By Jeff Vilk, Guest Writer
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “As a leader, you have to have the ability to assimilate new information and understand that there might be a different view.” While she wasn’t talking about emergency communications, her words apply to our industry just the same. We must be able to take new information, apply it, then use it in the field. After gathering and reviewing new information, we may discover there is a different perspective that can help us do our jobs more effectively.
Here at Under the Headset, I try to uncover or dust off information that may have gone unnoticed or unexplored to make your job as a leader and a frontline telecommunicator easier. You’ll find just such a resource on the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) main webpage, the APCO Project RETAINS (Responsive Efforts to Assure Integral Needs in Staffing) Report. This report offers invaluable information about staffing, overtime and retention, compensation and benefits, orientation and training, shift management and employee satisfaction and the importance of recognition and appreciation in the emergency communications field.
The project began in 1999 as a taskforce to address the “staffing crisis” facing the 9-1-1 industry, and it evolved into an active committee in conjunction with the University of Denver Research Institute. The original, 123-page study came out in August 2005 after public safety communication managers requested a resource to assist them in addressing proper staffing and retention levels. They were looking to reduce problems and issues associated with hiring and keeping employees. In 2009 and again in 2018, follow-up studies were done to update the information. Taken from the 2009 study: “APCO Project RETAINS was created to provide managers with tools and strategies to increase the effectiveness of their own management practices, thereby improving staffing, retention and employee satisfaction in public safety communication centers throughout the country.”
As we all know, while dispatchers work with law enforcement, fire and rescue personnel and medical services staff every day, we are usually not afforded the same training, certifications, or benefits as our colleagues. Project RETAINS was created to alleviate some of those inconsistencies. Digging into the report, you’ll find some useful and interesting information. For example, when the follow-up study was conducted in 2009, the turnover rate for public safety communication officials was 17%. To put that into some perspective, the average turnover rate for teachers and nurses was 15%.
After being commissioned by APCO International, George Mason University’s Center for Social Science conducted a supplemental study to the 2009 piece that was based on surveys sent to communication centers throughout the country. Some of the findings:
- Supportive supervision, co-worker support and perceived recognition were key factors when determining an employee’s commitment to the agency
- Employees are proud of their jobs and do have an interest in remaining on for the long run
- Staffing pressures are present in all communications centers but the largest centers struggle with retention the most
- Millennials will look at other careers other than an emergency center for two reasons: 1) Millennials desire to work where there is a work and life balance and 2) They mistrust social institutions, especially government
- While most employees are enthusiastic about learning new technologies, less than half feel their emergency centers are providing training that is adequate
These are just some basics found in the report. There is certainly more to explore. An addendum to the report is a resource called the RETAINS toolkit. For a fee, depending on if you are a full member of APCO or not, this tool includes dispatcher guidelines that will generate a report based on information provided by the user and compare it to the data that is contained in the report. It is intended to be used as a starting point when considering staffing levels and workloads to make effective and necessary changes.
In the coming months, I will examine some of this specific information, talk about it and compare it to cities around the country. It is my hope you will take this information and use it to help your center where it is needed. I will leave you with another eyebrow-raising statistic: 97% of public safety personnel WILL NOT work in the profession long enough to retire while 97% of personnel employed by police, fire and EMS agencies WILL work in the profession long enough to retire. It is incumbent on leaders to ask some questions. Why is it this way? What can be done at the agency level to help change this? What should be done at the national level to change this? The answers are not difficult, but they are not black and white, either. It will take research, trial and error to find the answers.