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It Doesn’t Take An Einstein: How Mishandling Our Staffing Crisis Puts 9-1-1 at Risk
Author: Barry Furey
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
I recently read several articles about staffing shortages in the 9-1-1 community. One in particular caught my attention. Officials were dealing with criticisms of 9-1-1 call answer times which fell back to a predictable cause: they had more calls than they had people. Part of the proposed solution to their turnover problem involved means for expedited hiring. It occurred to me that I had heard similar words before coming from my own mouth. Somehow that wasn’t comforting.
Don’t get me wrong. There are portions of our boarding process that could use a lot of tweaking, but to focus on the symptom and not the cause serves only to prolong the suffering. It is also, quite frankly, about as beneficial as a trauma team hanging additional IVs without making any attempt to stop the patient’s bleeding. Very little good comes from an awful lot of effort. Yet decades into our people pandemic we seem unable to chart an appropriate course. Why?
It’s certainly not from lack of documentation that a problem exists. Google “911 dispatcher shortage” and you’ll receive a roll call of communities affected by this malady. In addition to the San Diego piece that I read, there are current examples from Oakland, Dallas, Orlando, Cleveland, Memphis, Miami Beach, Little Rock, Newark, and dozens of other cities, towns, and counties large and small who are facing the same dilemma.
We have also seemingly done our due diligence in mapping the issue. APCO’s (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) Project RETAINS (Responsive Efforts to Assure Integral Needs in Staffing) was partially funded by the Department of Justice and coordinated through the University of Denver Research Institute. Among other things, it discovered that staffing at 68% of the centers surveyed stayed the same or dropped. It also found that increasing starting salaries had a positive impact on retention. No surprise there. RETAINS was accompanied by a PSAP (Public Safety Answering Point) Staffing Survey and Analysis Study undertaken by a major consulting firm under contract with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Each produced formulae that can be applied to determine required staffing, but unfortunately, since these regimens were not enforceable, they were a less effective lever than they might otherwise have been. I’m not in any way suggesting that these efforts somehow shortchanged our industry. They did not. I served on the original APCO Staffing Taskforce that morphed into RETAINS, and a lot of good work was done. Unfortunately, it was often work without teeth. While it gave 9-1-1 directors and managers vindication for their oft-voiced concerns over staffing, it didn’t compel the city fathers to do a darn thing. And therein lies the problem. Our illness has been diagnosed by independent professionals for over a decade, but we’ve yet to find a cure. Well, it’s certainly time that we embarked on a course of serious treatment. Here’s ten things we can do to get healthy:
- Create nationwide standards for telecommunicators, with a registry similar to that of Emergency Medical Technicians. This is step one to professionalizing our industry. Emergency Medical Services, who claim to be the stepchildren of first responders, have had this vehicle in place for almost fifty years. Where does that leave us?
- Work closely with our community colleges to create meaningful coursework on emergency communications, and shift the burden of basic training to this already well-established delivery system. Yes, as things stand today, local training will still be required, but there is much universal background that can be imparted through these schools.
- Secure wages that are in line with the skill sets and knowledge that are required to function in today’s 9-1-1 environment. There has been much discussion lately about the impact of minimum wage. Our battle needs to be over fair compensation that directly relates to the responsibilities of the job.
- Focus on reasonable retirement packages. Some states have already moved in this direction, but we are looking at creep rather than a landslide. According to APCO, only 3% of telecommunicators make it through to retirement. Want to fix that? Make it worthwhile to consider dispatching as a career.
- Take action against external technology that complicates the job. Do away with uninitialized handsets once and for all, and design a phone that doesn’t butt dial. Surely we have the capacity to guard against accidental calls. If we don’t, let’s build it.
- Take action against internal technology that complicates the job. Create intuitive and standardized user interfaces and commands. An experienced telecommunicator should be able to sit at any console anywhere and operate without the need for extensive retraining.
- Seriously consider consolidation. Some states have. Others send mixed messages. Reducing facilities has to eventually reduce duplicative facility costs and produce better facilities, not to mention make more efficient use of personnel.
- Develop a sustainable funding model that addresses the true and total cost of providing 9-1-1. Our billing, like our technology, is based upon conventional telephony and updated in a piecemeal fashion – usually years after a new way to report emergencies is rolled out. You can buy a phone anonymously, and many states can’t tell for sure how many Internet providers operate within their borders. Our subscriber based way of doing business is dying. Good luck on finding out where to send the bill.
- Create specific Federal Grant opportunities for PSAP brick and mortar, technology, and personnel. Open competition to existing communications grants to allow participation by PSAPs. All too often current funding sources are specifically available only to uniformed services.
- Consider nationalizing 9-1-1 in a similar fashion to air traffic controllers. No, it’s not a perfect system and it also encounters personnel deficits, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median controller makes almost three times as much as the median telecommunicator, so we would certainly attract more qualified candidates. Past that, we ought to consider that our vision of Next Generation 9-1-1 should not be hampered by borders, be they local, county, or state. While I suspect this would be the toughest pill to swallow, the current level of fragmentation should also bring with it a bitter taste. When we say, “One Nation, One Number,” should we not also add, “With fifty sets of disparate rules interpreted and implemented by 5,899 individual PSAPs?”
While some of these suggestions – especially the latter – will not be universally embraced, we ought to admit that what we’ve done so far hasn’t worked. Einstein once said that the definition of insanity “is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Except Einstein may not have said that. It might have been Twain. It might have been somebody else. It doesn’t take an Einstein to make a memorable quote. And it doesn’t take an Einstein to see the need for change.
With more than 45 years’ experience in public safety, including managing large consolidated dispatch centers in three states, Barry Furey now serves as a trainer and consultant for the 9-1-1 and public safety communications community. See www.barryfurey.com