Lora L. Reed, Ph.D.


By Lora L. Reed, Ph.D.

Editor’s Note: In the summer of 2010 a national study was conducted to explore perceptions of leadership, followership, and organizational culture in Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs). Lora L. Reed, Ph.D., conducted the research, made possible through support of the Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, with cooperation from the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch(NAED), 911Lifeline, and other public safety organizations.

An online questionnaire delivered through e-mail blasts saturated more than 46,000 potential participants, creating a snowball sample of almost 900 PSAP employees at all levels of responsibility. After cleaning up the data, eliminating all questionnaires with more than 5% missing responses or unreadable items, 673 responses remained from 45 states, Canada, and Australia. The data from this study should culminate in at least one peer-reviewed publication, but it can also benefit PSAP decision makers in practical every day applications. This article is the first in a series targeted to the day-to-day perspective of managing a PSAP.

In January and March 2011, six webinars with consistent content focusing on data from the study were delivered in collaboration with 911Lifeline. The Web-based introductions explained the rationale for the study, preliminary results as related to contemporary management and leadership literature, and the meaning of the study's findings specific to PSAPs. The webinars were an expression of gratitude for the participants and to further signify my interest in continuing an ongoing conversation and conducting qualitative research specific to PSAP organizations.

This column recaps the preliminary findings from the webinars. We continue to mine the data and will share pertinent information in future columns in The Journal. We hope to assist PSAP decision makers in organizational and employee development at a time when budgets are tight and demands are high; we look forward to continuing this conversation.

Study rationale
Although emergency dispatcher and related occupations are only about 40 years old, they are of increasing importance to society. Rapid technological advances, population growth, and shifting demographics are among drivers of growth in the industry, but employee retention has remained problematic since inception of these occupations.

According to a recent study (APCO 2009), the average turnover rate for dispatchers is about 17%, higher than teachers or nurses (about 15%). In the past decade environmental stressors and high-tech employment opportunities luring employees to other jobs have further exacerbated retention. According to APCO (2009), the recent economic downturn may have increased the number of candidates who apply for positions, but it has not necessarily brought more of the right dispatchers into the occupation.

Dispatcher competencies
At their best, dispatchers possess a unique set of competencies:
  • Aptitude for technology is essential to performance of tasks and is expected to increase due to rapid technological advances such as texting and multimedia applications
  • Emotional intelligence pertains to understanding self and others, including peers, other first responders, and emergent callers
  • Leadership is important at all organizational levels. Dispatchers and calltakers briefly lead all persons with whom they come into contact either by telephone or other electronic devices. Shift supervisors lead teams; directors lead agencies.
  • Organizational Citizenship Behaviors (OCBs) occur on both individual and group levels. They can be related to individual and organizational well-being, employee commitment, and social influence on others.
In future columns we will explore how many of these competencies relate to our study, and we will examine passive and proactive followership in PSAP organizational culture.
Why study PSAP leadership?
PSAP leadership is important at all organizational levels and employees perceive it as essential to successful task completion. But the study results show many dispatchers do not perceive themselves as recognized leaders and perceptions are important to job satisfaction, retention, and organizational performance.

Further, the study examined self-report employee perceptions of executive servant leadership in PSAPs, along with perceptions of dispatchers as passive or proactive followers. Four employee groups—dispatchers, shift supervisors, directors, and support staff/IT—had very different perceptions of agency leadership (agencies ranged from less than 5 to more than 100 employees). More closely aligning the groups’ perceptions of leadership may result in improved effectiveness and employee retention. The same four groups ranked themselves and each other low on passive followership (response to authoritarian leadership in a bureaucratic environment) and high on proactive followership. The ranking indicates the propensity toward shared leadership in an empowered environment.

In future columns these and other findings will be explored as pertinent to single and multi-agency function and organizational culture.