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Training in Multi-tasking: To Save Or To Let Go - How Do You Know?

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Training Tactics


Many trainees are lost after coming to the floor to begin answering phones or work phones and radio for the first time.  A person with great promise sits in the chair to answer calls and something unexpected often happens: they can't seem to keep up; they freeze or panic.  

Trainers often attribute this to an inability to multi-task. The devil, however, is in the details. The idiom "the devil is in the detail" is expressing the idea that whatever one does should be done thoroughly; i.e. details are important.  Is Multi-Tasking a born trait or can it be taught or improved?  Or as one trainer said of her trainee, is it the ability to screw up many things at once?

As a Comm Center trainer I believed multi-tasking skills could not be taught.  I believed this until I began to teach college where I was hired to specifically teach multi-tasking, since that is a vital skill of the work I was teaching people to perform.  What are the details of multi-tasking? What types of multi-tasking are trainers asking trainees to perform?  Are trainers indeed charged with 'teaching' and evaluating multi-tasking before trainees reach live training on the floor?  How can they do that?


What Is This Skill We Are Asking For?

Multi-Tasking is quite simply the conducting of multiple tasks that have to be performed sometimes simultaneously, exactly at the same time, and sometimes consecutively by a process of prioritizing according to the needed sequence of importance.

Simultaneous Tasks: A trainee's initial calltaking experience is an example of simultaneous multi-tasking, where you expect the trainee to transfer audible information through their hearing onto the keyboard as it happens.

In this example they must be able to

  • Hear and understand the caller
  • Touch type both letters and numbers as fast as that person talks (60/70 wpm?)
  • Quickly ask the right questions in the proper sequence 
  • Give correct directions to the caller 
  • Control the caller and determine safety needs while
  • Making decisions in CAD such as Call Type and narrative entry
  • And confirming that information is correct
  • All while knowing they are being evaluated in a live setting.

Consecutive multi-tasking involves the ability to pivot when several mandatory tasks are presented but cannot be done simultaneously. Taking calls and managing the radio is an example of this. A person cannot talk to the caller and the radio simultaneously, so must be adept at both skills so that they can switch sometimes from left to right brain and from genre to genre. Radio talk is much different than talking to a distraught mother. 

According to the theory of left-brain or right-brain dominance, each side of the brain controls different types of thinking. Additionally, people are said to prefer one type of thinking over the other. For example, a person who is "left-brained" is often said to be more logical, analytical, and objective (radio), while a person who is "right-brained" is said to be more intuitive, thoughtful, and subjective (distraught mother).  Even if a call taker is never on a radio, often the variety of calls they are responsible for require a switch from objective to subjective - necessary for control in differing circumstances.

The best example of not understanding or using the skill of voice to connect and control the caller is an actual call where the call taker seemed to be apathetic to a mother with a SIDS child as he sounded monotone.  The mother said, "You don't care about this do you?" Intonation is a skill and can be learned and understood by allowing the trainee to listen to their own calls compared to calls where voice was used with a more connected inflection. This takes purposeful training to isolate this one skill and practice and evaluate until it's natural.


How We Learn: Step By Step, One By One

In asking the question “Should you save or let go a trainee who doesn't seem to be able to multi task adequately” you must examine the following:  (1) Did your training involve isolating and evaluating each of the 'tasks' or skills individually and then (2) did you integrate each skill in gradually while evaluating. Discuss the details of devil, practice, evaluate, integrate, evaluate, practice, integrate, evaluate etc. etc. until it is clear the trainee is either floor ready or not fit.

If there were challenges as you brought in each of the individual skills did you stop, back up, and determine if that skill can be improved?  For example, some people do not have the capacity to switch from right to left brain quickly.  Like the father who, while reading the paper, could never hear his child’s pleas to listen.  Typing is another skill that can improve but often not quick enough to satisfy the amount of time you have to train. What I found helped students greatly was to explain clearly what each of the multi’s were and how they must be integrated and how quickly (the devil, again, lurks in the details).

Often I think the work of the 9-1-1 telecommunicator is greatly misunderstood.  What we are asking learners to perform is too difficult and complex without offering the time for trainers to adequately assess and train for the skills needed.  I could multi-task in the Comm Center yet when I was put on sail boat and asked to perform certain tasks quickly I was simply confused.  Had I experienced a course to include sail setting, boat balance, fore and aft trim, position of the centerboard, and each detail taught as an isolated skill I could have been a sailor instead of stumbling around getting in the way, falling overboard or maybe getting thrown overboard.

Training Tactics is a guest column about dispatcher training issues.  Sue Pivetta is a former 9-1-1 Supervisor and vocational college instructor.  Sue has a BA from Antioch University in Adult Learning.  She is the creator of many critical thinking training products for 9-1-1 call taking.  She is the author of The Exceptional Trainer book and workshop and has created a series of 10 Adult Learning downloadable trainings.  All products and workshops can be found at  This article originally appeared in 911Trainer’s October newsletter.

Dispatch Photo: Jefferson County (CO) 9-1-1
9-1-1 Magazine file photo by Randall Larson


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