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9-1-1 Leadership Values

Author: Sue Pivetta

Date: 2011-08-15
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I’m going to take you on a few little trips into your imagination. Please try to feel the sites, sounds, and feelings so that you can then follow the trail of breadcrumbs to my eventual line of reasoning. Thank you.


The Value of Noticing

Imagine that you are a Supervisor working dayshift. One day you notice that one of the Call Takers has a very ugly rash on her face and you ask her what it is. She states she isn’t sure but it really is distracting, painful, and itchy. The next day, you notice that another Call Taker has the same rash, you ask him about the rash — and he says it’s a hereditary problem, and his entire family has this problem occasionally. The next day, another person has the rash and you ask this person about it, she says, “What rash? It’s not a rash, that is what my skin looks like.”

Within a week, two of the people with the rash call in sick — but not because of the rash because the rash isn’t that serious. You wonder if the rash has something to do with people’s immune system. One day, when making a tape for someone, you hear a call where the Call Taker is extremely agitated and distracted. This isn’t like this person, but you have noticed that her rash has flared up lately. What was once little red bumps is now large pus pockets — pretty obvious to everyone. You wonder if this could be the problem — why her work seems to be slipping.

In a month, there are very few people who do not have the rash. These no-rash people seem resistant to it and take care avoid the rash people when possible. You wonder about the rash a lot, in fact you read an article that says that people in this profession are prone to getting this rash but nowhere in the article does it say there is any relief, any cure. So, you wonder about the rash, where it came from and what to do about it. You wonder a lot and you worry that you will get the rash, but you haven’t so far. Six months later the rash is still in full force, people seem to be living with it, but it’s obviously a problem at the workplace. Your Director has received a complaint from one of the no-rash people that something has to be done. Another complaint is coming from a rash-person who blames the air in the Comm Room. Another states it’s the chairs, another says it’s the lights. Soon everyone is trying to find something to blame.

Eventually, a letter is brought to your attention that you are the one to blame for the problem. After all, didn’t you first notice the rash, and you did nothing. In fact, many in your crew state your apathy and uncaring attitude created the problem. Had you been doing what you should have done — things wouldn’t be as bad as they are. The day after the Director calls you in to present you with the complaints — you look in the mirror and to your horror — you now have the rash too.

The Value of Leadership

That letter made it into the local newspaper.  Here is the actual text of that letter:

  • The County’s 9-1-1 system is in disarray, with morale among the systems’ operators so low that it could jeopardize public safety, its interim supervisor says.
  • “The operators are hostile to each other, rude to some callers and emergency dispatchers, and viewed with scorn by fire, police and ambulance agencies.” XXX, Interim operations supervisor told the 9-1-1 ops board Monday.
  • “The safety of the citizens of this county could easily be compromised due to confusion, indecisiveness and harried decision-making that can accompany incidents when there is a lack of clear guidelines.”
  • The operators of XX, which handles emergency calls for the county, have been leaderless since XXX resigned.
  • XXX a Fire Department dispatcher for more than 25 years was assigned to supervise and evaluate daily operations last month.
  • “Operators need training, direct supervision and a manual of standard operating procedures. Some may need to be disciplined or even fired,” he said.
  • “I have observed examples of poor judgment, and rudeness from long term employees that is inexcusable,” he said. “I have heard one employee comment that, ‘As long as the county is going to pay me to sit and read and do nothing, I’ll take advantage of it as long as I can.’ That’s an indication to me we’ve got a problem” he said.

There is a nasty rash going around this Comm Center. He describes its ugliness it’s affect to each other, the citizens. He even hints about what is to be done to correct the problem. Is anyone doing anything? This leader has noticed the rash and can clearly see the resulting problems — but it seems that he may also have the rash. Blaming, criticizing, pointing fingers and noticing are not leadership.

How important is a leader? What is the leader's role with negativity? What are the tools you can use to overcome this problem should it affect your Comm Center? What are the group dynamics of people who have no (or poor) leadership?

The NON Value of Blaming or Finding Cause

The day was beautiful for a baseball game. All the tiny 5-year-old boys dressed in white and blue looked so little, their mitts seemed too big for them to handle. This was the first time I had watched my grandson play baseball. He was six years old and I lived thousands of miles away so this was a great treat for me to cheer him on. I was enjoying sitting in the stands, it had been awhile since any of my kids were in baseball. It was a hard time for my daughter — she was going through a divorce and was very emotional.

The umpire called the coaches over and they flipped a coin. All the coaches and parents cheered as the little boys ran out to take their places. All the little boys except my grandson, who was walking very very slow, dragging his feet and smiling at the dirt. He was making a scene while they were waiting for him to take second base. Everyone stopped and looked, the coach waved his arm and called out to him, “Let’s go, move it!” Still he dragged one foot at a time in the dirt with no intention of going any faster.

My daughter began to panic and talk very fast, “It’s because his father isn’t here, I told him to be here! Where is he? He always does this. It’s not his fault, if we weren’t going through this, this wouldn’t be happening.  Look at all the fathers here.  He’s the only one without a father here.” By now the coach was bending down talking to the boy and his mother had jettisoned off the bench to intervene. The coach wanted to bench him; his mother picked him up and carried him out to his position — where he stood with his glove down to his side and a smile on his face.

My daughter returned to the bench, her face red. She climbed up to our top tier and sat down, continuing to blame her ex for not being here, near tears her voice shaking. Either she didn’t realize everyone in front of us could hear her, or maybe she didn’t care. I was searching my mind for words to explain what I wanted to tell her (without making matters worse) when a young mother with a ponytail and a baby on her lap turned around and looked at us.

“It doesn’t matter why he’s doing this, all that matter is that he IS doing this. The best thing to do is speak to the behavior, not the cause. Right now he needs to know his behavior is unacceptable and that there are consequences. Then later you can get him to a counselor and figure out what he needs. For now, we have a game to play.”

The Value Of Taking Action

Gandhi wasn’t a very successful lawyer. His first case he couldn’t speak due to fear. Gandhi wasn’t a very good husband; admittedly he was controlling and abusive in his younger years. Gandhi didn’t feel like a very good father, his son died a drug addict. Yet, when Gandhi died there were over one million people at his death ceremony. If you consider a great leader someone who can inspire others towards their own greatest good, he was a great leader. Mother Teresa was an unknown geography teacher until she was 38 years old. She often was in trouble with the higher ups because she argued with them and wanted to do things her way. She traveled into war areas; she set up an AIDS clinic in San Francisco. If you consider a great leader someone who sees wrong and is willing to fight for what is right regardless — she was a great leader.

Hitler was a loser. He didn’t make it as an artist; he was unattractive, short and self-centered. He never held a job for very long. But he managed to motivate a country to murder six million people. If you consider great leadership the ability to motivate the greatest amount of people to do the largest number of things — Hitler was a great leader.


Leadership in the Comm Center is demanding and complex.

There is much to do with both technology and humans.  "Telecommunicator" is a combination of the human being with technology - and those two work together to communicate and send help to those in need. The challenges of technology seem to be in very good hands, judging by the amount of technology booths at National APCO in PA this year.  Vendors and the government are  working diligently on NG911.  99% of the booths offer technology. Technology is 50% of the need to deliver the help to those who needed help in an emergency.  1% of the booths at the conference were concerned with the HUMAN need.  Would this seem to suggest this industry is free of challenges in the humans in the Comm Center with hiring, training, retention, motivation, morale, recognition, supervision, QnA, evaluations, support, pay, scheduling and operational processes? 

If then what we invest in indicates we have few challenges with humans, is true we can then assume there is indeed adequate leadership and resources dedicated to recognizing, taking action, researching and promoting advances in caring for the needs of humans in the human/technology quotient?  I wish I could believe this.  My contacts with those very humans didn’t play out quite that way.  Example; a Supervisor related conducting five hours a year total in-service training for a large combined Comm Center. I hear about needs with no funding or attention to those needs every day in my conversations with these humans. I also hear from people with amazing leadership qualities and heart who are overwhelmed with meetings, planning, upgrading, building, funding around technology. Much of the human need is left up to Supervisors with minimal budget and time to devote to human needs and ‘enhancements’ in evaluations, training and care and feeding of our wonderful Telecommunicators. What we need here is to value equal humans to technology in the form of budget and time. It’s time to show how much we value our BETTER half.

Sue Pivetta is president of Professional Pride, Inc.   She has worked in emergency communications since 1989 as a college instructor, consultant, workshop leader and author.   She teaches adult learning through her book and workshop The Exceptional Trainer. 

The preceding is a modified excerpt from her forthcoming new book, The Supervisor’s Survival Guide.

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