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Recognition: The Other 51

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2014-05-01
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Another National Telecommunicators’ Week has come and gone. Some agencies went all out, while others kept it low-key. Some didn’t celebrate at all, which is kind of sad since this is the one week a year we set aside to formally recognize our staffs. But sadder than the lack of celebration during these seven days in April is what occurs during the other 51 weeks of every year.

I suspect that even the most meager of festivities can feel like the grand ball when you consider that there are precious few carrots being dangled from May through March. In an effort to keep up with the “big kids” I noticed that someone recently coined the phrase “thin gold line” to represent telecommunicators; the glue that holds everything together. Now we can officially be play partners with the other lines of color. It’s a great thought, and has basis in reality, but a more apropos description might be “thin invisible line,” because most of the time it’s as if we weren’t really there. Unless, of course, something goes wrong. Then our folks are the “large visible target.” Funny how that changes.

It took a lot of hard work to get formal approval for TC Week, and a lot of time. It’s great recognition, and a feel good moment, but if we leave it at that, we’ve missed the point. This week should serve to heighten our awareness of the everyday heroics, and be a catalyst for – and not an end all to – the recognition given during the other 51 weeks of the year. What a different dynamic there would be if we used Telecommunicators’ Week as the only week that we didn’t provide kudos; taking a seven day hiatus from our 358 days of continuous support and praise.

OK, so I’m probably dreaming here, but short of non-stop positive attention (which I guarantee that a lot of our folks would find difficult to handle despite what they are prone to say), what can we as managers do to make 2014 Telecommunicators’ Year? Off the top of my head, there are several things I can think of. Here’s what I consider the Fundamental Five:

* Creating a national registry of telecommunicators, similar to those for other professions. Until we codify our professionalism, we’re not going to be looked upon as professionals. We need to replace the timeless “If you’re not sworn, you’re not born,” with a pithy saying of our own.  I’m sure somebody out there already has something in mind. But in the end, the best way to approach this disparity is through licensure and standards.  It’s a lot less cute, but a lot harder to dismiss.

* Fighting for reasonable retirement benefits. Nobody wants to be 65 years old and working the graveyard shift, or worrying about the cost of health insurance. During the past few years many government agencies scaled back significantly on benefits, which for many telecommunicators lagged behind to begin with. Yes, only about 3% of our folks stay through to retirement. Want to talk about reasons for turnover? The line starts here!

* Assuring both adequate pay and adequate levels of trained staffing exist in every Public Safety Answering Point. Telecommunicators’ Week – and telecommunicators – would be much happier if there were more folks to share the load. As far as salaries go, I’m not suggesting that anyone on our side of the microphone faces the same dangers as our first responders, but I defy anyone to state that call takers and dispatchers are not skilled positions. Have you tried recruiting technical or IT staff lately? They carry a hefty price tag. Since every dollar spent on law enforcement, fire, and EMS is not fully realized if call intake and dispatch is not optimized, we ought to be carrying a lot more weight than we do.

* Lobbying for legislation and regulations that help our staffs do their jobs. Whether it’s better wireless location accuracy, stiffer penalties for misuse of the 9-1-1 system, or the elimination of non-initialized handsets (a/k/a false alarm phones) there are many changes that can help relieve the daily burden placed upon our front line folks. The changes will never occur unless we, as managers, push for reform.

* Providing and maintaining an appropriate workspace. This entails the acquisition of ergonomically correct equipment, continuous duty chairs, adequate lighting, and functioning Heating, Ventilating, and Air Conditioning systems. It further means scheduled breaks and lunches and the ability to occasionally get away from the console. More importantly, it means a workplace free from harassment and hazing, with access to peer support and professional counseling serves, when necessary.

But, more than anything, each of us can make a difference every day by being there to listen and by doing the right thing. Neither of these is a huge investment of time, but may just be the best investment that we can make during “the other 51.”

Our 9-1-1 Center Management columnist 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.  As an independent columnist for 9-1-1 magazine, Barry’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of his public safety employer.



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