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The Morale of the Story
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Recently, the question “What does your dispatch center do to boost morale?” was raised in an online forum. Although a few respondents had positive examples, the majority were overwhelmingly negative.
Since I first became involved in public safety a lot of things have changed. I’ve seen the introduction of Enhanced 9-1-1, wireless 9-1-1, Geographic Information Systems, Mobile Data Terminals, protocol based questions, the invention of fire and the perfection of the wheel. OK, we did actually have fire and the wheel, but our technology back in the day was pretty primitive. If you keep in mind that “way back then” out of state registration checks were accomplished by manual look up, you can get a feel for the dullness of our cutting edge.
One of the most important pieces of technology to come along since then has been the Internet. It pervades our daily life, as well as our industry. We use it to navigate, research, shop, and increasingly, to access public safety. We also use it to communicate. Email, chat rooms, list servers, applications, and social media all play a part in how we interact with each other. Like many people, telecommunicators embrace special interest sites and groups as a means of sharing stories and opinions about their daily lives. Increasingly, these missives seem to focus on the unhappiness and lack of cohesiveness within many Public Safety Answering Points
Recently, the question “What does your dispatch center do to boost morale?” was raised in one such online forum. Although a few respondents had positive examples, the majority were overwhelmingly negative, and offered comments such as, “Work place morale? What is this that you speak of?, “Positive recognition in our industry is about as common as a T. Rex,” ”You’re joking, right?,” and “Is that something they do on April 1st?” A slightly more defined answer came from another participant: “I was (going) to say something sarcastic - but I would really like to hear a good, even passable answer for this. The little things don't seem to be enough and nothing big would take away the stress.”
Are these issues something new, or if we are becoming more universally aware of them because of our newfound connectivity? While our younger employees may be more attuned to social media than their senior counterparts, it is unfair to think that poor morale is a generational concern. Although we’ve all heard about – and sometimes experienced – a sense of entitlement from new hires, out of fairness I’m sure we’ve also come into contact during our careers with old salts who didn’t have too much good to say about anything or anybody. The modern workplace may contain more generations than ever before, but at best this complicates the issue rather than causes it.
Perhaps the root of the problem is the job itself. Aside from the good we do, in reality, there isn’t much to recommend it. Long hours, low pay, shrinking benefits, poor retirement, and understaffing are all part of the norm. Add to this the requirement of managing the public’s problems while sitting in a fishbowl and you hardly have the right stuff for a recruiting poster. When the realization hits that the next call will more likely mediate a parking dispute than save a baby or capture a villain, the bloom can fall quickly from the rose.
Caller attitude can also have an impact. I can remember a time when many people were embarrassed to be asking for help. Now it’s not uncommon for citizens to act like society has somehow let them down, and that the cops better hurry up and come fix it. Current tensions between the police and the public have added to this plight, but I often question how much we contribute to the creation of unpleasant experiences? Protocols are great, but listening is even better. Ever hear an exchange where the telecommunicator refuses to deviate from the script, robotically reading questions in inviolate order, despite the fact that the caller has clearly (and sometimes repeatedly) already provided the answers? And I doubt if we’ll ever be able to adequately explain that help is on the way as the questions continue, although I wonder how much information is too much? I distinctly remember one caller being perturbed as to our concern about her refrigerator when, in actuality, she was asked if a defibrillator was available to assist with a cardiac event. Procedures that unduly complicate the person-to-person interface increase stress and lower morale.
Obviously, job dissatisfaction leads to high turnover rates, and finding replacement employees is often no easy task. Even when good candidates are located, prevailing attitudes can cause them to quickly question their choice of jobs. One newcomer defined this watershed moment to their Facebook counterparts as, “When you start working and in your first few days there everyone tells you you're crazy for being there because you have an education.” Experiences such as this led them to further opine, tongue in cheek, “This is going to be a wonderful work environment…Thanks guys! It's good to feel welcomed.” Unfortunately, we’ve historically eaten our young, but this practice becomes increasingly damaging as our struggles with staffing continue.
As an administrator, I always tried my best to provide rewards and recognition, and am continually disturbed when agencies ignore this basic practice. Online comments such as, “If we didn't celebrate each other during Dispatcher Week, it would've been just like every other week,” are not uncommon. Even so, my efforts were not universally welcomed. This used to concern me until I came to the realization that it was impossible to please everyone in a staff of more than one hundred people. More importantly, I began to acknowledge that my happiness wasn’t dependent upon the reaction of others, but rather upon my own actions. And, perhaps, this is where our focus should be placed.
While the malaise of low morale is institutional, the cure is largely personal. There are people in every profession who are miserable, and who apparently delight in dragging others down to their level. They are easily offended, morally indigent, and of seemingly short memories. Those types in our line of work were apparently blessed with knowing all there is to know about dispatching on the day that they signed up, and have had little use for policies and procedures that impeded their genius since then. This frees up their time to focus on finding fault. We cannot hope to change the culture without changing the person.
Validation of this dynamic was shared by Dispatch Supervisor Jon Whitford, whose online post I am quoting here by permission. “A little background,” said Jon,” For a good part of my career, I was ‘that guy.’ I was a jerk. I was the cause or at least promoter of many of the morale issues. It wasn't until it was pointed out to me, that I realized I was the problem. I started making changes... Remember, you are ultimately in control of you and have the choice to pick your attitude.”
Regardless of your position or experience within the world of 9-1-1, the acceptance of personal responsibility for your own happiness is the critical first step toward a better workplace. Many of today’s issues can benefit from the wisdom of the past. “It you’re not part of the solution,” the saying went, “then you must be part of the problem.” And that’s the morale of this story.
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 www.barryfurey.com