Support Your Local Dispatchers

Two Sundays ago, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel printed as its’ Page One story an overview of the challenges facing the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center (GJRCC) in trying to recruit and retain personnel.

The week prior I was contacted by reporter Mike Wiggins, and we met to talk about the challenges faced by today’s communications professionals. Even with some stark differences and varying challenges, I couldn’t help thinking that this was familiar territory being traversed anew.

In 1995, GJRCC began a national recruitment for Supervisors. This followed a large exodus of employees in 1994, along with another Sunday Page One story in the Sentinel on the staffing crisis, and a consultant’s study that determined that a first tier of management 24 hours a day was needed to provide operational oversight and continuity.

It was felt that more responsive management and problem-solving would improve working conditions, and thereby employee retention. I was one of five supervisors hired as part of that recruitment. The challenges and rewards of relocating to Colorado and doing the job were significant.

The staff of GJRCC is highly skilled, and performs their appointed tasks in an admirable manner under very stressful conditions. I cannot see fit to level criticism at any member of the Comm Center staff. This does not extend to the Grand Junction Police Department, or City administration.

I know this is a lot to read, and if you’re interested, read on. If you just want to know the gist of what I’m getting at, here are some bullet points for you:

  1. The issues surrounding staff retention extend well beyond the recruitment, hiring, and training process. It goes into the realm of the organizational structure and operating processes and policies of the agencies that use GJRCC, as well as the nature and service provision of other government agencies.
  2. Stakeholders in the future of this essential community public safety resource need to suspend disbelief when it comes to the future of the center, and begin to brainstorm ideas for the future structure, administration, and functional location of GJRCC and the Grand Junction Emergency Telephone Service Authority. Nothing should be off the table at the start.

  3. The community at large has a significant stake in the success of its’ public safety agencies. There are many things that can be done, and issues that can be advocated for, that can go a long way toward improving both our collective quality of life and the work environment of our public safety professionals.

In response to the community’s growth, the center has needed to hire more people to do the job. Some new employees find that they can’t handle the job, or decide they don’t like it, and ‘wash out’ or leave shortly after starting. Legacy employees find other paths for their career, or their lives change significantly in a way that requires a change or adjustment. Either way, they move on. I’m one of those people.

It’s not my intent to generate some grand expose’ or indictment of the GJRCC management team, insofar as I share in the responsibility for some of these conditions that have resulted in the latest staffing shortfall. I do intend to illustrate some of the ways that best practices could be applied to the existing workplace environment, with the hope of optimizing efficiency and minimizing the unnecessary stress that often creeps into a complex and high-energy work environment such as this one.

As those of you who read my post from November already know, I like to divide these kinds of issues into the three components of a best practice; Technology, Processes, and People. I found a possible example from the Feb. 1 story:

“During the busiest times on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, the call volume can rise to the point where officers wait 20 to 30 minutes for a response after they ask dispatchers to check a license plate or a driver’s name through a computer database with information about stolen vehicles or arrest warrants.

That can compromise officer safety, according to Deputy Police Chief Troy Smith, who said some officers don’t even attempt to check for stolen vehicles or wanted subjects during times they know the dispatch center is swamped.”

The City and County have spent thousands of dollars on computers, infrastructure, and software to provide a mobile data network for law enforcement officers in the field. This network is designed to provide access to, among other things, the same criminal and vehicle databases that the dispatchers use.

Assuring that this mobile data system is fully operational (technology), that field personnel are properly trained in its’ use (people), and are required to use it when they can safely do so instead of relying on dispatchers (processes), may help reduce the workload and multi-tasking burden that dispatchers at times face unnecessarily.

In my November post about the Public Safety Initiative, I identified several focus areas that I believe are critical to achieving a best practice in the eventual expansion of our public safety infrastructure. Communications is no small part of that. Some of these areas that apply specifically to improving the work environment at GJRCC are:

Regionalization / ConsolidationGJRCC functions at a higher level of overall efficiency because of its’ county-wide scope of operations. However, the idiosyncratic nature of multiple independent agencies creates additional stress on regionally-based personnel. A dispatcher forced to remember how an animal complaint or runaway report is handled in Grand Junction vs. Clifton vs. Fruita vs. Palisade, because they may all be handled differently, is going to have an increased stress level in comparison to processing those calls the same way for everyone.

Better yet, having one metropolitan police department across the Grand Valley would appear to make enormous sense from a fiscal and operational standpoint, regardless of obstacles such as politics, parochialism, and hubris that stand in the way of even a meaningful discussion. There needs to be some meaningful discussion about resource sharing and modifying operating processes (especially in this economy) before any more buildings get built.

If Police Chief Bill Gardner was serious when he told City Council “We cannot continue to do what we’re doing”, then he’s smart enough to realize that statement also applies to a lot more than just the Communication Center.

Annexation Reform – A more common sense method of annexing territory into the City will serve to reduce the stress involved in determining jurisdiction. For example, not having to worry about whether or not the crime occurred in the victim’s backyard or on the canal road behind it, because the yard is in the City but the canal is not. Seriously.

Emergency Management – Critical incidents may be unpredictable, but the manner in which they are responded to shouldn’t be. Since 9/11, one thing that FEMA has done a lot of work on is the National Incident Management System (NIMS). This comprehensive framework for managing emergency operations includes the Incident Command System (ICS), which FEMA describes as follows:

ICS is flexible and can be used for incidents of any type, scope, and complexity. ICS allows its users to adopt an integrated organizational structure to match the complexities and demands of single or multiple incidents.”

Many good dispatchers get that way by learning to anticipate the needs of the resources they are coordinating, and planning the notification of additional resources or other related tasks in advance of the actual request. Consistent use of ICS by public safety responders allows for the anticipation of resource needs according to a plan, and allows dispatchers to function in a much more informed, empowered, and efficient way.

Those public safety agencies that are tacitly resistant to integrating NIMS/ICS into their routine daily operations make a dispatcher’s job more difficult. Given the national focus on better coordination and accountability of emergency resources, this resistance is becoming all the more indefensible.

Human Resources – In the January 19 Sentinel, another Mike Wiggins story detailed what each City department was trimming back from their planned expenditures after a spending freeze was imposed by City Manager Laurie Kadrich. The Police Department’s tally included:

“..held off on hiring another dispatch center supervisor (emphasis mine), an investigations sergeant and a corporal to work in professional standards and

training.”

From 1995 until 2007, the number of dispatcher positions at GJRCC increased at a slow but steady pace, but the number of Supervisors remained constant. This steadily widening span of control was a cause of concern for myself and some of my colleagues.

According to a national call center consulting firm, span of control should be evaluated when:

· Quality monitoring needs to be improved.
· Supervisors are stressed due to workload.
· Agent turnover is increasing or too high.

· Budget cuts are needed.

· Changes in the company’s organization.

I’m hopeful that among the 15 proposed new positions are sufficient supervisory staff to maintain an acceptable span of control. Critical along with those providing operational direction and supervisory oversight are those legacy employees who function as training officers. Their experience, patience, and ability to document progress and provide effective feedback to new trainees is invaluable.

New Technology and Infrastructure – As if those attempting to deal with the current staffing issues didn’t have enough on their plate, there’s the pressing need for a new communications center facility. With the Public Safety Initiative headed back to the drawing board, it seems an opportune time to revisit exactly how to make that happen from a regional perspective, as opposed to a ‘City-centric’ view.

The Fall 2008 newsletter of the Academy of Architecture for Justice included an article on 9-1-1 Center design, which offered the following:

“In Will County, Ill., the design team undertook an extensive process to select appropriate sites within the entire county. The two-pronged approach involved eliminating all areas deemed less suited because of natural hazards (such as flood plains or wetlands) or man made hazards (such as major roads, pipelines, or nuclear power plants), followed by a nomination process of available sites in strategic zones of the county. All sites were subsequently ranked and recommended to the Emergency Telephone System Board.”

With the current and planned future sites for a new Comm Center located in an urban core area, between two major transportation routes and a quarter-mile from a major rail corridor, perhaps this is the time to begin a careful reconsideration of where to locate a critical facility such as this.

Community Involvement – What can we as a community do to support the efforts of these professionals to provide us with the most efficient service possible, when we need it the most?

  • Prudent Use – Yes, ma’am, the fireworks in the park are a sanctioned City event. It is not a crime in progress. You may want to contact the City Manager in the morning….Is there an emergency associated with the power outage? I’m sorry, but we don’t have any control over when the power will come back on. Would you like the number of your power company?….I’m sorry, sir, as much as I understand that your daughter is afraid of the lightning and thunder, we don’t have an officer available to talk to her and calm her down. Would you like our non-emergency number in case you need it later? Seriously.
  • Community Support – There’s no doubt that these critical workers, and and many of their police and fire counterparts, are in need of better facilities. Participate in those community efforts to gather input, and strongly consider lending your support at the polls.
  • Community Advocacy – The abysmal state of our mental health and alcohol treatment programs results in a revolving door of Chronic Public Inebriates, the chronic mentally ill, and increased suicide attempts, most notably in places like the Monument. From system access to treatment and transport, public safety resources are misused and stretched too thin by the failure of Colorado West Mental Health to maintain their hospital status, thus requiring dispatchers to send resources to transport patients to and from local hospitals and CWMH. Additional support, funding, and understanding is needed to allow the full potential of these resources to be properly realized.
As a growing community, even in the face of recession, we face significant challenges to our quality of life by the effects of that growth. Crime, overcrowding, and depletion of insufficient resources are contributing factors to this. Examination and modification of the way we grow and allocate resources is a big factor in how public safety responds to the needs of citizens.

Those who competently serve as the first voice of help to those truly in need are themselves in need of your support and understanding. The next time you have a need to call 9-1-1, remember the work and dedication that goes into making that person a professional, who can respond to the most routine or horrific circumstances with the same level of compassion and efficiency.

That respect doesn’t come easy. Nor does effective change to assure that all components of the system function with that same level of efficiency. I’m hopeful that those barriers to understanding that exist within our public safety hierarchy will fall in the face of economic and operational realities that will hopefully serve to reshape the way our layers of government interact.

Have a safe week ahead.

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This entry was posted in Government, Local, Personal, Politics, Public Safety. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Support Your Local Dispatchers

  1. Hello John – Google’s Blog alert sent me to this post because of the term “consolidation.” This post should be useful to subscribers of Regional Community Development News, so I will include a link to it in the February 25 issue. The newsletter will be found at http://regional-communities.blogspot.com/ Please visit, check the tools and consider a link.Tom

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