Training to Excel

Art Braunschweiger

Art Braunschweiger

Best Practices

“Our job isn’t to get you through training—our job is to get you to excel.” That’s what new hires learn in the first hour of orientation at Union County Regional Communications in Westfield, New Jersey (USA). It’s a philosophy that should drive every agency’s training program. It has its basis in the belief that with structured training and performance-based feedback, new hires can be trained to consistently achieve superior results. 

Realism is what makes Union County’s program so successful. Without it, trainees would have a learning curve of several months or more adapting what they learned in training to real calls. In simulations, trainees should experience every type of call and caller that they’re likely to encounter, with a far higher percentage of the challenging and non-routine: situations that don’t fit the norm, conflicting information, and bad addresses, to name a few. 

A full day of simulations shouldn’t be representative of an actual day in dispatch because a trainee doesn’t need 10 calls from people asking to speak to the police chief. Conversely, call types that an emergency dispatcher is likely to handle only once or twice a year—high-acuity, low-frequency events—should repeat in scenarios across multiple days to ensure the trainee has sufficient experience to handle them confidently and correctly.

In many agencies, details of call scenarios are left up to the trainer’s imagination.   Scripting calls has huge advantages, though. It eliminates subjectivity and ensures that all trainees have the same experiences. For basic calltaker training, Union County employs a total of 800 scripted scenarios in 16 categories. This allows the agency to build in a specific number of calls for each discipline handled (police, fire, and EMS) plus those requiring Pre-Arrival Instructions or specialized responses such as Hazardous Materials teams. And, by tracking performance across individual call types, the agency can readily identify where a trainee needs extra help. 

A scripted scenario should include what line the call will ring in on, the opening phrase exactly as the trainer should state it, the address and callback information, name of the caller, and any key details the trainer needs to know—and in some cases, what not to volunteer. Finally, it should include the correct CAD entry code or Problem/Nature to use, and if the call was handled through ProQA®, what Chief Complaint or sub-Chief Complaint Protocol is correct. Calls should vary between residential and commercial addresses, parks, highways, and more challenging locations such as public event spaces or wilderness areas.

Union County also integrates diversity into its training scenarios, recently making use of a random-name generator online to change many caller’s names to reflect a wider range of national origins. Some scenarios also involve same-sex relationships and transgender callers. “Our staff is proud of the diversity within our comm center. Our training scenarios were developed to reflect the diversity of our service population,” said Gareth Williams, Chief Public Safety Telecommunicator.  

Realism is the key to effective training. While initial training in emergency call handling will most likely involve simulated callers who state their information clearly and calmly, real callers can be irritable, angry, or otherwise challenging. The occasional script should include a prompt for the trainer to play the part, whether it involves being emotional, a child caller, or one with a language barrier. At Union County some trainers, such as Jayson Diano (pictured), have become very adept at adopting various accents and playing the designated roles to an amazing degree. 

Verbal feedback should immediately follow each scenario to reinforce what was done correctly or especially well with coaching on what to do differently next time. Feedback should be performance-based and highly specific: Trainees need to know exactly what they did right, or well, and exactly where they need to improve—along with coaching on how to do it better, smarter, or faster next time. You might have learned something over your three or 10 years on the job that works well, and by teaching it to the trainee you can fast-forward them to that point in five minutes.

Good training is always oriented toward the next call. Feedback should really be “feed forward.” That’s a term coined years ago by Kim Rigden of the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED). Trainees can’t change what they did in the past, so orient your feedback on what to do next time. Whatever you call it, you should also summarize your feedback in writing for the trainee to review later. Trainees—especially visual learners—will readily review that feedback prior to the next training day (and should be given the time to do so). Don’t just write “no issues” if a call went well—note what the trainee did well and note it with enthusiasm! 

Scenario-based calltaker training at Union County has evolved from a single day of unscripted calls 10 years ago to full days of scripted call simulations. During that time trainees experience nine full days of simulated calls which, collectively, are tougher and much more challenging than any typical day handling real calls. Trainees go home more tired than they’ve ever been up to that point—but thrive on it. Most admit that they look forward to the next day because of how much they learn. At the start of full-day call simulations, 40 calls per day is the goal. Toward the end, as trainees’ skills increase and feedback becomes less corrective, 60 is the norm.  

What happens if a trainee makes it to the end of the designated number of scenarios and their skills are short of satisfactory? While Union County has hundreds of additional scenarios, before they’re used a trainee will repeat the previous scenarios until they can achieve a success rate of 80% handled without more than routine feedback.   Repeating scenarios verbatim helps trainers see if trainees retained and applied feedback from the initial scenarios. While rare, trainees have been terminated after documentation has shown that despite remedial training and intensive feedback, they continued to have the same issues on the third and even fourth repetition of the exact same calls.  

Good training relies on two things: documentation and data. Microsoft Excel is an ideal platform for call scenarios because it meets both needs. You’ll ultimately want to have data automatically displayed for the number and types of scenarios completed, what percentage were handled satisfactorily and, preferably, at least some basic stats as to the number and types of performance deficits (and exemplary calls!) noted. Union County’s tracking form has grown to a 35-megabyte document with 26,000 formulas embedded. A tool like this with scripted scenarios embedded takes a very dedicated effort and a lot of time to create, but it’s as indispensable to the trainers as their CAD system—and it would be just as unthinkable to do without it.