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Hey Everybody - It's Our Week!
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Believe it or not, it’s that time again; National Public Safety Telecommunicators’ Week. Created by an act of Congress during the Clinton administration, it sets aside the second full week of April every year as a time to honor and acknowledge our brothers and sisters who work tirelessly during all fifty-two weeks of every year. As best as I can determine, the good folks in Contra Costa, California (or specifically one good folk at the Sheriff’s Office named Patricia Anderson) came up with the idea exactly thirty years ago, but it took some push from other states, APCO International, and Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts to secure the official coast-to-coast designation. So, as is often the case in our business, although the concept is now in its thirties, the reality is in its late teens. But, as they say: better late than never.
Recently, I’ve seen some references made to this holiday as “National Public Safety Telecommunications Week,” but I find this a little disingenuous. Just what the heck is this “telecommunications” that we are celebrating and how do we do it? Do we give our CAD a software upgrade? Put a party hat on the telephone? Pat ourselves on the backs as managers and give high fives for passing the budget? I think not. This week was carried on the backs of our people in the trenches, and they should be the sole beneficiaries of any recognition that comes as a result of these seven days of positive acknowledgement.
Now in my fifth decade of public safety service, I often ask myself if I would do it all over again, or if I would choose another path? Perhaps a better question is why anyone today would want to be a telecommunicator or stay a telecommunicator for any period of time? According to one APCO report, the answer to latter is clear – not too many people do. With only about 3% of call takers and dispatchers retiring from a 9-1-1 career we ought to give a proverbial tip of the hat to those diehard few that choose to tough it out.
Used to be that a governmental career meant security. You don’t have to look too far to see that this is no longer the case. Police rookie academies are canceled, fire companies are closed, and telecommunicator positions are furloughed, frozen, or eliminated outright. Even in halcyon days our pensions paled in comparison to those of the uniformed services. Now, in the age of tabloid journalism you can add the potential of a ten second sound bite killing an otherwise exemplary career as a secondary pitfall.
So, in the interim, it’s up to us as managers to try to do something nice at least once a year. What does that look like? It depends on your agency. We can organize social activities such as softball, picnics, or bowling, or have “dress up days” at work. The latter activity has two things going for it; it’s fun and it’s free. Talk to your chief, sheriff, city manager, mayor, county executive, or CEO and get a proclamation issued. A sample, as well as a media release are available at: http://npstw.com/toolkit/. We can establish a formalized recognition process and issue awards to our exemplary employees. I’ve found out through time that a system that balances peer input with supervisory oversight works best. But, don’t be afraid to get your user agencies involved, as well. If you don’t have the resources to support this, track down a community organization that does. You’d be surprised at the number of folks who step up to the plate to offer support. If nothing else, we can stop by the local wholesale club and buy a carton of microwave popcorn, and make sure that we stick our heads in the operations floor as much as possible to remind our staffs that this is their week.
Perhaps it’s only fitting that the current issue of Time Magazine features an article titled “How to Fix 9-1-1.” While the author, Christine Kenneally is spot-on in her observations, none hits home harder than her final note, “... It’s also worth remembering that no matter how advanced the technology, emergencies are best served by smart people… on the other end of the line.” Ms. Kenneally doesn’t address my earlier question of why anyone still wants what seems to be an increasingly thankless job, but just perhaps there are forms of satisfaction that are not so easily measured or understood. Hearing the first cry of a child as you help deliver it over the phone, going home exhausted after a short-handed night shift and hoping you didn’t forget to do something, or cherishing those quiet times when stories are shared about the plane crash back in ’99 and the history behind your community’s “frequent flyers” are all part of the crazy patchwork we count as rewards.
As for me, I am not so worried about why people keep applying, just as long as they do. The Next Generation of 9-1-1 will depend more than ever on the Next Generation of 9-1-1 employees. Enjoy your week. You’ve earned it.
Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 40 years, having managed 9-1-1 centers in four states. A life member of APCO International, he is the current director of the Raleigh-Wake County (NC) Emergency Communications Center.