Monday, October 10, 2011

My Kingdom for a Dispatcher

Remember this number: 5%. I’ll mention it again.

How does an agency find, train, and retain dispatchers? Prior to the Internet, recruiting Communications Center personnel was a simple matter of placing an advertisement in the local classifieds for a specified amount of time. For a wider variety of applicants, buying ads in regional or national magazines & newspapers brought a larger volume of applicants. Today, Human Resource specialists are relying on the Internet for applicants. Job listings can be posted with trade journals & associations, local & regional newspapers (both on-line and print editions), and various unemployment assistance job boards. This is fine, assuming potential employees know where to find the job postings. It is important for HR staff to which key words to use when writing the search parameters.

Get creative with recruitment. Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department runs commercial spots on the local cable network when the department is accepting applications. Go to job fairs at community colleges and high schools, have a booth at trade conventions held in your county, participate in Explorer fairs, and participate in National Night Out by having a dispatcher speak on 9-1-1 at community meetings – making sure to mention the Department is hiring, of course.

Once the position(s) is posted, the HR technician who is assigned the daunting task of screening through the applications should be made aware of the Communications Center’s needs. How up-to-date is the job description? If the requirements include being able to work a PBX switchboard, an intercom, and desktop radio mike, then your department have some work to do. If your job descriptions don’t mention Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD) but the dispatch center went live CAD year ago, then maybe the description needs a little tweaking.

Don’t make your requirements so rigid and complex, that 90% of the applicants are paper-screened out. For an entry-level position, does your agency truly require multiple years of dispatch experience? An entry level dispatch dispatcher is starting at the beginning. No prior experience isn’t necessarily a problem in a new hire; he or she has no bad habits to unlearn. On the other hand, a lateral hire should know the basics of the job - they only need to learn your agencies' policies & procedures - the lateral already knows how to talk on a radio and take a call.

After the applicants have been selected, does your agency give a test? Is it a written, combination written/verbal, or do you jump right to an interview? Whichever method is utilized one can agree the red tape of hiring is costly and time-consuming for all involved. Is there any way to streamline dispatcher hiring? Yes, there can be. In northern California, many county community colleges offer a POST-certified dispatcher course in which any one can take. In the San Francisco Bay Area, one county college program's dispatcher class final test results are gathered for all agencies in the county to see. A nearby county, the agencies came together to offer a couple of dispatcher tests a yer. Agencies can pull candidates from the list (of those who passed the test) and proceed with their normal hiring procedures.

I’ve always been a huge advocate of training. I believe in training new hires right the first time, after all, these are people I have to rely on as coworkers. It is for that reason that I believe a trainer should have a Civilian Training Officer (CTO) certification before getting anywhere near a new person. Yes, it means agencies must spend a little money on dispatch personnel, but this course is worth every penny.

Adults learn differently than children, at least that is my take on teaching from many years of experience. I have found that a mixture of classroom and hands-on seem to work the best. Adults need to see a procure or skill done first, then they need to hear the reason why it is required to be done in that particular way, finally, the adult trainee should be coached through the actual hands-on skill. Each adult needs to be allowed to practice the skill or knowledge until they perform it correctly. Having a training room with a training CAD is the best way to accomplish the training. Alas, it is not always possible in a small Communications Center.  

Every agency has specific goals, restrictions, and time lines to follow. A decent training program should be managed by a Training Coordinator, who can be a line dispatcher, supervisor, or manager. Regardless of who takes on the responsibility, he or she must be organized. Trainees, trainers, classes, and live one-on-one sessions need to be monitored for effectiveness, potential problems, continuity of training, and timeliness. Each phase should have a limit, even if one trainee is having difficulties. How long will you allow for extra time, for remedial training, and for the ‘last ditch effort’ before termination?

I kept track of each trainee with a spreadsheet. Expected completion dates of each phase, assigned 'live' trainers, classroom trainers, guest trainers, comments (remedial, extensions, issues, etc.) weer all logged in the spreadsheet. In addition, I wrote a status report once a week on the trainees. If there was any serious complaints with trainees, I would meet with both the trainer and trainee to resolve the problem. A couple of times, a trainee was placed on a last chance extension with me. I felt it was only right that I do the monitoring in those circumstances, in order to evaluate the person to keep or terminate.

There are some wonderful methods of teaching new hires out there. There is no reason to reinvent the wheel. For a fee, training books, simulators (with tapes of real calls of crimes, medical calls, and fire-related events), and other training materials can be purchased from Professional Pride (see list of websites below). The Public Safety Group offers online training, seminars, and classes. The National Public Safety Telecommunications Council has free Power Point presentations Next Generation 911, and other radio related information. The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) offers free online courses on various Public Safety related topics, including the Incident Command System (ICS) and National Incident Management System (NIMS). For news and information on dispatching, links to news, jobs, training, and resources, you can’t beat Dispatch Monthly Online.

The bottom line with any department training program is variety. Keep it fresh. Ride-alongs, games (jeopardy-style trivia using department policies and facts), breaking training phases, involving dispatch personnel as ‘guest speakers’, or using field personnel in role-playing scenarios (or trainees as victims/suspects for SWAT/fire/ems training exercises).

So why is it so difficult to make it past the training process? High expectations, stress, unrealistic expectations, or no feedback until a problem occurs. Daily observation reports (DORs) are critical to training. DOR’s are an essential part of a trainee, and trainer’s shift, and should consist of more than checking off a few boxes. Both the trainer and dispatch trainee should make a few notes, even if it is ‘had a good shift with no problems today’. Remember, the possibility of probationary failure should not be a surprise to any employee; the possibility should be supported by the DOR’s.

If one is to believe the HR folks those who have ran the gauntlet and dodged the obstacle course to get in to the training program are supposed to be the cream of the crop. Remember that 5%?  I was once told at a seminar that only 5% of the population was capable of performing the function of a Public Safety Dispatcher. Now, think about a group of trainees starting together. How many of those folks will actually pass their probation? If your department was anywhere like the ones I’ve worked for, if you were doing something right, somewhere between 50-75%. One agency trainer I spoke with told me trainees took a weekly written test in their in-house academy. If a trainee failed a second test, he or she was gone. That was before the person ever stepped on to the dispatch floor. What a waste of resources and money.

My goodness, that’s pathetic. Our success rate should be 100%.

The Associated Public Safety Communications Officials, Inc (APCO) is an international organization that provides assistance, expertise, and advocacy for radio spectrum, communications, and public safety personnel. APCO recognized the issue of retaining qualified Public Safety Dispatcher (referred to as Public Safety Telecommunicators). APCO Project 40 (RETAINS) was initiated in response to an increasing problem high turnover rates of dispatch personnel. RETAINS stands for Response Efforts To Address Integral Needs in Staffing queried multiple departments and dispatchers over four years. In 2005, the findings were released, free to APCO members and for a nominal fee to non-members. In 2009, a supplement relating to Next Generation 9-1-1 was added to the RETAINS report. Inside the report, besides statistical data, observations and suggestions were included to help the Communications Center Manager make the best of the employees, to keep them happy and hopefully reduce turnover.

Every Communications Center Manager wants to hold on to the stable, well-trained dispatch center personnel. Over the years, time, training, and money have gone in to those dispatchers. Who in their right mind would want to start anew with a new group? Speaking from my 22+ years of dispatch experience, it’s nice to be acknowledged ever once in a while. Too often, dispatchers only hear from Administration when there is a problem. Unless a commendation letter specifically mentions a dispatcher, the kudos goes to the field personnel.

Only a few states consider Public Safety Telecommunicators (dispatchers) as first responders. Who is the first point of contact with the public in an emergency? For the most part, the dispatcher is. When we take a call for a bad incident, we don’t always have the luxury of getting up and taking a break. We have to suck it up and move on to the next call and/or radio traffic – especially in a small dispatcher center where shift coverage is staggered or the shift is short-handed.

What do you do when one of yours does something special? What about when he goes out of way to help a caller. And how about when she handles two big incidents at the same time because the shift was short and she had to monitor two channels? Do you do anything for birthdays? What about those stuck in dispatch for Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Years? Finally, do you send out a memo to your Department and the press celebrating National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week in April? It’s those little shows of appreciation that let you personnel know they are not taken for granted.

Before I sign out, here is a bit of an article from Juneau, Alaska. The Police Department there is doing their part to improve the training program and make it a success. You can read the entire article by ,clicking on the link provided. Thanks to Emily Miller of the Juneau Empire for allowing me to include the piece and link.

"About 50% of the emergency-dispatch trainees at the police department in Juneau, Alaska, drop out of the program, so officials are making it more engaging by breaking up tedious classroom and computer time with observation periods and communication center experience. A test run of the new six-phase training program has generated positive feedback, with recruits saying the hands-on experience helps reinforce what they learn in class."

To find out what the Juneau Police department is doing, click on the bottom link and read the entire article.

As always, stay safe out there!

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