Create A Culture Prioritizing People

Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer


Organizations build a culture that prioritizes its people.

That sounds so logical, and yet it creates its own questions. The statement solves none of the issues of developing that optimal culture. How do you wade in to build a center workplace suiting a diversity of cultures, generations, and expectations? How can you tell when you’ve established the optimal culture for your center?

“Culture sustains the temperature we set in the room,” said Adam Heinz, Executive Director, Integrated Health Care, REMSA Health (Nevada, USA). “We get there by asking questions, talking to our people. If we don’t ask the questions, we don’t know how to fix things.”

As a leader, your actions set the tone, environment, and organizational culture.

“A great leader looks at the system and finds where it is broken,” said Adam Timm, President and Founder of the Healthy Dispatcher. “The answers determine culture.”

The following offers some tips garnered from industry leaders set on accomplishing harmony that goes beyond sitting in a chair and plugging in your headset.

Aligning generations

“Young people come into organizational life without a level of sophistication. They don’t know what to expect. They see stress and overtime, and without communication, they don’t feel valued.”—Adam Timm 

Stephen Johnson, Cambridge (Massachusetts, USA) Emergency Center, Assistant Director of Administration and Training

Alignment is the key.

“It's important that your people's personal values align with the organization's workplace values,” Johnson said. “A leader demonstrates how team members can achieve their personal goals and live out their values through their work.”

Johnson alludes to the generational mix, the balancing act from the diminishing boomer generation to the up-and-coming Generation Z entering the workforce. This does not enforce attempts to hire a like-minded workforce, he said, but rather understand how generational differences complement the various tasks required in a communication center.

Broadly speaking, Johnson classifies the generational characteristics based on environmental factors:

  • Baby Boomers are dedicated workers who value visibility. They tend to be fiercely competitive and ambitious (they experienced a rise in middle-class and post-war consumerism) yet simultaneously value consensus leadership and equality.

  • Generation Xers are hardworking and adaptable, skeptical, valuing balance and free thinking. Their pragmatic approach to work leads to breaking down organizational silos (often considered the neglected middle child with attention focused on retiring Baby Boomers and ascending Millennials). 

  • Millennials grew up digitally connected, desire mentoring and frequent feedback, are open to change, and they seek employment that is sustainable and carries a global perspective (events of 9/11 as well as the economic crisis of 2008 contribute to their seeking order in the world and meaning in their work).

  • Generation Zs are just entering the workforce, an optimistic group noted for technical savvy, pragmaticism, collaboration, and a need for instant gratification. Diversity and inclusion matter in every dimension—in terms of race or gender and identity (they grew up during ongoing battles of racial, sexual, and gender equality). 

So, how do you go about making the perfect blend from clearly contrasting ingredients? Well, Johnson said the issue might not be multi-generational diversity but allowing stereotypes and differences to direct the hiring process and work environment. “Leaders need to be aware of differences but account for them in how they accomplish the mission. Leverage generational and individual strengths.”

Johnson said all generations want to feel valued and contribute to the workplace. Calibrate the team and align their interests and workplace goals to the organizational values. Ask questions. Do not turn the thermostat without understanding the roles your individual team members want to contribute.

Let’s use working toward achieving Accredited Center of Excellence as an example. Let the Baby Boomers contribute their institutional knowledge while Generation Xers develop a project management plan to achieve the goal. Bring on the Millennials to plot a sustainable schedule and Generation Zs to encourage diversity in training, QA, and related aspects of the project.

“Find out what matters at the front end and investing in that gives everyone a place at the table,” Johnson said. “A multiplicity of generations can add to a center’s effectiveness and employee retention.”

Data collection

“We make change through collecting data that identifies key performance indicators. A performance-based shift focuses on celebrating success rather than remediating poor performers.” —Adam Heinz

Eric Parry, ENP, CEO of Criterion Consulting Services LLC and NENA Education Advisory Board Chair

Parry’s professional credentials represent a culmination of his 50 years in public safety, commencing 1972 in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and continuing today as CEO of a company providing actuarial and data consulting services.

Parry’s experience—while it centers on public service—underscores his dedication to field response and emergency communications that, in turn, sharpens his charismatic approach to people and putting together the 911 puzzle. He cuts through the red tape to discover what’s needed. He juggles technology, education, and mentoring to solve what he calls the complicated algebraic equation of emergency communications.

Data collection—descriptive and predictive—is a major piece that came early in Parry’s insight into technology.

When Parry was Manager of the Utah Communications Authority, 911 Division (2014-2016), he discovered the well-intentioned, but untapped capabilities of the already purchased statewide ECaTS (Emergency Call Tracking System). “It was purchased by the state, but never fully recognized as a gold mine of PSAP-centric data,” Parry said. “Among other things, we looked at how the towers were handling calls and found one was misrouting every single 911 call.” The tower problem was fixed, and ECaTS was further employed to develop and maintain individual PSAP staffing levels, route field response based on incoming calls, and manage a menu of operational support.

Of course, NG911 is a big step in that direction. The system—and Parry speaks frequently on the topic—allows centers to receive, process, and share digitized information and seamless connection to other NG911-powered PSAPs. 

Positioning the right technology, however, does not happen without the right people driving it, and this introduces Parry’s overarching leadership contribution to emergency communications. He is chair of NENA’s Education Advisory Board and has been for nearly three decades. Parry helped create the Telecommunicator Core Competency course and, more recently, Standards for 9-1-1 Professional Education. This standard establishes minimal essential elements in programs offered at colleges, universities, and in settings independent of a degree program.

Parry is arranging a third section of the 911 puzzle. It's about building PSAP relationships that say, “Hey, there is someone who really cares about us.” A piece of the puzzle putting the glue to hiring and retaining good people and targeting the 911 staffing crisis. “We haven’t been good in creating a positive environment,” he said. “People are brought in and thrown into the fire.”

The missing piece: mentoring.

A mentor fosters insight, identifies and develops talent, and provides guidance and advice to a new hire or anyone on staff requiring additional coaching. Mentoring enhances a sense of belonging. “Everything we do in emergency communications depends on our relationship with others. So, it makes perfect sense to train for mentoring. We are not doing our job without the piece in place.”

Parry figures the puzzle will always require tweaking to meet the profession’s demands. “It’s a matter of understanding how the pieces connect and watching them come together and shift in a world that keeps on changing.” 

Employee satisfaction and comfort

“We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we creating an environment where motivation is possible?’ People-driven leaders work really hard to remove impediments that frustrate employee contributions.” —Adam Timm

Jennifer Kirkland, ENP, CPE, RPL, Colorado State 911 Program Manager, Senior Consultant with Fitch & Associates

The physical comfort of emergency dispatchers weighs heavily in Kirkland’s mind in establishing the culture at Grand Junction Regional Communications Center (GJRCC). 

Blending the generations, technology, education, and mentoring are absolutely high on her list, but along with those elements, she emphasizes well-being.

“I want to make sure the environment contributes to their optimal work,” said Kirkland, former manager at GJRCC and a member of NENA’s Education Advisory Board. “It sends the message that we really care about them, and we do.”

Kirkland’s many alliances outside Grand Junction provide a network of “best practices” that promotes well-being at the center of 42 emergency communication specialists, nine supervisors, a quality assurance analyst, two audio technicians, and the center manager. They are responsible for dispatching 11 law enforcement and 13 fire/EMS entities.

The center features a quiet room the GJRCC team built. The windows in the GJRCC room are high—to prevent others from looking in—and the lighting is low. The room doubles as a personal lounge, replacing either going outside during inclement weather or taking a quiet break in the restroom. A massage mat placed on a recliner soothes shoulder knots and the emotional strain of nonstop work. Clutter is discouraged.

“It’s a place where people can go on their breaks to decompress and find quiet,” Kirkland said. 

The popular space, created in 2021, is supported through a wellness committee composed of city administrators, police department representatives, and 911 staff.

Kirkland also advocates for the tools to do the job right. Kirkland’s “tools to fix” list is succinct, and that’s because she avoids ignoring anything in the physical environment that needs attention.

Are headsets working properly? Are overhead lights flickering? Is a sound malfunction interfering with calltaking and dispatch? Kirkland said a center cannot let even the simplest operational problems go unattended. “The longer things go unaddressed, the more aggravating it gets for our people. We’re asking them to do lifesaving work, and they need the right tools to do that.”

Negativity is an issue Kirkland addresses as soon as possible. While centers tend to hire strong personalities inclined to voice opinions, the time and place need to be considered. It’s not only the personalities involved. Negativity is also a byproduct of the work itself. Relentless call volume and caller crisis heighten staff’s vulnerability to negative emotions.

No matter the cause, overt negativity is not an option, she said. Negativity spreads and, in turn, leads to a toxic environment. Morale suffers. Work performance declines. Turnover increases.

So, what can you do? 

Kirkland advocates a proactive approach. A negative conversation a supervisor overhears becomes a private conversation in a closed office. Bullying is a moral obligation to cease. On the flip side, open communication fosters a positive environment, Kirkland said, as well as a dignified and respectful approach in preventing negative buildup and bullying.

And this brings us back to establishing a comfortable environment and, as Kirkland cautioned, it doesn’t happen overnight.

“Change takes time,” she said. “You must communicate the whys and have all players on board. You cannot do it alone.” 

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) – PDC/IAED

“Better centers pride themselves on being human. Great leaders build consensus. They create a culture that brings people together and participate. Employees feel valued. Their input matters.” —Adam Timm

Point-blank: Diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace makes everyone feel equally involved and supported. Developing a diverse, equitable, and inclusive environment is more than policies, programs, and sufficient staff to handle phones and radios.  It is a culture that values its employees and is committed to developing a strong sense of belonging.

“There is no excuse not to diversify and value the contributions of everyone in your organization,” said Christopher Bradford, Program Administrator and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Committee Chair, Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC). “It’s a matter of acknowledging and responding to differences, and not pretending differences don’t exist.”

DEI goes deeper than demographics, Bradford said. DEI cannot be accomplished within an isolated program. It means identifying barriers impeding selection methods not pertinent to the position. Going about a cultural shift requires shared vision, dedication, ongoing discussion, assessment, and strategic planning. It’s “‘We’re all in this together’ thinking,” he said. “And then moving into action because actions speaks louder than words.”

Jordan Richins, Associate Project Manager, PDC, volunteers on the DEI Committee for both personal and altruistic reasons. Richins has a neurological disorder with symptoms that include limited attention and hyperactivity. She often found herself on the outside, which contributed to low self-esteem. The perspective she had—and eventually rising above hurt and discouragement—encouraged her participation on the DE&I Committee.

“I ran into struggles in the outside world, and it was important for me to use my experience as a voice for others,” Richins said. “DEI develops a structure inside an organization that protects people and helps them feel comfortable about themselves. They belong and their viewpoints are respected.”

Richins emphasized DEI goes beyond a superficial level. It’s not about setting parameters to represent certain populations or hiring to satisfy established quota. It’s about creating a culture of awareness and the willingness to speak up. It’s about recognizing personal biases and changing the way people approach real and perceived differences. The hope, she said, is to build a stronger organization and have the confidence to apply the same principles outside of work.

Altruism reflects organizational culture and—perhaps as part of that goodwill—the ability to hire and retain employees. “An organization is not all about collecting skill sets. It’s about people bringing diverse perspectives and encouraging them to bring their views forward,” Richins said.

The DEI Committee was launched in 2020, shortly before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Volunteers met virtually and now have the option of meeting face-to-face or virtually. They host guest speakers, provide DEI training and education, and offer DEI sessions at industry conferences.

Bradford, in his 2022 DEI summary, listed several accomplishments and stressed that DEI is about everyone striving for justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. “As we look to the new year, I would like all to continue to think outside the box,” according to Bradford’s report. “May we be ever diligent in making sure that each of those components exists wherever we are in the organization and as we move forward.”

A recent survey demonstrated DEI’s effect on PDC/IAED employees. According to results:

  • I feel welcome and comfortable expressing my identity at work (87% agree).
  • My manager helps people feel comfortable expressing their unique perspectives, even if they might be different from the manager's (90% agree).
  • The leadership at my organization encourages diversity and inclusion through their words and actions (83% agree).
  • Employees are encouraged to share their thoughts and views with their managers and senior leadership at my organization (83% agree).