DISPATCHERS: SOME THINGS HAVEN`T CHANGED (AND THEY SHOULD!)
FRANCIS X. HOLT
Earlier this year, my Web site went on-line and has proven to be an interesting vantage point from which to take the pulse of America`s public safety dispatchers and reflect on 25 years in the business of emergency communications. While we have seen computer-assisted dispatching (CAD) come and fire alarm boxes go, satellite-dependent geopositioning systems come and alarm bells go, ANI/ALI (automatic number identification/automatic location identification) come and reverse telephone directories go, it appears that the dispatcher`s lot in large part remains unchanged. As near as I can tell from the many e-mails I read every week, dispatchers are generally underappreciated, underpaid, understaffed, and overworked.
There are exceptions, of course. I wrote in these pages (see “Phoenix Didn`t Forget Its Dispatchers,” Fire Engineering, July 1997) about the superb new center that the Phoenix (AZ) Fire Department built to house its emergency communications operation. But for the most part, even though there is apparently more awareness of the importance of their function, dispatchers still make Rodney Dangerfield look like everybody`s hero. Certain long-standing factors have consistently had an adverse effect on the public safety dispatcher`s professional life over the past quarter century. By listing them here, I hope to consolidate many of the points of contention between dispatchers and their departments, identify underlying influences on many of these friction points, and stimulate some productive discussion between the line troops and the decision makers. Here are the dominating factors that make the dispatcher`s situation an unhappy one.
Problem: The curse of being civilian. As civilians working in the operations of a uniformed force, dispatchers are structured into second-class citizenship in their departments. The uniforms outnumber the civilians. The uniforms get the press and the glory. There is a pervasive mentality that uniformed is superior by definition. This becomes evident in little things like social interactions and in big things like pay grades and pensions.
Solution. Bring these two groups in your department together operationally and socially even if you can`t merge the job classifications.
Why should I bother? It makes good operational sense to have the field forces and the dispatchers on very friendly terms. Think of how often the issue of communications comes up in postincident critiques. Wouldn`t it make sense to involve dispatchers in the preplanning? And how about the “quasi-uniformed” aspects of the dispatcher`s job such as ordered overtime in the absence of relief or in the face of disaster? Also, there is an added measure of safety available to the field forces if the dispatchers are correctly trained and used (see “Dispatcher Added Safety,” Fire Engineering, December 1996). Breaking down the walls between these two groups will go a long way toward showing the dispatchers that the department has come to learn what the communications people already know about themselves: They are an important part of the public safety team.
Problem: Lack of career pathways. Because there are fewer layers of command in communications, the opportunity for advancement is limited. This leads to frustration and turnover. It also causes a dispatcher to reach the maximum possible salary rather early in his career.
Solution. Engage your dispatchers in other related activities. Dispatchers are generally bright and knowledgeable and can offer much to your department`s committees. Another much overlooked area in which to involve dispatchers is training. For reasons that appear to have their roots in the “civilian vs. uniformed” issue noted above, it is very often the case that dispatchers are not trained by dispatchers. While it is clear that all operations personnel will benefit from training by experts in related fields, dispatchers should do the bulk of dispatcher training (see “Who Should Train Dispatchers?” Fire Engineering, July 1997).
Why should I bother? Turnover is expensive. You not only have to spend time and money on training new staff, but you also are regularly operating with people who are not seasoned and empty seats you have to fill with tired dispatchers working ordered overtime. A dispatcher who takes on the duties of communications training officer can be paid a stipend for that additional work. This allows you to get more money into the dispatcher`s pocket even though the chain of command in communications is fairly flat. If you leave the situation as is, in which a dispatcher`s only hope to increase household income is overtime or a second job, you are setting the table for having more fatigued personnel on duty in a position where everybody agrees it`s a good thing to be sharp. In addition, frustration leads to mistakes. People live up to the recognition you give them.
Still not convinced? Listen to the Texas dispatcher who wrote: “I have been here two years and I`m maxed out on my pay scale. I will get no more.” How do you think you would feel about your job in that situation? What kinds of people do you think you are ultimately going to attract and retain in these critical communications positions if you don`t find a way to get them more money?
Problem: Low or no visibility. There are lots of television shows about the activities of fire/rescue personnel and law enforcement. There has been one show (Rescue 911) in which the dispatcher`s role was acknowledged (although the dispatcher`s job was not accurately depicted). There are no shows that follow a dispatcher`s job from week to week because, simply put, it is not a telegenic job. Public safety field personnel appear on the evening news several times a week. The local dispatcher may see the TV lights once in a career.
Solution. Make it a point to have your public information officer (PIO) highlight the accomplishments of dispatchers regularly. These achievements are not hard to find within the department; they should be equally available for public consumption.
Why should I bother? Morale is the single biggest problem area identified in the e-mail I receive from this country`s public safety dispatchers. It`s not because they are intrinsic whiners. (How much whining would you do if your ladder rescues did not garner any media attention?) It`s because they are routinely thought of as part of the furniture at headquarters. Make the effort to elevate them from the bureaucratic white noise with which they live every day. It doesn`t cost you much to do it. And you have to consider the opportunity cost of not doing it: unhappy people who routinely do good work and just as routinely look for other work.
Additionally, public safety dispatchers have a work record second to none when it comes to successful outcomes. One of the reasons that people all over the country hear about a 911 error in any small town in America is because such an event is highly unusual. The fact is that millions of 911 calls are appropriately processed each year. The nation`s airlines make a point of letting you know how safe air travel is. After any air crash, you will be able to find a sidebar box in major newspapers underscoring how few fatalities there are per million passenger miles. Have you ever seen a similar explanation of reliability accompany reports of a 911 foul-up? The information is there. Somebody needs to push it to the forefront in the public`s awareness. In the absence of any single source of this information emerging nationally, individual departments must either shoulder this responsibility themselves or pressure state and national organizations to step into the limelight with the good news about 911 dispatcher reliability. Why should this matter to you? It should be a point of professional pride in the organization. It will be another argument for funding at budget time. Everybody likes to spend his or her dollars on a proven winner. Dispatchers are proven winners. Let people know about it!
Problem: Bosses who have never done the job. This one, of course, is related to the lack of career pathways. But it is more than that–it is an institutionalized disrespect. In what other professions do you find workers with bosses who make decisions about their jobs, who have never done their jobs, and who really don`t know what their jobs are?
Solution. The key to this one is recognizing that a dispatcher`s job is related to but very different from a firefighter`s or an EMT`s job.
Why should I bother? It takes a certain kind of chutzpah (nerve) to assume that you can run a job you`ve never done. In almost every case, this is an unwarranted assumption. Do what is necessary to enhance the profession by requiring that dispatchers run the dispatching operation. Ultimately, everybody reports to the chief or the commissioner. But communications operations should not be run by a field fire officer any more than a fire company should be commanded by a dispatcher.
You are not only enhancing the profession, but you are creating a win-win situation for your department as you improve morale, decrease turnover, and make your communications administration more defensible in the event of litigation. It doesn`t take too much imagination to envision the plaintiff`s attorney asking the uniformed head of your communications operation: “Tell me, Captain Brennan, before you became the commander of communications and wrote these policies, how many years had you worked as a dispatcher? As a call taker? Had you ever worked in any sort of emergency communications capacity prior to assuming command of what everybody involved in this case concedes is a critical component of the fire service? Captain, would you accept this standard of command readiness for a ladder company? Why not?”
If you think this can`t happen, the only thing I can leave you with is the Dirty Harry question: “Do you feel lucky?”
There are lots of other issues surrounding the work life of the public safety dispatcher. I know. I have been writing about them for more than 20 years. However, if just a few departments would take on some of these larger issues as a challenge, the ensuing benefit would accrue not only to the dispatchers and the department as a whole but also to the citizens you are charged to protect.
FRANCIS X. HOLT is the author of Emergency Communications Management (Fire Engineering Books, 1991) and more than three dozen articles on public safety issues. He is a registered nurse and an expert witness in dispatcher liability cases. Holt has trained dispatchers from and consulted for hundreds of fire, EMS, and police departments throughout the United States and Canada. He is president of FXH Consulting of Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire.