A Better Normal

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus

Best Practices

When Karen Clevenger started her journey to become a telecommunicator for METCAD 9-1-1 in Urbana, Illinois, (USA), she took the training very seriously. She’d be in the comm. center from 3:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. and then during the day, she’d sit by the edge of her apartment complex pool, reading and studying.

“People expect all the learning to take place on the job,” said Betsy Smith, Operations Manager at METCAD and Clevenger’s longtime co-worker and friend. “You have to take your life lessons and bring them to the job. Spend extra time getting to know the geography of your area, studying your manual, practicing your license plates. Karen did that really well.”

Before she started working at METCAD, Clevenger got a degree in music education and became certified as an EMT-A. She worked on an ambulance company in town and joined a volunteer fire department, where she became friends with the other firefighters and their wives and girlfriends, many of whom worked at METCAD. In fact, Smith was the person who initially nudged Clevenger into 911, a career move that has clearly worked out for both of them.

“There’s extreme job security in this field,” Clevenger said. “Especially during COVID when we’ve proved that we’re essential workers.”

Back when Smith and Clevenger started—Smith in 1990 and Clevenger in 1998—there wasn’t much of a training program. There was some classroom training, but for the most part, new hires had to learn on the job—and fast. It worked out all right for Smith and Clevenger, who are both now in leadership roles, Smith as Operations Manager and Clevenger as Telecommunicator Supervisor.

Now, of course, training is much more intensive. For instance, the Medical Priority Dispatch System (MPDS®) was implemented in 1999 and with it came the required Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) course. Now to be fully trained on everything they need to know, telecommunicators spend nine months total in a classroom setting and doing on-the-job-dispatching. The sheer length of the training process means that turnover problems are particularly difficult.

“It takes almost a full year to hire someone, but only five minutes for them to quit,” Smith said. “Two weeks’ notice isn’t enough time to replace someone.”

And if that wasn’t difficult enough, METCAD has seen a decrease overall in the number of applications they receive. Just before COVID-19 gripped the world, they began a new process where applicants would have to pass a test before the hiring managers looked at their resumes. Smith and the other supervisors knew they would get a smaller quantity of applicants but hoped it would trade off for higher quality. METCAD is authorized to employ 33 people, and right now they have 26, three of whom are trainees.

“Every person really counts,” said Smith.

METCAD’s emergency dispatchers are cross-trained. On any given shift, there are two dedicated calltakers, one fire dispatcher, and three police dispatchers. The agency dispatches for 12 police departments and 25 fire departments (only two of those are paid career fire departments; the other 23 are all volunteer). The area they cover is nearly 1,000 square miles, including the University of Illinois, which has buildings in the cities of Champaign and Urbana. On average, the emergency dispatchers answer 25,000 calls a month, so they need every telecommunicator they can get. Within the center, there are Telecommunicator I and Telecommunicator II positions. When you’re first hired, you’re a TC I and you’re trained to take 911 calls, non-emergency calls, and do police and fire dispatch. You can apply to become a TC II, then go through the interview process. The TC II acts as the lead worker in the room, and there’s always a TC II or supervisor or experienced TC I to answer questions or help with problems.

METCAD shares an old civil defense building with the Champaign County Emergency Management Agency (EMA). The center was renovated in 2019 with all new furniture and carpet. There are also 24-hour chairs that are sturdy and comfortable, consoles that raise or lower so telecommunicators can sit or stand, and heating and cooling controls at each console.

“We can see outside now,” Clevenger said. “We used to be in the basement.”

METCAD is prepared for a multitude of eventualities. The emergency dispatchers can still work from the basement if they need to, like in the case of a tornado (the building is an old bomb shelter so it’s very sturdy). In case the building catches on fire, they can go to a backup center in the basement of one of the Champaign fire stations.

In addition to being telecommunicators, much of the staff either works for a fire department or has a family member in law enforcement, EMS, or firefighting. This closeness gives large incidents even more of an impact. In May 2021, METCAD had its first officer killed in the line of duty since the 1950s. To help mitigate the trauma of the situation, the University of Illinois Police Department brought their therapy dogs into the center for the dispatchers. A Champaign Fire Department officer also came to METCAD to do a Peer Support Stress Debriefing in the conference room for those emergency dispatchers who handled the call.

The effects of the officer-involved shooting were also piled onto the higher day-to-day stress levels that COVID-19 has brought to emergency response.

“You think about the regular citizens who’ve gone through COVID, maybe they’ve been financially impacted or lost a family member,” Smith said. “We’re getting calls from people who are tired of dealing with everything. Our number of mental health calls has skyrocketed. There’s just not enough resources to go around.”

While keeping the past in mind, Clevenger and Smith are also looking toward the future. “Man, if I can handle the 911 center, I can handle anything!” Clevenger said. Smith wants to encourage more young people to get into this line of work where you’re in a position to help people every single day.

As a parting thought, Smith said, “The question I keep coming back to is, ‘How do we get back to a better normal?’”