Keeping Them In The Profession
September 22, 2022
What is the secret to keeping capable, hard-working, dedicated, and enthusiastic personnel in emergency dispatch?
Increased pay and benefits. Reclassification to a public safety first responder. Clear path and access to promotion. Or is job satisfaction a mere toss of the dice? No one size fits all.
“Liking what you do in a supportive environment can make all the difference,” said EMD/EFD/EPD Heidi DiGennaro, Public Safety Shift Supervisor, Harford County 911 Communications, Bel Air, Maryland (USA). “When you like what you do, you’ll stick with it.”
Throw peer support, community connection, diversity and inclusion, pre-hire training, and recognition into the mix and your center might just come up a keeper.
Turnover ranks high
Despite obstacles (as highlighted in her story at the end of this article), DiGennaro made emergency dispatch a satisfying and productive career choice. Others do not fare so well. Emergency dispatch consistently ranks among the Top 10 industries with the highest turnover rates.
While reliable statistics are hard to find, upward of 25% of all emergency dispatchers tend to leave after a short period of time (less than a year), which earns the profession the high turnover classification. “The number is difficult to split up because some are deciding to leave on their own while the organization is helping others make that decision because they don’t pass the initial training,” said Ty Wooten, ENP, Director of Government Affairs, International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED™).
The same uncertainty applies to annual turnover nationally. The 15% to 25% often cited—and without a reliable source to back the claim—“is a bit low, unfortunately, because there is no national repository for that type of information,” Wooten said. “I believe based on the information that I have been hearing from centers around the country in the last year, that the rate is more than 30%.”
No matter the specifics, the percentages put emergency dispatch among the top 10% of high turnover professions and comparable to EMT and paramedic turnover.
Reasons for high turnover, in general, is a mixed bag: workplace culture, pay and benefits, scheduling, burnout, and lack of opportunity (promotion, continued education, lateral moves). High demand for a particular job position can also cause high turnover rates.
Reasons directly related to EMS include frequent exposure to critical incidents, an ever-changing technical environment, and the impact of cumulative stress, which add to the challenges with long-term retention. Studies have shown that listening to tragedy can have a lasting impact. Dr. Michelle Lilly, a clinical psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, found that between 18% to 24% of 911 dispatchers show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s on par with the rate of PTSD for police officers.
Emergency dispatchers also perceive they go unnoticed despite their value in and contributions to emergency service. Their federal classification as clerical workers limits the benefits they receive and understates their important role in emergency response.
Redirecting the course
How do you change the emergency dispatch turnover trajectory? Recommendations high on the list—from conversation and research—include statewide or federal certification that include social support (internal), mandatory and standardized training, continued education, reclassification from a clerical position to a public safety first responder, clear and accessible path to promotion and leadership positions, and professional recognition for the professional job they do. Diversity and inclusion is a topic receiving increased workplace attention.
In 2017, Elizabeth Linos, former Head of Research for Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) Americas, led a partnership to identify and test an intervention to increase perceived social support and reduce burnout among 911 dispatchers across the USA. The study was designed to build on previous studies involving social supports and, using a randomized controlled trial (RCT), set out to find whether workplace-based interventions that bolster perceived social support among peers could reduce burnout and turnover among 911 dispatchers.
According to the research blog:1
“The RCT took the form of a six-week email series in collaboration with emergency call centers in nine mid-sized cities. Each week, a center supervisor would send an email to dispatchers in their city who were assigned to the treatment group. Emails shared a story from a fellow dispatcher and asked recipients to reply with their own by responding to a prompt. Prompts ranged from advice they would give to a new recruit to recommendations.
“Investigators measured rates of burnout three times through a survey using the Copenhagen Burnout Index—once before sending the email series to establish a baseline for comparison, once immediately after the series ended, and again four months later,” the blog post continued. “On average, burnout fell by 8 points and attributed to building a sense of belonging. To determine whether the self-reported data translated into tangible outcomes, investigators also measured administrative data before and after the trial ended, focusing on the amount of resignations and leave taken. Resignations decreased by more than half.”
Linos supported the workplace environment contributing to frontline satisfaction, with the caveat of creating relationships within the organization.
“Obviously, your work environment in the more traditional sense is going to affect whether or not you're exhausted at work. Your work hours, your pay, whether your manager supports you—all of these things are clearly really important. But this additional force of feeling connected to people at work or feeling connected to public service seems to have an additional effect on burnout and anxiety, so that's really what we're focusing on in subsequent studies.”2
The Behavioral Insights Team, also known unofficially as the "Nudge Unit," is a U.K.-based global social purpose organization that generates and applies behavioral insights to inform policy and improve public services, following nudge theory.
Similar results were highlighted in a review of existing research identifying 911 working conditions and responsibilities and the subsequent emotional effects of sustained exposure to vicarious trauma. Melissa Alterio’s analysis confirmed the “existence of vicarious trauma, secondary traumatic stress, and compassion fatigue”3 prevalent in the 911 profession. In addition—and here’s the connection to keeping people—her review “proves that workplace interventions and programs such as critical incident stress management, Employee Assistance Programs (EAP), and peer support can positively affect mental well-being of public safety personnel.” Specifically, peer support was found integral to maintaining a healthy environment. “When individuals share a personal comprehension of the stress faced in the workplace, they can assist each other by being able to identify such feelings and share coping experiences.”4
Alterio is Director of Emergency Communications at Cobb County 911, Kennesaw, Georgia (USA). The research is part of her requirement to complete the Master of Science in Public Safety Leadership and Criminal Justice, Mercer University, Macon, Georgia. Check out the Dispatch in Depth podcast to hear Alterio talk about the research: https://www.aedrjournal.org/the-importance-of-peer-support-programs-with-melissa-alterio
Developing and maintaining an honest, ethical, and resilient organization is primary at the Waltham Fire Department, Massachusetts (USA), communication center. Day Shift Supervisor Ted Bourgeois, a presenter at NAVIGATOR 2021, said dispatchers “have to know that management has their back.” A “gut-wrenching call” (accidental death of a child) earlier in his profession was so powerful, “I couldn’t believe what had happened.” Without formal coping mechanisms than available at the center, he started journaling, meditation, and “anything I could do in that instant to feel better.”
The organization has since realized that response to stressful calls takes more than a deep breath, music, self-criticism, and using humor to get rid of the feelings, though, he said, “They may never go away. We all know stuff becomes huge when we allow things to go on and fester.”
If an organization does not make the first step, Bourgeois said it’s up to an emergency dispatcher to instigate change. “Get over the hurdle of ‘I’m too tough’ for any call to bother me. Be honest about the impact the job can have on you,” he said. “We do amazing things to help other people. We need to do the same to help ourselves and our co-workers.”
Diversity, equity, and inclusion
Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are not the same, although they are the means to a more dynamic workforce and a community offering unique perspectives and ways of thinking. And it takes all three working in unison for things in the workplace to come together.
First, the definitions:5
- Diversity is the presence of differences within a given setting.
- Equity is the process of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair, and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.
- Inclusion is the practice of ensuring that people feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.
Christopher Bradford, program administrator at Priority Dispatch Corp.™ (PDC™) and the company’s chair of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion planning, said diversity, equity, and inclusion emphasize what we all want in a workplace. Acceptance and respect. No marginalized individual or group.
“We should always strive to create an environment where people feel like they belong,” he said. “That’s the core of it. People do their best work in a culture that supports belonging, connection, and succeeding as authentic selves. With that, retention becomes less of an issue.”
Why does diversity, equity, and inclusion enhance the workplace?
As Bradford pointed out, without them, an organization continues to flounder. A lack of diversity creates a token representation. Token hiring is a symbolic effort at inclusion. Everything is not OK by hiring one person from a marginalized group. “If you’re the only one, all the attention is on you,” Bradford said. “It can be draining on the individual.”
A lack of diversity allows the barriers to equity to remain in place. Trying to be part of the larger group—nonrepresentative of diversity—might force the individual to fit into a certain professional environment and match behaviors or opinions not of their own. Interpersonal communication is not authentic. To the individual from a marginalized group, overcompensation to remain part of the status quo is essential and, consequently, creates disenchantment and limits benefits to the organization.
“No one should feel like they have to leave part of their identities at home when they go to work,” Bradford said. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Is it better to leave?’ or ‘Is it better to assert myself?’”
Achieving DEI is easier said than done. The three together challenge assumptions and forces existing employees to confront their beliefs and accept differences without prejudice and judgment. While miles of documents, hundreds of seminars, and organizations dedicated to the subject exist—and impossible to summarize in this article—Bradford suggests taking baby steps. Do your research. Create a DEI committee. Brainstorm. Appeal to your grassroot employees for affecting change. Develop strategies that apply to your company’s goals and situation. Combat the unconscious biases that affect hiring and retention.
As Bradford explained, an unconscious bias is human nature. It is the brain’s way of mental shortcuts that aid decision-making. Unconscious biases influence our professional lives, from the way we think to the way we interact with colleagues.
“A person has to be open to education,” Bradford said. “They might not realize an unconscious bias. It’s never easy confronting our views, but we must teach people to face themselves, to look at their world view and how it lines up with the workplace and social environment.”
Starting the conversation is priority, Bradford said. For example, approach a situation and ask, “How did this come about?” For example, create situations [hypothetical] and discuss ways of how the center should handle them.
Jeff Clawson, M.D., Chair of the Rules Group of the Medical Council of Standards of the IAED and Medical Director of the IAED Research, Standards, and Academics Division, has given loud and clear direction in eliminating barriers to the provision of lifesaving aid. “Race, color, socioeconomic status, disability, gender, sexual preferences, mental effects, and other related areas of ‘perceived’ differences must never be allowed to play a part in the structured process we follow in service to all our clients—the calling public.”6
This includes putting “on our professional, emotional ‘blinders’ at the calltaking console”7 and ongoing work to eliminate unconscious bias in the protocol, which is primarily brought on by the beliefs of the individual taking the call.
The worst you can do is say nothing or deny the lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion in your center. As the idiom goes, if you don’t say something, by default you are saying something. It happens because someone does not do something else.
Training and recognition
Good times to say something are before the hiring process and, later, in recognition of the emergency dispatcher’s efforts.
Nash Community College, Rocky Mount, North Carolina (USA), in collaboration with Nash County Emergency Services, Nashville, North Carolina, offers a “get acquainted” course for aspiring emergency dispatchers. The 144-hour program covers fundamentals and principles of emergency communications, beginning with the history and development of 911 to modern technology, and includes observation in the Nashville Emergency Operations Center (EOC) backup PSAP. The course was introduced in 2016 specifically to address recruitment, retention, and turnover. Instructors are Nash County emergency dispatchers Melissa Bobbitt and William Trimmer.
Mark Reavis, Nash County Emergency Services 911 training and program supervisor, developed the course to preview the profession. “I wanted to reduce training costs by hiring people who knew what they were getting into,” he said.
The course is geared to people wanting to change and start careers in public service. The success, Reavis said, is in the 18 students hired in Nash County in addition to neighboring agencies welcoming them aboard.
Olivia Moss, Department Chair, Emergency Management Systems, Nash Community College, said her department works closely with emergency services to encourage applications and brief potential candidates about the EMS profession. Most people don’t realize the complexity of EMS, particularly emergency dispatch, said Moss, a Nash County paramedic. “It’s a great program. They are able to see the whole picture before the full leap move to 911.”
And, of course, recognition is important and something that never goes stale.
“Make your center a great place to work, and be genuine in your show of appreciation,” said Sonya Baeza, Day Supervisor, Douglas County Emergency Communications, Lawrence, Kansas (USA). “It’s all about spreading the good word and acknowledging all they do in a tough profession.”
Heidi DiGennaro’s story
DiGennaro was looking forward to the tangible changes 29 years ago when hired for police dispatch at Harford County Sheriff’s Office communication center. She had applied six months earlier. Was she still interested?
You betcha, said DiGennaro, who was working in retail. Nobody ever says all shoppers are nice, and it’s not like every shift just flies by.
DiGennaro’s daily commute went from miles to blocks. Earning potential at Harford’s hourly wage was higher than the salary she was paid in retail. “A daily double was nothing,” she said. “I was paid for working two shifts [at the sheriff’s office] and overtime. Retail was salary, and I was working 12-to-17-hour days.”
DiGennaro signed employment papers the same day she received her badge and uniform. The hire date was four days before Christmas, and by Dec. 24, 1993, she was on her own answering police emergency and non-emergency calls. “We had a loose collection of cards to follow, and dispatchers on radios called out questions. It was insane.” She learned on the job. She took notes. She observed. By the end of January, she was on her own working the radio.
The communication center, she soon learned, produced stress analogous to retail. Scheduled time to clock out is often different from the time the emergency dispatcher leaves. Centers stay open over the holidays. Routine no longer applied, but—like the retail environment—911 callers and co-workers are not always nice.
“Political correctness was not a thing,” she said. “I felt insecure, defensive. The trainer wanted me to succeed, and rough treatment was how she had learned. She knew no other way.” Turnover was high.
DiGennaro held on. Compared to her past job in retail, emergency dispatch was a vocation.
Police dispatch transferring to a consolidated emergency services center helped stabilize operations. Structure relaxed to more civilian friendly. Quality assurance was set in motion and negative behaviors were prohibited. In 1998, they moved into a dedicated 911 building.
Turnover still existed but at a more predictable pattern. A position in emergency communications was a stepping-stone to other Harford County jobs. It was a way to get in the door. Some discovered—as they still do—that responding to crisis in a non-visual environment takes its toll.
Factors contributing to staying put also followed a foreseeable course. "If you have a toxic culture, people won’t stay,” DiGennaro said. Promotions, and there have been five, keep her interest alive. Other variables accentuating career over short-term stay include advice she provides in the Journal of Emergency Dispatch column “Surviving the Headset.”
Protocol, and Harford uses all three (medical, police, and fire), adds to dispatch satisfaction, as does the center’s tri-ACE recognition. “It shows we maintain an extremely high level of service,” she said. “People realize the importance of what we do. We’re proud of what we do.”
Despite the profession’s high turnover, DiGennaro warns against desperation as a key factor to hire. No point hiring somebody with a bad attitude or an inability to see themselves as part of the whole of emergency services. Desperation costs time and training and forces capable staff to pick up the slack—only to go back to square one when the new hire does not make it through probation.
And never overlook the importance of fashion. At Harford, they wear jeans and casual shirts. No more uniforms. Making a statement may be part of the next hiring trend in emergency services. Who knows? “I went by a firehouse the other day,” DiGennaro said. “Volunteers wanted. No pay. Odd hours. Cool hat. That made me laugh.”
1 Linos E, Ruffini K, Wilcoxen S. “Reducing Burnout and Resignation Among Frontline Workers: A Field Experiment.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory. 2021; Oct. 11. https://academic.oup.com/jpart/advance-article-abstract/doi/10.1093/jopart/muab042/6387806?login=false (accessed April 12, 2022).
2 “A Frontline Focus: How to Mitigate Burnout In Public Sector Frontline Workers—A Conversation with Elizabeth Linos.” UC Berkeley Opportunity Lab. http://www.olab.berkeley.edu/in-conversation-with-elizabeth-linos (accessed April 12, 2022).
3 Alterio M. “Peer Support Programs- Mitigating the Emotional Effects of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 911 Dispatchers.” 2020; August. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/343403733_Peer_Support_Programs-_Mitigating_the_Emotional_Effects_of_Vicarious_Trauma_Experienced_by_911_Dispatchers (accessed April 12, 2022).
4 See note 3.
5 Coleman C. “What Does Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Mean in the Workplace.” 2022; Aug. 11. https://builtin.com/diversity-inclusion/what-does-dei-mean-in-the-workplace (accessed Aug. 26, 2022).6 Clawson J, Miko M. “Ask Doc.” Journal of Emergency Dispatch. 2020; Sept. 21. https://www.iaedjournal.org/ask-doc (accessed April 13, 2022).
7 See note 6.