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9-1-1 Magazine: Managing Emergency Communications

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Microwave Management

Author: Barry Furey

Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

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By Barry Furey

Originally published in our Jan/Feb 2008 issue.

Barry FureyLet me begin this month’s column by apologizing to those of you who began reading this under the false assumption that it was a primer on managing extremely high-frequency radios. It is not. It is, however, a discussion of managing something much more complex than technology – people. These are management techniques for our “I want it now” world, a world where decisions are expected to be made at the speed of a microwave oven.

It wasn’t all that long ago that the generally held belief was that all good things took time. Wine had to age gracefully, and the Sunday evening pot roast spent hours on the stove filling the house with smells of things to come. Baked potatoes rested in the oven for hours, not minutes, and the time spent waiting for the holiday turkey to be done was well spent reminiscing with relatives and friends.

Now the emphasis seems to be on speed. Fast-food restaurants put a premium on getting you in and out of the drive-through quicker than a NASCAR pit stop, and pizza is delivered to your door on time, or else. Nothing epitomizes this feeding frenzy more than a microwave oven; push a button and in a minute or two, at most, you’re done. But in a sense, the microwave is a metaphor of much more. It stands as a symbol for a society where everyone wants immediate satisfaction.

Public safety has always been a time-critical profession. Hurry up with that ladder. Expedite the ambulance. Officers respond code three. Perhaps our motto is best summed up by Larry the Cable Guy’s “Git-R-Done!” but with the addition of “and get on to the next thing.” Just as our telecommunicators must be prepared for the sure-to-follow impatient ringing of the phone, we must remain ready to deal with those subsequent crises that seem to be perpetually looming.

Because of this, administrators constantly find themselves in a position of answering questions and solving problems at a rate that would make any game show contestant proud. Over the years, our metaphors for dealing with these stressful situations have somehow always involved cooking. Making tough choices was like “going from the frying pan into the fire.” An extremely tense situation was “a real pressure cooker.” At least in the old days, a pressure cooker took time to build. In the microwave management world things get hot pretty quickly, and it seems as if someone’s always pushing your buttons.

One of my recently promoted personnel made a profound observation on the changes in her work life associated with her new responsibilities. “Now I hate to hear my name called,” she said, “because it’s always followed by something for me to do.” Welcome to the world of microwave management.

There are any number of tools and guides out there on how to be more productive. In fact, there’s even a book titled The One Minute Manager that talks about how to goal set, praise, and reprimand in 60 seconds or less. While this may be an oversimplification of the contents, these facets of management are typically not the ones that slap the PSAP supervisor in the face. Granted, all these things must be done – and done well – to keep any organization running smoothly. And, any time saved elsewhere in the administrative process becomes available for other duties like problem solving. However, we are more likely to be jumped upon and bitten by the more immediate challenges of botched calls, broken equipment, and close encounters of the personnel kind. How then can we hope to cope? We can start by pulling a recipe from the “Microwave Manager’s Cookbook.”

Before preparing to cook, first prepare yourself. Soak overnight in patience and marinate yourself thoroughly in policies and procedures. Discard any unneeded concerns as they will undoubtedly foul the recipe. Plan to use a variety of ingredients that will be thrown at you in no particular order and in no particular quantity. Sift all thoroughly to break down into their basics, and to get a better look. Measure some carefully; make calculated and informed guesses on others. Remember that all these ingredients enter into the mix. Do not worry about stirring the pot. You will have plenty of help in this area. When complete, clean up your mess and get ready to start again.

More than anything, your survival and your sanity rest on knowing which questions require immediate answers and which problems require immediate attention. Although not popular, “I’ll get back to you on that” is an acceptable response if you really mean that you will. Just as some foods cannot be prepared properly in a microwave, some solutions really do take time. Like a master chef, PSAP managers must know the difference between the two. Bon appétit.

Barry Furey has been involved in public safety for more than 35 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.

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