Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Dispatcher training

Our Manager is leaving us next month. It’s exciting to see a dispatcher reach that pinnacle of service credit that allows her (or him) to actually retire from the job. I’m tired of seeing co-workers resign out of burn-out, from injuries, because something better came along, or (even worse) be terminated for various reasons. Why does our profession have a short retention span for employees?

To understand the high turnover rate, one needs to understand the change in the job itself over the decades. Refer to my previous post “One of those days” for information on the hiring process. Any government job is an extended process. On top of the whole jumping through the hoops ‘red tape’, one is on probation up to a year. At any point during the probationary period, the dispatch trainee can be called in and told ‘you services are not longer required’.

During my tenure as a Training Coordinator, I was responsible for the entire Communications Center training program at one agency. Any training program is in constant change. Mine was no different. Four phases of training (call-taking, fire, NCIC/NLETS, and police) which consisted of two sections – classroom and live one-on-one with dispatch trainer, required careful monitoring. Evaluations, tests, weekly reports, meetings when problems arose, extensions when warranted, and if necessary, ‘final’ chance extensions with trainer (usually me at that point) before termination recommendation. This was done on top of supervisor duties (or for regular trainers, along with regular duties) and covering for shifts when short-handed (what dispatch center isn’t understaffed?).

When rookies are going through the training process, it puts a strain on the dispatch center and field personnel. How many small Communications Centers are required to do on-the-job (OTJ) training as a necessity? I know my current department does it. The hard reality of life come down to one fact: smaller agencies don’t have the same luxury of classroom training that their larger cousins do. Questions are directed to trainers on the fly. That is the reason some smaller departments prefer to hire experienced dispatchers (laterals) rather than inexperienced (entry-level). The general feeling with this policy is that the lateral knows how to dispatch and answer the phone, all the new department has to do is teach the new person their department’s way of doing things. Larger departments may go the opposite, taking entry-level folks as they have no ‘bad habits’ to unlearn.

It is unfortunate that training is often ignored among Administrators when it comes to the Public Safety Telecommunicators (Dispatchers). Agencies that provide Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD), or pre-arrival medical instructions, should require minimal quality control and continuing education units (CEUs) for their personnel. Field Training Officers (FTOs) are given guidance before they are allowed to take on a probation officer. Don’t our rookie dispatchers deserve the same?

If you haven’t figured it out yet, I am an advocate for mandatory dispatcher training. I don’t care whether you work in a combined Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP), a separate Law Enforcement or Fire Communications Center, or a contracted EMS dispatch. The Public, field units, co-workers, and fellow dispatchers should expect the person who answers that phone to know how to properly answer a call for service and ask basic information. Is that too much to expect?

Don’t get me wrong. Millions of calls are handled every year without any problem in a professional manner. Unfortunately, it is that 0.01% that is picked up by the media and blasted over the airwaves. How many of you out there have dealt with the media during an incident? As much as I hate to admit it, the media has a job to do. Reporters can help or hurt us. Cooperation and common sense is the best way to work with the media. Know your Department’s media policy. Who should you refer the press to for information? As those of us who work the first line, the real ‘first responders’, we take calls from the media. How many times has the news van been on scene before the rescuers? What can you say? One department allowed us to give basics (a second alarm fire at the 2300 hundred block of Any Street with two injuries, no further details or a shooting at the intersection of Main & 5th, units still investigating). Seriously, media heard more than that over the scanner.

Any dispatcher who trains for his or her department often does so without any formal guidance. In other words, unless mandated, too many Public Safety Telecommunicators do not attend a formal Civilian Training Officer (CTO) certification course before they take on their first dispatch intern. That’s not surprising. According to a survey done by APCO on the status of dispatcher training in 2009 (and updated in 2011), 19 states do not mandate any training for 9-1-1 dispatchers. Of those 19, five have voluntary regulations in place. Washington D.C never responded to the survey. Of the rest, the amount of hours required varied from 16 to 232 with some biannual recertification & continual education credits mandated, while others only regulated emergency medical directions.

Compare dispatchers to a few other allied health and cosmetologists requirements. In the State of Nevada to get a license as a Cosmetologist, one must complete 1800 hours of training or have four years of training. An Emergency Medical Technician – Basic, must receive at least 110 hours of training in the classroom following a federally set curriculum. Paramedics get 1000 hours. Massage Therapists need to have gone through a class with a minimum of 500 hours and pass a national test to get their Nevada State license. As a Pharmacy Technician, the State of Nevada requires proof of completing an accredited school with at least 350 hours of training; completed 1500 hours under direction of a pharmacist; taken a non-accredited course AND passed the national certificated exam;, or, be licensed in another state.

Seems to me, the 9-1-1 profession has a lot of catching up to do with its training standards.
When an incident goes bad, as in the case in Alameda, California, all eyes are turned towards the department. Every phone call, each radio conversation, and every comment typed in to the incident (if the agency is using Computer Aided Dispatch, also referred to as CAD) is recorded as it happens by the dispatcher. This is not so with field units. Did the Alameda Fire Department use funds meant for water safety rescue training and use the money for other purposes? Was dispatch included in the training allocation budget? In the end, a man still lost his life in a tragic way. Lessons will be learned that will hopefully prevent such a terrible occurrence from happening again. Let us hope the City will wake up and include the Communications Center personnel when the mass training begins.

Back to the retirement, Corey O’Okinda is leaving us after a long career. She plans on doing a bit of traveling, some gardening, and spemding time with her family. Those of us who work with her certainly wish her well. She is one of the blessed few who has made it to the top of the mountain. Goddess Bless, Corey. Enjoy your lazy days – you’ve earned them!

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