911 Center Staffing: A Burning Issue

Adequate staffing has long been a fire service concern. Whether it involves the number of career firefighters assigned to ladder and engine companies, or the ability of suburban and rural communities to recruit adequate numbers of volunteers to provide protection, having enough people to do the job is a universal issue.

For at least the past decade, a lack of personnel has also had a significant, but many times less publicly visible, impact on emergency communications centers as well, adding to rapid burnout of dispatchers and creating the potential for delayed alarms. Throughout North America, public safety agencies report continuing shortages in telecommunicators. One department responding to a survey conducted by this author advised that while its authorized strength was 14 dispatchers, it was working with five. Further, it went on to report that it had been short by at least 50% for the last six years.

While this may be an extreme case, it is, unfortunately, not unusual, with all but one respondent advising of current vacancies. From a firefighting perspective, imagine the effect that an almost 65% reduction in staff would have on operations. Critical tasks, if performed at all, obviously would be delayed. The same can be said for receiving the alarm. While it may not take the physical strength and coordination required to throw a 40-foot ladder, a ringing phone still needs someone to answer it. Where there are more phones to answer than people to answer them, somebody is going to have to wait. And, the fewer people there are to answer, the longer that wait is going to be.

Operational differences between dispatch and suppression also add to the dilemma. While an incident commander can normally summon an additional alarm or mutual aid to make up for lacking resources, the dispatch supervisor has no such available pool. The best that can be hoped for is the callback of off-duty personnel, but even this is time consuming and marginally effective when your entire staff is currently working, has just worked or is due in on the next shift.

Many larger telecommunications organizations recognize staffing as a critical issue and have taken steps to address it. In 2001, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) created “Project RETAINS” (Responsive Efforts To Address Integral Needs in Staffing). Its list of best practices and related papers can be found at www.apcointl.org/about/911/retains/best_practices. Project RETAINS, funded by a federal grant, is charged with producing a “tool kit” of effective recruiting, testing, hiring, training and retaining practices and staffing formulas. “Dispatchers are a vital asset to an incident commander,” said Steve Souder, administrator of the Montgomery County, MD, 911 Emergency Communications Center and project chair. “The manner in which communications center personnel are recruited, tested, hired, trained, paid and recognized should be as similar as possible to the way that field personnel are.”

Souder is no stranger to the critical function performed by communications personnel during emergencies, having been the fire dispatcher on duty during the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 into the Potomac River in 1982 and the director of the Arlington County, VA, ECC during the terrorist attack on the Pentagon 19 years later.

While there is no single cause for the current workforce crisis, and no universal solution, many departments report similar issues. One typical problem is lack of compensation. Historically, dispatch positions have been classified at lower grades than first responders. While you’ll find little argument that the salaries of field personnel should reflect the dangers faced, communications has evolved into a technically demanding profession that requires the possession of skill sets not needed in the past. Unfortunately, many individuals who possess these necessary attributes find more lucrative jobs in the private sector. This is especially true with the proliferation of corporate call centers that handle nationwide requests for insurance, banking, hotel and service needs.

Our greatest competition, however, is often from within. Many proficient dispatchers abandon their careers for one of the uniformed services. With some fire departments having long waiting lists, dispatch becomes a convenient place keeper for those waiting to be hired. While this does provide dispatch with short-term employees who will likely “keep their nose clean” during their stay, it does nothing to alleviate the chronic churn. Perhaps a member of my management staff summed up part of the problem when he said, “Lots of kids grow up wanting to be a firefighter. How many people have you ever heard of who dreamed of being a dispatcher?”

Until such time as dispatch is thought of as a career and not a temporary job, the cycle may never be broken. And until such time as issues like retirement systems, work hours, recognition and career opportunity are adequately addressed, this probably won’t happen. While your body doesn’t get the physical abuse of “eating smoke,” there is really not much glamour in answering a 911 call at 3 o’clock on a Sunday morning when you’re 65 years old and have been doing it for 40 years.

Training is another major concern. In fact, it is a concern that requires a dedicated discussion that was addressed in the May 2005 Communicating column (“Communicator Training: Changing Expectations for Changing Times”). It is safe to say here, however, that the inability of many candidates to complete their initial training and probationary periods is far from an isolated occurrence. Unfortunately, when these failures take place, the hiring cycle begins anew and additional months are added to the time that an agency is working short.

The attitude of current dispatchers and staff also affects new hires. As is the case with firefighter “probies,” many senior personnel believe that a certain amount of dues must be paid and dedication shown in order to be accepted by the group. Talk around the communications center break room can be as tough as that around any firehouse kitchen table, and it can intimidate and demoralize otherwise good candidates.

On the positive side, two of the more effective recruiting suggestions carry with them little cost. The first is to use word of mouth as a means of attracting new employees. Current workers who are happy with their jobs make great ambassadors, and the candidates they recommend already have a vested interest in success through these relationships. The second screening tool is requiring that all applicants spend a shift in dispatch observing operations prior to a job offer being made. As is the case in the field, some otherwise interested prospects may reconsider when faced with the realities of what the job entails. If they are still interested, chances are at least they’ll give it a reasonable effort.

Unfortunately, while agencies struggle to keep their communications centers adequately staffed, the number of calls and the number of duties assigned to dispatchers constantly increase. Chronic understaffing of dispatch centers places firefighters and the communities they serve at risk – and there is no rapid intervention team standing by on the sidelines armed with phones and radios to rush to their rescue.

Barry Furey, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Savoy, IL, Fire Department. Furey is past president of the Tennessee chapter of the Association of Public safety Communications Officials (APCO) and former chair of the APCO Homeland Security Task Force. He also was conference chair for the 2002 APCO International Conference in Nashville.