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Evaluating Emergency Calls: Tools for Dispatcher Effectiveness

Author: Keith Dawson

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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Public safety communications centers that record calls for compliance shouldn't overlook the usefulness of those recordings in evaluating dispatcher performance. That's a lesson learned from the call center industry, where recording and evaluation is widespread.

By Keith Dawson, Senior Analyst, Frost & Sullivan

Many public safety dispatch centers are using call recording technology for compliance purposes - because it is mandated by regulators that they archive their audio recordings. But what many in charge of public safety centers don't realize is that their call recording tools can also be used to boost the performance of their dispatch personnel. Quality evaluation and improvement software is an entwined application that takes the information embedded in the recordings and allows you to fairly score dispatchers on a wide variety of criteria.

Public safety communications centers can take a lesson from a surprising sector: the call center business, which specializes in handling large volumes of customer phone calls on a wide variety of topics. Although there are significant differences between the two types of centers (especially in the urgent criticality of the calls that come into public safety centers), they are similar in two respects. First, they both rely on the same kind of telephone-based technological infrastructure. And second, successfully managing them both involves a high degree of sensitivity to labor and human resources issues.

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American call centers made the leap to full-time call recording in the last decade, led by a segment of centers in the financial industry that, like public safety, was driven by regulatory and compliance issues. Banks and insurance companies in many areas have to record all their calls and make them available for playback. Starting in the early 1990s, many of those financial services firms began examining the content of those recordings with an eye to understanding how they could improve the job performance of the people handling the calls. Savvy managers found that they could discern which employees were better at handling certain types of calls. They could find out whether scripts and standards were being adhered to. Having the technology in place to record calls led quickly to using that technology to monitor calls (both in real-time and after the fact).

In the decade and a half since then, the tools have been further enhanced. Managers now have the ability to train phone reps by using their own real-life examples (and those of their peers). Recordings are used to reinforce best practices and to pinpoint specific skills gaps that phone reps need to work on. The modern call center manager relies heavily on assessing the agent-customer interaction of each call to know who to reward, who to train, who to coach. Frost & Sullivan estimates that more than 80% of U.S. call centers use some form of automated quality monitoring system in conjunction with a call recording platform. Most managers queried in that industry indicate that they use it primarily to identify agent skill gaps for training purposes (85%).

By contrast, just 32% use it primarily to be in compliance with legal regulations - indicating that it has spread far outside its original base in financial call centers.

What this led to was nothing short of a revolution in creating a system where the quality of an interaction between a customer and a call center worker could be fully understood and leveraged to make the center operate better (by many metrics) while at a lower cost.

 

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How This Impacts Public Safety

There is a trend in the context of public safety that more of the managers of those critical communications centers are applying what business call centers learned over the course of years to making their own PSAPs more productive and effective.

One example is the case of the City of Yuma Public Safety Communications Center, in Arizona. Managed by LuSandra Harris, this center handles police and fire department calls for an area population of 92,000 with 27 dispatchers.

Harris says that the center has been using the current call recording system (Capture911™) since June, 2006. In April, 2008, they began using a dispatcher evaluation product (Quality911™) that ties into the call recorder and is provided by the same manufacturer, California-based HigherGround, Inc. Yuma PSCC began the project by evaluating calls evaluating EMS (Emergency Medical Service) calls directed to the fire department, and plans to expand the quality assurance program to police calls.

Even though they had recording in place for several years, Harris says that they didn’t have an automated system for measuring the quality of calls before installing the current evaluation tool. The change was prompted by the fire department's desire to measure and report on the time between answering a call and hitting the "pre-alert time" at the fire station. (The FD's goal is 60 seconds or less.) So they started to pull reports to monitor the average call times and then started listening to calls to see if their EMD Guide Cards were being used correctly.

It took Ms. Harris about a month to develop the form she used to assess and evaluate her dispatch team based on the recordings. The process involved testing different questions and their relative weighting until she settled on a standardized format for judging call quality and dispatcher performance.

Among the different categories of questions included were standard components of the regimen recommended by APCO: did the dispatcher determine the location of the patient, did he/she get a call-back number, did the call-taker determine consciousness, determine breathing, was the interrogation card completed in its entirety at its appropriate time.

As a result of checking for these criteria, Yuma PSCC was able to reduce the call time on fire department calls dramatically, from an average 88 of seconds per call to 58 seconds per call within four months. That success prompted the agency to plan the expansion to evaluating police department calls early in 2009.

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Human Factors

One thing that call centers and public safety centers have in common is that they are both very labor-intensive work environments, subject to employee turnover and sensitive to budgetary pressures in their organizations. A formal evaluation system can bring into the public safety sphere a sense of fairness among the dispatch employees. Harris says that the project was very welcomed by the dispatchers in Yuma.

"They look forward to their next evaluation," she says. "If they have a doubt about the time they spent on a call, or the priority that they gave it, or the call type they decided upon, they'll send a message and say 'can you review this one?' They like the feedback and like being able to measure their improvement."

In addition, helping one dispatcher with issues helps the entire team. Harris: "If we identify something that we see consistently being missed or that is not where we would like it to be, here in my center we provide monthly training sessions, we address it as a refresher for everyone." That way, best practices are reinforced and the caliber of the overall group improves.

Harris and many of her colleagues don't consider their organizations as call centers, and in truth the functions that public safety centers fulfill are much more serious and "mission critical" than the customer service and sales calls that flow through call centers. But public safety professionals are coming to benefit from the experiences that high-volume commercial centers have gathered, and the technology that they have vetted through the years and the billions of calls recorded and evaluated. Call recording, so necessary for having a clear record of what has occurred, can demonstrate real cost and performance benefits for institutions that evaluate the content of those calls to build best practices and train dispatchers.

About the Author
Keith Dawson has been an authority on call centers and the management of customer care technology since 1990. He is a senior analyst in Frost & Sullivan’s contact center practice. Keith has written thousands of articles as well as several definitive books, including the now-classic Call Center Handbook. Frost & Sullivan is a national consulting firm with more than 45 years experience in multiple markets on six continents. For more information, see: www.frost.com

This article was sponsored by HigherGround, Inc. (www.highergroundinc.com)

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