Audrey Fraizer

Audrey Fraizer

Story Vault

By Audrey Fraizer

A dispatch center is a conglomeration of strong personalities, all under stress at least part of the shift, and expected to work together harmoniously and take turns baking brownies for everyone on staff, including management.

No one is crabby, preoccupied because of personal issues, or disgruntled because the working conditions are ideal and the pay and benefits are tops. Members of ad hoc committees are always representative of everyone’s concerns and no rules are made without full and total agreement.

If you nodded “yes” to all of the claims in the previous paragraph, your manager is standing behind you while you’re reading The Journal. While most centers might include an objective to create and maintain an “employee friendly” atmosphere, the odds are seldom in their favor.

“We want our dispatchers to have a good day, but that doesn’t always happen,” said Leslie Whitham, instructor, Public Safety Training Consultants (PSTC). “We get a little cynical and a little distracted. There comes a time for all of us when we need to refocus on what it is we’re supposed to be doing every time we come into work.”

Whitham was among several speakers at Navigator 2012, held during the third week of April in Baltimore, Md., to explore the customer service side of emergency dispatch and dismiss notions of “if it’s broke, you can’t fix it.” The pre-conference workshop—The Spirit to Serve—drew nearly a dozen dispatchers, supervisors, and training specialists interested in resolving negativity in the workplace.

Attitude has a snowball effect, Whitham said.

For example, a dispatcher complaining about the lack of attention management gives to National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week (NTW)—and rightly so—is picked up by another dispatcher and in less time than it takes to put up a banner, the entire shift is playing the blame game, pointing fingers and assigning fault.

Negative comments about what management might believe to be insignificant (or too expensive to recognize) can grow exponentially and before you know it, the job is bad; the management is worse; nobody cares enough to listen; and the “don’t expect me to do more than anyone else around here” attitude takes over. Morale sinks. Tempers flair.

PSTC Instructional Coordinator Kevin Willett said part of the problem lies in the lack of communication (rather ironic considering the job requirements, he noted) and the lack of morale boosters due to demanding schedules, limited “face” time, and budgets on quick weight loss plans.

“Morale isn’t a priority for many of us,” Willett said during the Balancing Your Time Between “Taming the Shrew” and “Thanking Those Who Do” workshop. “We’re all over spending for new technology and ignore fixing what’s right in front of us. Our employees are the priority and to make a difference, we have to go out of our way to thank them.”

Students in both workshops offered suggestions they’ve tried for combatting dipping morale and declining funds. For starters, never dismiss the week set aside each year to honor dispatchers and don’t ignore any opportunity in general to show appreciation.

Tony Wilkens and Karyn Kretzel, of West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, Colo., gave a propane-powered barbecue grill to their dispatchers, and not just for firing up on the occasional holiday or birthdays.

“In Colorado we barbecue year-round and a grill was something asked for in the past,” Kretzel said. “We revisited and bought one before anyone had to ask again.”

Other centers send their dispatchers to the Navigator conference, either on a rotating basis or as an incentive for exemplary performance. Food is always a welcomed guest, whether it’s a chili potluck brought in or a bacon and egg breakfast cooked on the premises. Jerry Stallings, of Queen Anne’s County communications center in Centerville, Md., said people still talk about the Thanksgiving meal they served a few years back to locals in public service scheduled to work the holiday.

“It made us feel good to do that,” he said.

St. Charles 911 Communications District in Hahnville, La., gutted its existing center, turning it into a place not as happy as home, but close enough. Ergonomic furniture, self-controlled hot/cold ventilation systems, and new carpeting and paint more than made up for the inconvenience of cramped quarters during reconstruction.

“We broke morale and then built it,” said Cary Armand, St. Charles 911 Communications District. “They were so ready to come back from temporary space.”

Appreciation, however, doesn’t have to come with a huge price tag or expand into new digs. Less expensive signs that you care include the insulated lunch bags and coffee mugs Sussex County (Georgetown, Del.) Emergency Operations Center Manager Debbie Jones gave to her dispatchers to foster NTW celebrations.

No fat funding makes dress-down days, an extra 30 minutes added to a meal break, and thank-you notes affordable options. The “atta boy/atta girl” bulletin board at West Metro Fire Rescue provides the space for 32 cards giving positive notice for anything from a bystander CPR rescue call to extending a welcome to a new employee.

Letting employees know you care can even be as simple as keeping frustration levels at bay. If the overhead lighting blinks and sputters, have the system checked before being asked again and again and again. Offer remedial training with tools that the struggling dispatcher can put into practice.

Zerelda Nelson, Hillsborough County (Tampa, Fla.) Sheriff’s Department communications center, said gratitude can begin at the team level and stay there.

“We do things to build morale within our teams without going overboard,” she said. “Every little bit helps and sometimes it’s taking the time to understand what’s affecting the individual.”

If it all works out as hoped for, the payoff of good morale inside can translate into employees willing to go the extra distance for better customer service, said PSTC Instructor Traci Deitschman, who co-presented The Spirit to Serve workshop. In other words, a supervisor or manager showing concern and respect for the team might rub off through a dispatcher who works to ensure every 9-1-1 caller he or she talks to has the best experience possible during a crisis.

“We have the ability to change someone’s experience in the way we act toward that person,” Deitschman said. “We have to react from their perspective, not our own.”

Improving morale can also mean going outside center walls to introduce the voices behind emergency communications. Karima Dash, Augusta (Ga.) 9-1-1 Emergency Services, partnered with the Red Cross for clothing and coat drives. For the past four years, center calltakers have trained volunteers answering the hotline at the Safe Home Domestic Violence Center.

“Going out in the community lets the public see that this is someone they know and someone they can feel comfortable talking to in case of an emergency,” Dash said. “The reaction has been very positive on both sides.”

No matter what you try, there’s always going to be the bad apple or the “problem child” taking the bulk of corrective attention; a day to sack the uniform in place of a pair of comfortable blue jeans isn’t necessarily going to turn a Negative Ned into the positive advocate you can bet the farm on.

“Wishing for change is not the answer,” Willett said. “But as managers we have to stand up for our people. Don’t miss an opportunity to create positive relations.”