Josh McFadden

Josh McFadden

Story Vault

By Josh McFadden

A dispatcher with even only a handful of years’ experience is already an industry veteran.

If you have worked as a dispatcher for four years or more, you have exceeded the average time in which a person stays in the profession. Why do some people leave the headset and monitors behind within a few years and why do some people stay at their seat year after year?

The answer ultimately may lie with the concept of motivation.

The latest figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics1 show that the average U.S. worker is in his or her job for 4.6 years. This may seem low, but the figure has actually risen steadily since the early 1980s. In fact, as recently as 2002, the average time in a job for U.S. employees was 3.7 years.

Still, dispatchers have always lagged behind in longevity.

Tonya Warr, communications officer for Fayette County (Ga.) Communications, said three years is the norm for a dispatcher’s career. Warr, who recently presented on the subject of motivation at NAVIGATOR in Las Vegas, said several factors contribute to this shorter-than-normal tenure. For the most part, it comes down to continually dealing with traumatic situations.

“It’s the nature of the job,” Warr said. “No one calls 9-1-1 because they are having a good day.”

Pick any day of the year, and a dispatcher may take a call where the person on the other end is describing harrowing events of heart attacks, strokes, seizures, choking, drowning, burning, criminal activity, or devastating accidents. A dispatcher’s job is to calmly and professionally—but with care, concern, and compassion—assess the situation and help the other person administer care and relief to themselves or to those they are calling for until emergency responders arrive on the scene.

But sometimes, dramatic call after call can affect the dispatcher, leaving the person feeling the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder or feeling burned out and seeking other ways of earning a living.

“It takes a lot of personal and professional maturity to overcome burnout,” Warr said.

Warr, who has 13 years’ experience in the profession, said often by year three a dispatcher will either be ready to move on or will realize his or her true motivation for performing this important public service. She related a story in which she had hit her three-year mark as a dispatcher. Her attitude was poor, and her motivation for doing the job wasn’t what it should have been. As a result, her demeanor and level of service was below acceptable.

“When I was at my three-year mark, I answered a call and had the ugliest tone in my voice,” Warr said. “The last thing this person heard before committing suicide was my tone. Since then, I’m never at work when I don’t smile—no matter what goes wrong. People tell me on the phone that they can tell I’m smiling. People know there’s a friend.”

Be a servant-leader

Warr learned at the critical three-year point what a dispatcher’s motivation should be: to provide service to those people who are in their worst moments. Other successful dispatchers have caught the spirit of what this critically important profession is all about.

Patricia Jones, ENP, Terminal Agency Coordinator for Charleston County Consolidated 9-1-1 Center in Charleston, S.C., knows a thing or two about serving the public. She has worked in the profession for 16 years, and she is a certified Emergency Telecommunicator Instructor (ETC-I) for the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED). She presented at NAVIGATOR 2015 on the topic of motivation. Her presentation was titled “How to be a Servant-Leader in a Self-Serving World.” Portions of the presentation were based on the book, “The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For?” by Rick Warren, founding pastor of Saddleback Church. Jones contends that in the dispatch world motivation comes by learning to get along with all the people with whom you interact.

“People want their humanity acknowledged and respected,” she said.

Jones insists that a dispatcher should strive to have positive interactions on the phone with each caller, and be part of a team that develops the attitude of serving by example.

“You can better co-exist in the comm. center if you treat each other well,” she said. “You need to understand that we work in a profession where you see pain, tragedy, and destruction every day, and it’s not going away. Once you realize you’re here to help, it should make it better.”

Jones believes dispatchers should be servants. She doesn’t mean this in a negative way. In fact, to her, being a servant is all about making sure the caller is having as good of an experience as possible. This isn’t easy, considering the calls come at a person’s most emotional moment, but Jones believes if dispatchers do their part, the caller will know that someone cares and is truly looking out for his or her best interests.

Being a servant-leader (a philosophy in which the leader is a servant first) extends beyond interactions with callers. In a world where people increasingly seem to seek what’s best for them rather than the welfare of those around them, this attitude of service can increase one’s motivation when applied to everyone at work.

“If you are a good servant, it benefits not only you but the center and the caller,” Jones said.

She said servant-leaders have a good work ethic, go above and beyond, and do things without the need to receive recognition. These are people who recognize they have gifts and talents to use to help others.

For some people, being a servant-leader comes naturally. For others, it takes practice and conscientious effort. But it is possible to develop this trait.

“It can be learned, but you have to be willing to sacrifice and put yourself second,” Jones said. “You have to want it. Some people will buy into it, and some people won’t. Some people are never going to reach this attitude because they are resistant to changes.”

At Charleston County Consolidated, considerable emphasis is placed on the idea of servant-leadership. Jones tells prospective dispatchers that if they don’t enjoy serving others, they will not be successful in their jobs. Those who possess this trait or who can foster it, are much more likely to have that motivation they need to rise above the daily challenges of the profession.

Living the dream

Andre Lanier certainly does not lack motivation. The longtime educator exudes enthusiasm, and he has spent his career teaching others how to be the best at what they do and to love it at the same time.

Lanier is a Lead Contract Instructor with Computer Sciences Corporation. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2009 and has been teaching for about 25 years, both in the Navy and outside. During this time he has taught about Crew Resource Management, Leadership, Management, Mentorship, Ethics, and Motivation.

At NAVIGATOR 2015, he presented sessions on Crew Resource Management and motivation (life in general). He believes that motivation comes from “living the dream.” And living the dream to him does not mean owning a huge house, driving a fancy car, or having the latest and greatest products and fashions on the market. Living the dream means placing your heart and desires on the things that matter most. This comes from within and breeds motivation.

“Self-worth does not equal net worth,” Lanier said. “There are many more good things going on than you realize. We need to focus on family and friends instead of materialism.”

He also says when you have this outlook, your entire frame of mind changes, and you begin to look for ways to get along with and help others. Your motivation changes from yourself to your loved ones, neighbors, friends, and co-workers.

“You control a lot of destiny with yourself and others,” Lanier said.

As a telecommunicator, “living the dream,” as Lanier describes, gives you an advantage to handle the rigors of the job. Lanier advocates staffing a comm. center with self-motivated people who understand this concept.

“We want to hire people who have an intrinsic desire to be there,” Lanier said. “We hope we can find the right people.”

Still, he is certain that with the proper education and resources, people can learn to “live the dream,” improve their motivation, and find ways to motivate themselves.

“Some people need to be trained to be motivated,” he said. “A lot of people can be motivated if they’re given the right tools. We need continued education. People need to know we have your back.”

Lanier said telecommunicators are unsung heroes and that their service is “honorable.” He also pointed out that the job can often be thankless and that the current 19 percent turnover rate in the profession is largely due to stress, much in the same way the telecommunicator’s career span is only three years, as Warr pointed out.

In his courses, Lanier teaches that despite the taxing environment, the motivation to succeed by helping others and the motivation to enjoy the job can lead to a rewarding career. He also emphasizes that motivation grows as group members learn to work together.

“The team has to understand than not one person can do it by himself or herself,” he said.

Butterfly effect

Within the subject of mathematics is a field of study called Chaos Theory. This theory “deals with nonlinear things that are effectively impossible to predict or control, like turbulence, weather, the stock market, our brain states, and so on.”2

Part of this theory includes the idea of the Butterfly Effect. The Butterfly Effect essentially states that small changes can create larger changes. A popular example is the idea that an earthquake in one part of the world can be caused by the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on the other side of the globe. Some people also call this the Ripple Effect.

Warr said the Butterfly Effect is present in the dispatch profession.

“The smallest things—teaching people, doing good—can create ripples in performance, attitude, and behavior,” she said.

With this in mind, Warr and the staff in Fayette continually support one another and motivate one another through the good and the bad. It starts in the interview process before a person is even hired to work in the comm. center. Staff members give a presentation to prospective dispatchers, outlining everything entailed in his or her daily duties, including the travails that so often bring people to leave the profession.

If, after the presentation or even after being hired, the person isn’t able to handle the challenging responsibilities, or if the person lacks the motivation necessary to succeed, Warr said it might be best for the dispatcher to choose another path. She also said it’s appropriate to get assistance when necessary.

“There’s no shame in saying ‘This isn’t for me,’” she said. “Do it before it gets to the point where you have a bad attitude. It’s OK to get help—be ready to recognize when you need it.”

True to the Butterfly Effect, lack of motivation in the individual leads to an overall somber mood in the comm. center. This can lead to disastrous results.

“Performance is at its worst when morale is down,” Warr said. “That’s when people stop caring.”

On the other hand, motivation can be reborn or strengthened simply by talking to managers or co-workers. An effective training program, such as the one found at Fayette County Communications, can also create positive change when motivation is low.

“Appropriately take someone aside and share concerns about a person’s attitude and behavior,” Warr said. “If you have a solid training program, not everything is going to go perfectly, but you have a greater chance of employees sticking it out.”

Jones and her team at Charleston County Consolidated have a program similar to Warr’s training program. It is designed to motivate employees by demonstrating that management appreciates them and is available to provide all the encouragement they need.

“We have peer support and a morale team,” Jones said. “We do a lot to show them we care.”

After all, a highly motivated staff is bound to exceed expectations.

“Keep [staff members] informed and motivated,” Warr said. “Support them, and you’re going to get that good performance.”


1Fottrell Q. “Typical U.S. worker now lasts 4.6 years on the job.” MarketWatch, Inc. 2014; Jan 12. (accessed June 23, 2015).

2“What is Chaos Theory?” Fractal Foundation. 2013. (accessed June 24, 2015).