Team Building

Cynthia Murray

Cynthia Murray

Best Practices

There’s no doubt that working in the emergency dispatch environment can be stressful, but some communication centers have found creative ways to bond and build a team culture where clocking in for a 12-hour shift is something to look forward to.

Desmond Harris, Community Relations Coordinator at the Cobb County Department of Emergency Communications (Georgia, USA), plans creative, engaging events to boost morale, unite the team, and form relationships outside of the console. Whether it’s chatting over pizza and board games or hosting Trunk-or-Treat gatherings with families, it’s rewarding to see people bonding.

“We have a very tough job, and only other 911 professionals understand that,” Harris said. “It is important that we stick together so we can do the lifesaving work we do.”

With a recent shift in leadership, Harris found tremendous support in focusing efforts on unity and connection. “We are still working to build that culture,” he said. “It takes time, and it’s expected that not everyone is on board at first. But eventually they either get on board or find something else because they see the team taking shape.”

Teams take time

Tanya Boudreau, 911 Dispatcher for the Bonnyville Regional Fire Authority (BRFA) in Alberta (Canada), has felt the difference between times of division and cohesion. Her communication center shares a building with the ambulance staff (EMS), but during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the door was closed between entities as a cautionary measure. Recently, that door has been reopened, allowing EMS staff to wave, chat, and build a relationship with dispatch personnel.

“Not one person walks by without saying something,” Boudreau said. “We’re not so isolated anymore. We’re part of a team, and that helps keep spirits up.”

To encourage such camaraderie, Boudreau said they ask all personnel to contribute team-building ideas with a focus on fun. “We’re very inclusive, very involved and heard,” she said. “I think we’re a resourceful crew with a lot of natural talents.”

Boudreau’s co-workers participate in a wide variety of activities including golf and hockey nights, baking exchanges, vision board events, and teaching each other unique skills such as decorating Ukrainian eggs, crocheting, knitting, beading, and diamond art. Some particularly fit dispatch employees and firefighters have taught employees how to train and exercise, and there’s no stress relief quite like sweating together. 

“You work so closely with your co-workers,” Boudreau said. “It’s nice to build a friendship and get to know each other. If you have a positive, friendly staff, people are going to hear that in your voice when you answer the phone.”

For Harris, a lot of projects involve a simple idea and a Cricut machine. He invites employees to take a turn decorating a corner of the communication center for major and inclusive holidays, allowing them to “do their own thing and make it happen.” In November, they displayed an owl in a tree with a “Whoooo’s grateful?” board, encouraging employees to write their gratitude on paper leaves. The personnel have gone all out on competitions to decorate the administration’s doors. Whether it’s gingerbread contests or pumpkin decorating, everyone is invited to take part.

Boudreau’s center also likes to go all out for decorating. “This year we extended our holiday decorations out into the EMS hallway and the windows where everyone could see it when driving by,” Boudreau said. “It felt inspiring, homey, and safe even though we’re dealing with emergency situations.”

Both centers have relied on the support and participation of supervisors, which is essential in creating a community culture. “The administration knows that it’s better when people enjoy coming to work,” Harris said.

Adventure awaits

When Boudreau’s dispatch team came up with an idea to create a geocaching site together for a community treasure hunt, one supervisor showed his support by slipping a bit of money from his own wallet to contribute to the “treasure” (e.g., geocaching stickers, logbook, hockey pucks, slinkies, teddy bears, and 911 swag). 

“Some people contribute time, some give ideas, others put in the physical work or pitch in a financial buffer,” Boudreau said. “Everyone’s invested in some way.”

Geocaching has been an unexpected hit that continues to draw excitement for both Emergency Dispatchers and the community, with successful finds within the first week. Even the EMS staff went out to find the hidden 911 geocache, and now they want to hide one of their own.

“We wanted people to know that we can be a fun part of the community,” Boudreau said. “It’s amazing how one small idea grew bigger as more people became invested. Now dispatchers constantly check the logs and emails to see treasure-seekers expressing their thanks in the logbook and on camera. One group left a travel bug, which has been traveling around the world since 2018, originating in the Hudson Bay.”

Boudreau hopes other dispatch centers will be inspired to “dig deep” to interact with the public they serve.

“Participating in these events helps strangers become friends,” Boudreau said. At parades and school events, the community has come to recognize their emergency-related mascots “Cellphone Sally” (911), “Trauma-saurus Rex” (EMS), and “Sparky the dog” (fire). Another benefit of these events is the opportunity for dispatch personnel to connect with police officers and firefighters face-to-face, which invites a feeling of connection, familiarity, and security.

Friendship has many forms

Reaching out to the public is an important part of Harris’ goals as well. Cobb County Department of Emergency Communications recently began a program called “Pop-Up Popsicles in the Park,” building bonds by simply announcing a park location on social media and setting up a cooler, a tent, and a sign for free popsicles. These gestures put a friendly face to emergency education. 

One of Harris’ team members annually hosts the 911 Kids Expo, with 75­–100 kids spending the day at the communication center. Emergency Dispatchers teach about 911, CPR, and fire safety and offer a guided tour of the center. After a couple of hours, the kids go home with more knowledge and less fear in the face of an emergency.

“These events help the public put a face to the voices they hear when they are having their worst moments,” Harris said. “And it helps us realize that the people calling us are human.”

Both Harris and Boudreau understand that team building may be daunting for communication centers who want to create an environment of connection.

“Don’t give up if you hear a ‘No,’ when you first suggest an idea,” Boudreau said. “Just try something different. It will be worth it.”

Harris encouraged communication centers to start today.

“Write down ideas,” Harris said. “Talk to the people in charge. Start small with using sticky notes to write positive messages and put them on each other’s lockers. Pass on the positivity. Buy pizza or drinks for your shift. Have a monthly potluck. Go into your supply closet and start now.”

Before long, you can measure the difference based on the energy in the room. “You can see smiles,” Harris said. “It may not always be an outward expression, but you know you’ve done what you can to make the communication center better.”