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As Compared to What? How Compensation Studies Short-Change 9-1-1

Author: Barry Furey

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

Date: 2017-12-20
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After recently reading the umpteenth dispatcher-generated survey this year concerning salary and staffing, it occurred to me that we will eventually run out of feet to shoot ourselves in. Don’t get me wrong. The folks behind these online polls are hurting mightily, and are reaching out with the resources at their disposal in search of a miracle cure. Let me break it to you, and them, as gently as I can. When it comes to achieving adequate pay and obtaining a sufficient complement of people to cover the consoles, you’re not likely to find your answers in the emergency communications center (ECC) next door.

For the more than 40 years that I’ve been in this business, many municipalities have used this same approach in attempting to answer personnel issues by “seeing what the neighbors are doing.” Now, on the surface, this seems fine. Best practices have long been determined through the sampling of multiple sources. In this case, however, these tactics are dead wrong. First, comparing ECCs of varying sizes is not always looking at apples to apples, and can produce some pretty inaccurate findings. There may be any number of procedural and workload differences that need to be considered, but that are commonly overlooked. If you are the largest facility in the region, you’ll further suffer as a result of this process if your neighbors erroneously use you as a benchmark.

More importantly, who or what validates that the centers included in the sample are “right”? As kids, when we asked to blindly do what our playmates were doing, the response we received was invariably, “If they jumped off a bridge would you do it, too?” Why did we forget such a valuable lesson? If another agency underpays their communicators and has hardly enough people to fill a shift, should we gleefully follow them down the same path of woe? We know the answer, yet we collectively allow our government “parents” to herd us like sheep into the acceptance of this faulty logic. If you are going to build a model, then it is imperative that you build it on a foundation of fact. I can assure you that I am aware of many more public safety answering points that are struggling with staffing and pay than I do those that are not. Googling “dispatch center personnel shortages” gives you 1,360,000 responses. Just about everyone out there is in the same boat, so why look elsewhere on the S.S. 9-1-1 for help? All you’ll find will be more telecommunicators who are paddling as fast as they can.

The truth of the matter is that in this world of “bring us more facts,” there are already a variety of existing tools that do just that. Both APCO (Association of Public-safety Communications Officials) and NENA

 (National Emergency Number Association) have excellent applications that provide all the data you should ever need to justify baseline staffing requests. The Erlang formulae, used for deriving the lines and agents required to maintain a particular service level, (such as answering 90% of your calls in ten seconds), have been around for more than seventy years, so it’s not as if we just discovered the wheel. The National Fire Protection Agency (NFPA) Standard 1221 speaks to overall event processing time as well as minimal duty strength. When used together, these make a pretty solid case for anyone willing to listen.

Additional key flaws are that these studies don’t universally include private sector positions in their models, or visit jobs with similar skillset requirements such as air traffic controllers. Where airports and corporate call centers exist, they present very real employment options for prospective personnel. This needs to be factored in to achieve a realistic view of conditions locally.

Finally, one of the reoccurring comments I’ve heard from the Human Resources types is that “Volume doesn’t justify pay grade. Pay is based on the complexity and type of duties performed.” First, in the private sector, this is not always true. While I don’t think that telecommunicator compensation should be reduced to piece work, output is a measurable product. More importantly, what happens when the so-called comparison study shows that you’re doing twice the work of your neighbors with half the people? Is there an immediate move to correct the imbalance? If there is not, it leaves the door open to further frustration, consternation, and, eventually, migration.

Lest it appear that I am too hard on the local bodies political, let me add that there is plenty of blame to be shared. For starters, our pursuit and presentation of this issue has been less than stellar, and those standards that do address staffing lack teeth. Decision makers are frequently incentivized to “do the right thing” only when alternative options become more painful and costly. I fully understand the municipal competition for tax dollars, and that shiny fire engines are visible assets while call takers are not. Still, I would remind those in positions of power that the full value of all your public safety investments can never be realized without the proper funding of the first first responders behind the radio and telephone consoles.

Perhaps we can look even deeper into our national set of values where fullbacks are paid more than firefighters, punters outpace police officers, and tight ends surely catch more cash than telecommunicators. Even the Federal Government gets into the act with the Office of Management and Budget still thinking of us as secretaries. Until we correct these travesties, we’ll remain the redheaded step children in the family. Want to start a GoFundMe page, anyone?


With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in four states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community.  See



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