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...


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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.