It’s tough work being a 9-1-1 telecommunicator these days. Mandatory overtime, more work with less people, and the very nature of handling emergencies everyday combine to create a sometimes overwhelming culture of negativity.
Many believe that “this is just how it is.” The stats confirm the challenges of the situation. 98% of emergency dispatchers leave the profession before the age of retirement. 60% quit before the 3 year mark, and many more leave before that.
Because the larger problems are never addressed, some feel the only option is to leave.
The monetary impact of this attrition is huge, costing taxpayers and the agencies they support hundreds of thousands each year.
As an example, let’s take a medium-sized PSAP that hires ten dispatchers per new class. The new dispatchers are paid their regular salary to be trained. They complete training and are able to work the dispatch floor unassisted within 3-8 months, depending on the agency, at an average cost of $200,000. If, within a year, half of this class leaves, $100,000 is wasted. The cost of having a tenured dispatcher leave is even greater when factoring in the intangible value of their experience.
One agency hired 10 dispatchers this year, only to have eight resign. One step forward, two steps back.
The monetary impact is only one side of the story.
What’s the emotional impact on a new dispatcher who perseveres through training, qualifies, and then hits the dispatch floor only to be overwhelmed by overwork and negativity?
And what’s the impact to a community whose 9-1-1 operators are working multiple 12- and 16-hour shifts a week without breaks? The public outcry is severe and justice doled out swiftly when an operator is found to have erred, causing potential harm. Even when discipline is warranted, the circumstances that contributed to the error are never taken into account.
While “the way things are” can not be resolved immediately, initiatives can be taken to lessen the load placed on our 9-1-1 telecommunicators. Initiatives that are geared toward making the dispatch center a more positive place to work. Studies show that those who like where they work are more likely to want to be there (well, duh).
The difference-maker is moving away from a task-oriented leadership style and embracing a more people-centric approach.
Traditionally, PSAPs have been run as paramilitary organizations, mirroring the police agencies they support. Using this model, strict adherence to policy and procedure, getting things done the right way, and following direction are prioritized above all else.
It’s easy to see why this approach is taken. Police work is serious business. There are lives on the line, and because of liability, things must be done a certain way. Something is lost, however, when supervision focuses only on the task, neglecting the person doing the work.
The focus of the exchange centers on what’s wrong. The supervisor takes a punitive tone, or seems annoyed by having to address the employee. The employee may leave the exchange feeling like they weren’t heard, or that their efforts aren’t appreciated.
Why is task-orientation the default style at most PSAPs? A few reasons:
- It’s always been done this way. Culture is not easy to change.
- It’s easier to be a hard-nosed supervisor than it is to embrace sensitivity and compassion. Especially when a drill sergeant approach was the only example to model. It takes effort to meet others where they are.
- Those at the top of the organization aren’t fully invested in making the necessary changes for a people-oriented approach to take root.
When your initiative is driven from the top, with command staff and supervision aligned in the effort to make positive change a possibility, amazing things can happen.
How can you tell if your PSAP is ready for a change?
Here’s a few signs:
- PSAP morale is at an all-time low. The negativity is thick, poisonous, and your new people can’t adjust. Instead, they leave.
- Call-outs and sick time usage is at an all-time high. Those who do show up are forced to work even harder.
- When engaging line employees, your supervisors use many more negative comments than positive. Click here for a fascinating study on the ideal praise-to-criticism ratio for the most effective team.
- You’ve tried everything and you still can’t get your staffing levels up high enough to stop the exodus.
The research is conclusive. Positivity matters at work. And this research was applied to day-to-day business matters at private corporations. Think about what a positive environment can do for a team of people that work with challenging, and oftentimes traumatic, situations for living (like at 9-1-1).
Several PSAP managers are using the power of a people-centered approach to increase positivity and make the workplace better.
- One commanding officer started a commendation wall, and has instructed his supervisors to offer three comments of praise for every negative one. This CO also put inspirational sayings and messages throughout the comm center, painting them in the hallways, near the entrances to the dispatch floor and other high traffic areas.
- Through a series of actions; including relaxed dress code, an open-door policy (together with positive encouragement to continue to follow the chain of command), and instating wellness and employee recognition programs; another PSAP director drove down sick time usage 45% from the prior year.
- Another director is actively polling her line employees to find out what kind of training they would like to see, offering a new opportunity to have a voice.
There are many more examples of how top-down initiatives are changing the way PSAPs are run, dramatically decreasing attrition in the process (one PSAP went from the customary 60%, down to 7% in a year!).
Adopting a people-centered approach isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.
What has your PSAP done to help make things more people-oriented and positive? Please share below.
About the Author:
Adam Timm is the author of the #1 bestselling book, Stress Is Optional! How to Kick the Habit, and the cofounder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a law enforcement training company that offers stress resilience, communication and leadership classes designed for Emergency Dispatchers. A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade, he brings his stories from the frontline into his writings and classes. His second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.