year.
I mentioned the APCO Project RETAINS in my last article and, in fact, addressing the staffing crisis was the primary motivator for the study. The research committee found that the problem was more widespread than initially thought, writing, “…Only a third of the centers (small and large) had enough staff to comfortably handle the workload confirmed what managers were telling APCO.” (RETAINS, p. 2) Managers also reported that, while workloads had increased, their staffing levels had not. In larger centers, turnover is almost expected and because of that, hiring at those centers can be different. According to Project RETAINS, about 40 percent of large centers ‘over hire’. Some centers may look at it as a necessary evil. However, just as many would say it should not be.
When you ‘over hire,’ the quality of hires potentially goes down, creating a habit of quantity over quality. This “warm butts in the seats” approach can be particularly problematic, resulting in poor customer service, a negative workplace, and poor relationships with first responders. Without the right balance, the agency may find itself in a Catch-22: over hire and suffer lower quality personnel, but under hire and customer service takes a hit as telecommunicators rush from call to call, becoming short or rude with callers. Regardless, people have emergencies, phones need answering, and police and fire personnel need a calm voice on the other end of the radio. The key is to find a happy medium.
What can be done? What is being done?
Project RETAINS highlighted that another big reason for the shortage was because managers simply did not know how to adequately staff their centers. “In too many centers, the process for determining the number of staff needed to do the job appears to be fundamentally flawed, providing inaccurate guidance, and leading directly to employee burnout and high turnover rates!” (RETAINS p.6) For this reason, APCO makes a Staffing and Retention Toolkit available on its web site. Beyond APCO though, what is there? The education system has also taken notice.
Not long ago, the only possible exposure to 9-1-1 work was an elective criminal justice course or a fire service program. This isn’t the case anymore. Community colleges and career centers have started programs specifically for emergency communications. Auburn Career Center in Concord, OH is on the forefront of the educational expansion and hopes to begin the program with students in January. “We prefer [the term] “telecommunicators.” Dispatching in an old term. We want to get rid of the perception that all they’re (telecommunicators) doing is answering the phone and sending a fire truck,” said Michelle Rodewald, Director of Adult Workforce Education and Business Partnerships. Auburn, as it is affectionately known locally, began brainstorming what the program would look like about a year ago. Members of local public safety institutions, with support from the county commissioners, recognized that a need existed and worked to make it happen. The program will consist of 600 hours of education time, 200 of those hours coming as an intern. The ultimate goal and difference between other telecommunicator programs, according to Rodewald is that, when completed, attendees will be certified through the state. Online learning is not in the plans now but Rodewald would not rule it out much later down the road. Here’s hoping Auburn’s entrance into dispatching education will be the first of many other institutions to follow suit.
As telecommunicators, we can only hope increased acknowledgement and acceptance of our profession can lead to increased staffing, increased knowledge and education which will in turn, be best for everyone in the long run.