Ivan Whitaker

Ivan Whitaker


By Ivan Whitaker, MBA, EMT-P

As citizen demands shift, so do the landscape leadership requirements for the public safety profession.

Over the last decade, leadership requirements in the 9-1-1 emergency dispatch environment have changed drastically. Sound judgment, commitment to customer service, off-the-chart multitasking abilities, and confidence in taking on added responsibilities are skills and personal characteristics centers must maintain. This provides the best opportunity to develop a steady pool of qualified applicants for leadership positions.

Reminiscing on the ways of the past is a sure recipe for failure.

The next generation is ready to inherit top positions held by the past generation, and their expectations and management principles are very different from the departing baby boomers. And if retirement is still a few years into the future, existing leaders must pay close attention to the evolving work culture of their dispatch centers. Leaders must possess the ability to move associates cooperatively and cohesively toward stated goals. Ineffective and overbearing leadership styles are magnified in a dispatch center. The “my way or the highway” attitude deters progress and results in the loss of potential future leaders.

Leaders must also recognize the hidden talent in their centers—the people willing and capable to take responsible control.

The belief that field experience makes for more knowledgeable and successful 9-1-1 center supervisors is not always accurate. In fact, the transition from the field may be extremely difficult and the correlation between leadership in the dispatch center and field experience (paramedic or law enforcement officer, for example) may be miniscule.

Today’s dispatch center leaders, and those in the future, need the relevance of hands-on experience and the versatility required to keep up a demanding profession moving into next generation technology. In addition, certification and continued education have the advantage over applicants lacking the now nearly universal qualifications.

Great managers

So, what’s the secret to great leadership? The following are a few indicators I’ve learned over the past years in my management and leadership positions.

Create a reliable and honest culture

Good leaders create a culture of quality assurance and accountability. Well-run dispatch centers are responsive, professional, and develop specific processes and procedures applied across the board. No one plays favorites or circumvents the culture’s expectations.

Build an employee development program specific to telecommunications

HR departments initiating global development programs are missing the point. The position includes, although it’s certainly not limited to: recruitment and management of staff, preparation and maintenance of the operating budget, and oversight of the daily operations. That might sound generic to any profession until inside the walls of a busy, progressive communication center.

Disregard previous notions

Conduct an honest analysis of what it takes to efficiently run a dispatch center. For example, are you—or the leaders selected—capable of providing an overview of future radio system/infrastructure improvements, and do you have the know-how to find grant funds to improve radio communications and prepare for the narrowband mandate? Can the individual handle multiple tasks and multiple generational personalities?

Put morale at the forefront

Morale directly impacts everything. If employees are unhappy, the public suffers. Poor morale leads to increased sick leave, unsatisfactory performance, turnover, and the inability to select in-house individuals for promotion. Good management establishes employee ownership, encourages potential, and nurtures individual strengths. A servant leader offsets challenges associated with stress and challenging work schedules. A self-serving leader has lost sight of priorities.

Provide opportunities

When leadership positions are available, a lack of available applicants might reflect the organization’s attitude toward developing its employees. A good leader seeks to incorporate succession training in advance of a “two weeks’ notice.” While successors will make changes, the best approaches to the future build upon past leadership success. Ego should be set aside. After all, a leader’s decision to leave should not adversely impact the organization as a whole.

Make it a team effort

Pardon the cliché, but if the shoe fits, wear it, and if it doesn’t fit, give it to someone it will fit. Leadership, and leadership in a communication center, is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. No one has all the answers and insight. Seek out and invite participation with the budget planning process, strategic planning, and the complexities of next generation communication. Let others participate in the future of your center and give credit where the credit is due.