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Information Overload and the 9-1-1 Dispatcher
Author: Steve Pendleton
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
By Steve Pendleton
Originally published in our April, 2008 issue.
February, 2008 marked the 40th anniversary of the initiation of 9-1-1 service in the United States. In the four decades since that first call was made in Halleyville, Alabama much has changed. One change has been the tremendous increase in calls for emergency service and the technological advancements of 9-1-1 centers. From a telephone, radio, and a notepad in 1968, we have evolved into sophisticated command and control centers equipped with digital phones, trunked radios, and Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems with map displays and real-time unit tracking.
The art and science of processing 9-1-1 calls has advanced as well. Driven by call volume, complexity, and public expectations, switchboard operators have evolved into highly trained 9-1-1 professionals using sophisticated operational protocols and techniques.
Satisfying as this progress may be, the solutions to the increased volume, complexity, and public expectations are now themselves causing problems. One of these issues is the one-two punch of information overload and multitasking. Information overload, as its name suggests, is receiving more information than an individual can effectively process in the time given. Multitasking is a common adaptive response to information overload.
Common sense tells us that information overload hinders the effective completion of a task. However, as the increased volume of information available in the communications center has become routine, and staffing levels have remained constant, few 9-1-1 professionals have any alternative but to try to do more, and do it faster. After all, dispatchers are “can do” people. And while some complain about the new conditions, most take pride in their ability to keep up. Many even think that their multitasking performance is equal to the increased information processing requirements that they are experiencing.
No such luck. According to the latest research on the subject, although practice does improve our information processing ability, multitasking does not generally offset the increase in processing requirements, and may in fact degrade performance. This means lower overall performance and measureable consequences for workers’ health.
Understanding how information overload occurs and what can be done about it is vitally important to making sure that 9-1-1 continues to meet the challenges of the future. Equally important is to recognize, acknowledge, and act on the physical effects of information overload and multitasking. They are a slow growing cancer for 9-1-1 professionals which must be addressed.
The Result of Information Overload
Information overload has effects on both the individual and the organization. Researchers tell us that overloaded individuals will allocate less time to each input, disregard low-priority inputs, redefine their responsibilities for processing information, shift the processing burden to others if possible, and refuse new information. Other researchers have described the affect of information overload on organizations. Among these effects are a greater tolerance for error, lower job satisfaction, and an inability to use information to make decisions. Most frequently discussed, however, is the affect of information overload on productivity.
In 2003, Eppler and Mengis published a comprehensive review of the studies available on information overload. Reviewing studies from different academic and practical disciplines, the authors confirmed that either too little or too much information degrades personal performance and decision-making. Eppler and Mengis noted that a heavy information load negatively affects individual performance in terms of both accuracy and speed. When information supply exceeds information processing capacity, a person has difficulties in identifying relevant information, he or she becomes highly selective and ignores large amounts of information, has difficulty identifying the relationship between details and overall perspective, needs more time to make a decision, and often does not reach an accurate decision.
On a personal level, multitasking is also dangerous. Multitasking caused an increase in the production of adrenaline and other stress hormones, according to a 2006 study by Chris Woolston of Consumer Health Interactive. This in turn causes both short-term and long-term damage. In addition to reduced productivity, overloaded 9-1-1 professionals may experience difficulties concentrating, problems communicating with others, lapses in attentiveness, irritability, and frustration. Long term or more severe side effects include changes in weight, shortness of breath, depression, digestive disorders, and a host of other physical effects.
Not only do we recognize these as common behaviors and symptoms in high stress 9-1-1 centers, but in too many situations we accept them as the norm in such environments. Such conclusions, however, simply sustain the occurrence of overload and its negative effects. What value is there in making more information available to the call taker or dispatcher if they are already overloaded and will tend to ignore it?
Multitasking: An Effective Response?
For workers unable to reduce information flow or increase processing assets, multitasking has become the adaptive behavior of choice. Dispatchers in the hot seat review CAD events, look at electronic maps, monitor and talk on the radio, handle phone calls, and answer questions from colleagues in a merry-go-round of fast-paced activity. As noted, such behavior not only reduces accuracy, but it’s also ineffective.
In report entitled “The Limits of Multitasking,” K. Manhart (Scientific American 14(5), 2004) reports that while doing many activities at once may seem efficient and effective, in fact the brain cannot concentrate on more than one task at a time. This difficulty will depend both on the type of tasks or inputs, and the routinization of the tasks. Multiple tasks that demand processing by the same part of the brain at the same time will suffer. For example, talking on the radio and monitoring a second channel cannot be easily accomplished because the brain only has one language channel. So too, listening to a message from a field unit and trying to make notes on a previous call record also overloads the language channel because it forces the brain to handle two different language activities at once. On the other hand, because walking is a routine activity, it is relatively easily accomplished in conjunction with harder tasks like talking. So also, a pianist can play a piece of music and talk at the same time because the piano playing activity has become automated and because these different tasks use different parts of the brain.
But contradictory cues can have a negative impact on processing activity. Driving and talking on a cell phone is a common multitasking pair. The actual operation of the vehicle, being a form of automated activity, much of the time, is not affected by the conversation until an unexpected event occurs in the driving environment. With concentration on the conversation instead of driving, the driver must switch their brain function in order to process the change in the driving activity. In some cases, they may not even be aware of the change in the driving environment and may not react at all. In either case, the results can be fatal.
The information processing requirements of the 9-1-1 will always be significant. Reducing the flow of incoming messages and alerts may be possible, but it may be the wrong solution to the problem. Information overload is a complex issue which requires a careful assessment of the desired outcome and the information components that are available to achieve that outcome.
Do You Have a Problem?
By its nature, 9-1-1 is a profession characterized by poor quality information, large numbers of inputs, and compressed processing time periods. Hence the potential for information overload always exists. But how does a center manager determine if information overload and multitasking are a problem in their environment?
The first method is to employ metrics. Metrics are simply statistical measurements. In this case, 9-1-1 administrators and managers should establish metrics for the activities which are most likely to experience information overload. Metrics, such as the time required to process an incoming call for service, will provide a general indicator of performance within a center. Utilizing this baseline, managers will have an early warning indicator of when a specific position or employee is beginning to get overloaded.
Another means of determining if action is required is to pay attention to your employees. As we have discussed, information overload leads to stress. Stress has identifiable signs and symptoms. If a one or more of your staff is exhibiting stress related symptoms, then it may be time to take action. (See www.stress.org/topic-effects.htm)
Finally, assume that all employees and positions suffer from information overload at some time. If you do, then it will be easier and less confrontational to implement monitoring and intervention techniques as a part of your management practices. In other words, think of it as continuous process improvement rather than responding to a crisis or focusing attention on a few individuals.
Information Overload and Multitasking Solutions
As discussed in this article, information overload is the result of many factors. No one solution or set of solutions will eliminate it. While there are common root causes for information overload, it is still a result of unique combination of factors in each 9-1-1 center. Hence, the strategy for it will be unique in each location.
The good news is that since information overload is caused by a number of factors, so also there are a number of effective interventions which can be used. Some, like redesigning CAD systems or adding staff, can be difficult to accomplish. Others, like making sure that overloaded 9-1-1 professionals get frequent breaks are relatively easy to accomplish. It’s also encouraging to note that since most centers have not focused on eliminating information overload, the low lying fruit has not yet been picked. With this in mind, let’s review some of the most effective means of combating overload and reducing multitasking.
Alignment Information overload is sometimes self-imposed. We gather too much information for the task at hand. As a matter of course, 9-1-1 administrators, trainers, and professionals should examine the information requirements for the tasks performed in their center. The purpose, of course, is to determine if the information being gathered is excessive. Any first-day call taker knows that the information required for a parking complaint is limited to the location, violation, make and model of the vehicle, and caller’s information. But there are many more kinds of calls and tasks which 9-1-1 professionals perform every day which are not so clear-cut. Routinely and systematically examining the information processing requirements for the calls and services provided by your agency will help to clarify your information processing needs, so that call takers and dispatchers can be trained to gather the most useful information for each call or task.
Improve Your Information. Not all information has equal value. In any given situation, the information received will vary in its ability to help the call taker or dispatcher process a call or manage an event. The challenge is to learn to discriminate among the available information and sort out the best of it. Too often we simply transcribe all the information offered and let the next person in line decide what’s important and what isn’t. Nonsense! Learn to think like the person that will have to use the information. Deep six the opinions of the caller and the conjecture of the witness. Ask questions that will acquire facts and truth.
Information Formatting. For years now, CAD systems have used colors and symbols on status displays and maps to aggregate information and make it more easily understood. A red police car displayed on a map may mean that the unit is out of service. Maps themselves, creating a visual connection between events, units, and geographic location are another means of aggregating and compressing information.
Where possible, 9-1-1 professionals should seek information systems and techniques which aggregate, compress and format information in predictable and useful ways. But here, as with the other areas of information processing, 9-1-1 professionals must be proactive. While system designs have evolved greatly in the past three decades, our experience is that 9-1-1 agencies sometimes accept “standard” system configurations from their vendors. Users should evaluate their own processes and environment, and configure their IT systems to meet their specific needs.
Division of Labor. Another common cause of information overload is poor organizational design. How 9-1-1 centers are organized to process calls and provide command and control for field units has a significant impact on information overload. Most often, poor organizational design handicaps productivity in two areas. First, if an individual position experiences excessive demand – too many calls to handle or too many field units to serve adequately – productivity will suffer from the volume of information that the dispatcher has to manage. A second instance of poor organizational design occurs when the tasks required of the 9-1-1 professional are excessively divergent. Often a problem of smaller communications centers, over-tasking occurs when one individual is asked to function in too many roles at one time. For example, if a dispatcher is asked to monitor more than one active radio channel or function as both a call taker and dispatcher/radio controller at the same time. In either case, staffers will often resort to multitasking and experience reduced productivity as task volume and task conflict increase.
To combat this problem, first evaluate each position to determine if overload is occurring. Look for signs of stress – irritated and short tempered employees, or poor performance – and make sure to look throughout the day. Overload and task conflict do not necessarily occur around the clock. If excessive demand or task conflict is observed, evaluate whether a change in the design of your processes will help to alleviate the problem.
If call takers are overloaded, look for ways to separate emergency calls from non-emergency calls so that priority can be given to the emergency calls. If the city has 3-1-1 or other non-emergency numbers think about ways to increase public awareness of these options in order to offload some of the demand. If dispatchers have too many units to handle, consider using mobile data computers (MDCs) or status heads. In days prior to MDCs and cell phones, many agencies had a specific channel reserved for license and records checks or for managing the fire ground. Although not as necessary today, such techniques are examples of creative ways to manage demand which may be useful for some agencies.
Task conflict has some of the same characteristics and solutions as task overload. It often goes unnoticed because it happens incrementally. In many centers, task responsibilities are added a little at a time. Seen as a resource for other units in the police or fire department, communications is often tasked with responsibilities which have little to do with emergency communications. Individually these tasks are inconsequential. But over time, the accumulation may create task conflict.
One solution is to add staff, and then assign the add-on or secondary responsibilities to a dedicated position. In this way, the demands are completed effectively and task conflict at other positions is eliminated. But often more staff is not an option. In such cases managers, have to think creatively about how to manage or offload demand. Assigning the demand to resources outside of the communications center may be one answer. Discontinuing the service may be another.
Helping 9-1-1 Personnel. Information overload is experiential. Different individuals will have different responses to it. Having said this, research shows conclusively that training and practice tend to reduce the occurrence and severity of information overload. Thus, more training in the area of gathering, recording, interpreting, and utilizing information in decision-making processes should improve productivity and effectiveness. Where information processes have been standardized, for example with emergency medical dispatch systems, practice using the standardized processes will also improve performance.
By its nature emergency communications is a stressful activity. Whether it is due to information overload, multitasking, task conflict, or simply dealing with too many life and death situations 9-1-1 staffers will be subject to work related stress throughout their careers. And this stress can, in turn, affect productivity and the quality of work. As a result, it is in the interests of 9-1-1 administrators to monitor their employees routinely for signs of stress. When signs of stress begin to appear, administrators and supervisors can use a variety of interventions. These might include:
- Shorter rotations in high-stress positions,
- Offloading tactical control of major events to a tactical dispatcher,
- Assigning a partner to a tactical dispatcher to assist with dispatch duties and decision making,
- Provide exercise equipment or other opportunities for “brain” rest during shifts,
- Ensure that personnel are adequately trained and qualified to handle the duties to the assigned duties,
- Pair new employees with experienced trainers until they are well qualified to handle to new responsibilities, and
- Establish and maintain an active employee assistance program to better equip employees to recognize and respond to personal and work-related stress.
Technology Systems. A primary cause of information overload in today’s workplace is information technology. Although computer systems are designed to enable workers to handle more information more effectively, poorly designed IT systems can also produce stress. To the extent possible, 9-1-1 managers should make every effort to ensure that the technology systems used in their centers are consistent with the information flow and provide the maximum level of process support. If conflicts are discovered, talk to your CAD vendor or other system users to see if a solution to your problem has already been developed.
Another issue with 9-1-1 technology systems is most agencies do not use these systems to their maximum potential. Mostly this has to do with the complexity of the new systems and user training. Trained shortly before the new system goes online, users are generally unable to master all of the functions which a modern technology system can offer. Once they begin to use the system in a live environment, users seldom have an opportunity to pick-up the skills which they did not master during the initial training cycle. Thus, as part of in-service training, 9-1-1 trainers and administrators should routinely review the ways in which their staff uses technology systems and see if improvements can be made.
Simplification. Simplification can extend to many different activities. For example, instead of recording every comment that a caller makes, call takers should be trained to record the most important facts in the call record to make it easier for dispatchers. 9-1-1 professionals should examine their information requirements and resources to determine the most effective means of meeting their needs. If call takers are more comfortable and productive using EMD flip cards as opposed to the computerized version, then use the cards.
Also, when choosing or configuring CAD and other information systems, pay attention to how the information is presented and communicated to the user. Most CAD systems now use colors and icons to communicate information in a more intuitive fashion.
That information overload and multitasking are serious issues in the 9-1-1 environment is undeniable. To assume that that there are magic solutions to the problem is wishful thinking, but if we take the time to understand information overload, effective solutions for minimizing it are available.
Overloaded 9-1-1 centers did not happen in a day, and they will not be solved in a day. Equally, there is no one solution to the problem, and no set of solutions which will work for every 9-1-1 center. Effective intervention will require the application of various techniques and solutions targeted at the multiple causes of information overload and multitasking as they are experienced in a given center. Even though not all information overload or multitasking can be eliminated, the evidence demands that 9-1-1 managers to adopt solutions which minimize the impact on both their employees and the vital product which they provide to the public and public safety providers.
Steve Pendleton has provided consulting services on public safety and 9-1-1 information systems, and management issues for the past twenty years. He began his a career as a volunteer rescue squadsman in Maryland, and police officer in Washington, D.C. He functioned as a call taker and dispatcher in both roles. His company, Pendleton Partners, is based in Houston, Texas.
For more on Information Overload, see: Eppler M. and Mengis J. 2003. A Framework for Information Overload Research in Organizations. Lugano, Switzerland: Universita Della Svizzera Italia. Retrieved from www.bul.unisi.ch/cerca/bul/pubblicazioni/com/pdf/wpca0301.pdf
and: Woolston C. 2006) Multitasking and Stress. Albany, NY: CDPHP. Retrieved from www.myonlinewellness.com/topic/multitasking