PSAPs all over the country are experiencing similar challenges. Low stafﬁng. High turnover. Mandatory overtime. Low morale. And it’s not only because they don’t have money to spend. Some centers offer starting pay above $80,000 per year and still can’t solve these problems.
The best comm centers, however, have cracked the code. Using a combination of tools and approaches, exemplary center managers have made their comm centers places where people want to work.
They inspire their front-line employees. They create an environment that fosters engagement and positivity. In so doing, more than one has realized the goal sometimes viewed as impossible—0% turnover.
In 2014, a primary PSAP in Michigan found themselves in a challenging position. For years the center had been unable to attract and retain top talent, leaving the front line depleted. Dispatcher satisfaction was low. That year, after 37 trainees failed out of the training program at call-taking, the county 9-1-1 Board took decisive action.
They hired a new director from outside, Dan. Dan was different than past directors. Knowing Dan had the ability to make powerful changes if given the opportunity (he had been diligently vetted and was experienced in managing large centers), the Board empowered him to do whatever it took to turn things around. He was provided the resources and the latitude to make sweeping changes, unquestioned.
The ﬁrst thing Dan did was sit down, one-on-one, with each of the fourteen employees and gave them an opportunity to speak. It was the ﬁrst time that some employees had ever had a chance to be heard. When speaking to his supervisory staff, the director shared his vision, attached goals and expectations to this vision, and said, “This is what we’re doing moving forward. You can get on board, or not. It’s up to you.” Shortly thereafter, one of the supervisors decided to leave the organization.
With the help of a reinvigorated supervisory team, Dan made sweeping changes to outdated policies and procedures,
created a CTO (Communications Training Officer) program (employees previously had not received any training), and did whatever possible to build rapport. It
didn’t take long for staff to see that the new director walked his talk. He was there for them, provided clear guidance, and then let them ﬁgure things out. Dan said, “Sure, I’m the boss, but I work for you.”
This is a perfect example of transformational leadership in action. The type of leadership that creates other leaders.
In addition to operational changes, Dan invested in his staff in another way. He bought all new PSAP equipment—consoles, radios, monitors, CAD system, chairs—and renovated the dispatch center. Before the equipment upgrade and renovation, the center had been left unchanged since its formation in 1991. Dan was hired into a center with paint ﬂaking off the walls and equipment obviously worn-out after 23 years of continuous use. He immediately changed this.
Within nine months, Dan’s inspirational efforts reversed over 20 years of “business as usual.” Previously unable to boost stafﬁng beyond a skeleton crew of fourteen, trainees were now making it through and sticking around. Employee satisfaction soared. The amazing improvement in morale translated to the bottom line. By summer of 2015, the center received 100 applicants for two open positions. This from a center consistently rated the lowest in the state.
Tools for success
In conversations with PSAP center directors across the country, consistent themes run through the stories of the most successful. The best centers are guided by three things:
It takes a certain type of leader to inspire front line telecommunicators. These leaders put their team ﬁrst, always seeking a better way. They empower their employees, giving them the tools, training and support necessary to succeed.
Every major change initiative begins with bringing everyone onto the same page. This takes regular
communication. This is hard during the busiest, most challenging times. The tendency is to have one meeting, say, “Here’s where we have to go,” and never check back. It’s during times of chaos that clear and frequent communication is needed most.
You can’t lead without knowing where you’re going. This is why leadership guru John Maxwell calls
vision the indispensable quality of a leader. A big vision for your center gives your team cause for coming to work each day and provides the animating force behind daily
The best centers help their employees answer the question, “Do I like coming to work?” with an emphatic, “Heck yeah!”
Employees in these centers know their efforts are making a difference, both to their managers and the communities they serve. They are driven by the difference they are making, and the best leaders are those who create an environment where this can happen freely.
Tell us what you and your center are doing to improve satisfaction and retention and share your workplace culture painpoints. We'd like to include these in future installments.
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 company devoted to inspiring front line 9-1-1 telecommunicators with innovative training classes, leadership coaching, and consulting services.
A 9-1-1 telecommunicator for over a decade and a passionate advocate for PSAP health and wellness, he brings his stories from the front line into his writings and classes. He is a frequent keynote and breakout session speaker at APCO and NENA conferences around the country, and his second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.
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