How to Address 9-1-1 Staffing Shortages
By Bonnie Maney
Monday, March 21, 2022 | Comments
Previously we explored the drivers of the acute staffing shortage that is having a severely negative effect on the 911 community.

The drivers include the following:
Funding. The lack of money flowing into emergency communications centers (ECCs) makes it more difficult to compete with the private sector concerning personnel compensation, which in turn makes recruitment and retention more difficult.
Lack of proper recognition. The federal government’s continued insistence on classifying 9-1-1 telecommunicators (call-takers and dispatchers) as clerical workers not only makes it more difficult for ECCs to justify higher compensation for telecommunicators but also causes candidates to take a dim view of the profession, which hinders recruitment.
An incredibly stressful environment. Telecommunicators make life-and-death decisions every day. They also work long shifts and a lot of overtime, driven largely by the staffing shortage. The environment often drives personnel away or leads them to avoid the profession altogether.
The negative impacts of social media. The stressful environment sometimes leads ECC personnel to vent their frustrations via social media platforms unintentionally torpedoing recruitment efforts.
The silver tsunami. The baby boomer generation is retiring in droves, resulting in a tremendous loss of institutional operational knowledge that exacerbates the staffing woes that the 9-1-1 community is experiencing.

Fortunately, there are strategies and tactics that ECCs can employ that will alleviate the pressures that the staffing shortage has created. Let’s explore them.

Workforce optimization. While it might seem counterintuitive, ECC officials should stop thinking about staffing and start thinking about workforce optimization, which is more holistic. Workforce optimization has four pillars at its essence: recruitment, hiring, training and retention. Where staffing is about putting people in the seats, workforce optimization is about putting the right people in the seats and keeping them there for the long haul. It is the difference between checkers and chess.

Although consciousness and breathing are related, they are completely different bodily functions. So too are recruitment and hiring. Improving recruiting efforts begins with updating job descriptions. The Telecommunicator Job Reclassification toolkit recently published by the National 911 Program provides valuable guidance in this area. The traditional approach of “post and pray” no longer serves recruiting efforts, so where recruiters look for prospective telecommunicators needs to change dramatically.

New recruits only know a world dominated by the internet and social media, so recruiters need to figure out a way to leverage those channels. Fresh solutions include engaging recruits where they are through social media, job search websites, virtual job fairs and public events. Reverse searches on job search websites, known as mining, can help target previously untapped recruiting markets and enable recruiters to initiate outreach. It also is essential that staff members and leadership work cooperatively to curb the unintentional impacts borne of sharing employment frustrations via social media, which can be very challenging for the organization, because in many situations trust needs to be rebuilt.

Making the application process easier is one of the first steps to improving the hiring process. For example, if you are going to require “sit-alongs,” consider making this the first step in the application process. Make the request for a sit-along so simple that an applicant can do so using their cell phone. If all goes well with the sit-along, then the applicant can be invited to complete a more formal application. Agencies should also modify their screening tools, leaning more toward cultural and behavioral attributes rather than pure skill-based screening.

For leadership positions, supervisors and above, agencies may look to employ a hiring methodology known as topgrading, which was developed by Dr. Brad Smart, who is considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on hiring practices. It focuses on identifying “A” players, defined as someone who is in the top 10 percent of professionals in his or her chosen field. Having a roster of A players is vitally important to every organization, but none more so than public-safety agencies, which encounter situations every day where lives are on the line and every second counts.

Training is another critical point of emphasis. An already stressful and challenging job is about to get a lot more stressful and challenging, but success rates can be improved when there is a realignment of expectations regarding the proficiency of hires who are newly released from training. Just because a new hire has completed training, it should not be assumed that they have the skillsets of a tenured employee. The added pressure that unreasonable expectations put on trainees that frequently is noted in exit interviews can be mitigated by closing the disconnect between tenured employees and new hires. As noted above, it can be difficult for ECCs to compete with the private sector and even other ECCs that have greater financial and other resources. This is compounded by the competition with field-facing agencies, such as law enforcement, fire/rescue and emergency medical, for vital resources, as well as the impacts of the massive amounts of overtime being worked by telecommunicators and supervisors as a result of the acute staffing shortage. This makes it difficult to raise salaries and offer time-off incentives.

As a result, it’s time to get creative with retention. For example, many are familiar with the “exit interview”; however, one tool that often is overlooked is the powerful “stay interview.” Exit interviews are helpful but let’s be honest, by that point, it is too late. Understanding what is keeping your employees engaged and having an opportunity to leverage those indicators changes your position from one that is reactive to one that is proactive.

These ideas are just a few of the many modernized approaches that Mission Critical Partners (MCP) is seeing agencies use to address workforce optimization. However, one of the most powerful, yet controversial tactics concerns smaller agencies open themselves up to considering merging with one or more agencies. These past two years of the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated, if nothing else, that there is resiliency and sustainability in numbers.

Moreover, consolidation offers many advantages that can alleviate staffing challenges. For example:
• It can expand the recruiting pool by reducing competition between multiple ECCs in a region.
• It often results in a larger center with a corresponding staffing complement, which makes the center more resilient against turnover.
• A larger center can provide greater career opportunities, which can improve retention.
• It reduces workload stressors, especially in one- and two-position ECCs, by reducing the amount of overtime and increasing the opportunity to take time off needed for physical and mental health.

The Lean ECC. ECCs are evolving rapidly. How they handle emergency and nonemergency calls for service from the public, and how they support the responders who are dispatched to the incident, no longer is restricted to cumbersome, redundant and labor-intensive workflows. Today, technology and science are playing a much larger role, with the result being innovative approaches that not only are effective but also repeatable and scalable.

One approach has been dubbed the “lean ECC.” This concept is not about reducing the number of telecommunicators and supervisors; rather, the concept is more about removing extraneous steps in a center’s work processes so that it can meet national standards with the staff it has, even if that staffing is not fully at the authorized level.

Every step that remains has to add value to the ECC’s workflows. Eliminating steps that have no value ultimately saves time, reduces errors and results in a higher quality experience for citizens, primarily, but also the emergency responders who serve them. The idea generally is to leverage the center’s available resources more efficiently to enhance the quantity and quality of what is being accomplished.

Alternative resources and response. ECCs handle an enormous volume of 9-1-1 calls, about 240 million annually nationwide, or more than 657,000 every day. This figure is expected to rise significantly over the next few years, driven by smartphones, alarm systems and internet of things (IoT) devices such as wearable medical monitors.

As call volumes rise, telecommunicators who already are understaffed, undertrained and under siege in many ECCs will be subject to even greater pressures as they work to send a more appropriate response in the shortest amount of time. Fortunately, ways exist to relieve these pressures, and many centers are exploring how they can strengthen and diversify how they respond to calls for service, both 9-1-1 and non-emergency.

A substantial number of calls do not require traditional police, fire/rescue, or emergency medical services (EMS) responses. Communities across the nation are learning that other government and community entities can respond and support various non-emergency situations. These alternative responses can deliver the appropriate response faster, increase community engagement, decrease the risk to public-safety personnel and citizens, and, most importantly, save more lives and keep communities safer.

To be truly effective and have an impact, the definition of alternative response needs to be broadened to include more than just responses to mental/behavioral health and social issues affecting communities. Potential alternative response solutions also include technical, operational and policy-driven approaches that improve operational efficiencies. This broader approach can contribute to a healthy ECC workforce that has the bandwidth to focus on the lifesaving mission rather than answering local government lines after hours, for example.

Key elements include:
• Identifying and reducing mission creep, enabling telecommunicators to focus on true emergencies and non-traditional services response,
• Exploring opportunities to automate calls for service by automating manual workflows, and
• Incorporating alternative resources into the ecosystem.

The following are some of the strategies being taken by agencies across the country to address these elements:
Leverage 2-1-1, 3-1-1, and 10-digit non-emergency lines for municipal departments. These resources can address mission creep that has occurred because of the ECC’s 24/7 availability, by redirecting calls to numbers that might be more appropriate for a particular circumstance. Using them would prevent unnecessary consumption of a 9-1-1 telecommunicator’s time. Such lines reduce incoming call volume, improve the caller experience and increase the telecommunicator’s ability to focus on emergency calls.
Leverage automated solutions. Such solutions automate manual processing of calls for service involving repetitive or standard information that do not require contact with a 9-1-1 telecommunicator. Examples include ASAP-to-PSAP solutions or alternatives; online reporting software pertaining to repossessed, impounded, and towed vehicles; and options for handling low-acuity calls. Automated solutions decrease an ECC’s incoming call volume and call-answering times, improve caller access to appropriate services at first contact and reduces demand on limited 9-1-1 telecommunicator resources.
Integrate alternative resources into the ecosystem, such as nurse-triage capabilities. ECCs receive a large number of low-acuity medical calls, such as sprains, flu-like symptoms, a minor cut requiring stitches or stomach pains, which do not qualify as basic life support (BLS) or advanced life support (ALS) incidents. Nevertheless, ECCs are obligated to dispatch an ambulance/emergency medical technician (EMT)/paramedic to the incident to assess the patient’s condition and, in many cases, transport the patient to an emergency room (ER). The former is required regardless of the severity of the incident.

Another approach would be to establish a nurse-triage line managed by a third-party healthcare provider. When a 9-1-1 call is placed, it first would be fielded by a 9-1-1 telecommunicator. If it is a medical call, the telecommunicator, using prescribed protocols, would determine whether the call should be transferred to a registered nurse for triage. If so, the nurse will ask the caller another series of protocol-based questions.

The nurse then determines the appropriate medical care for the caller. In some instances, the nurse will work with the patient to schedule a visit with his/her primary care physician and arrange transport via a taxi, ride-sharing service or a family member. If it is determined that the caller should be given immediate care, the call will be transferred back to 9-1-1 and a telecommunicator will dispatch an ambulance and any other appropriate response. While 9-1-1 telecommunicators still are involved in the calls, transferring low-acuity calls to the nurse frees 9-1-1 telecommunicators to handle other calls, reducing response times.

The severity of the staffing shortage that is afflicting the 911 community from coast to coast cannot be overstated. However, by applying the strategies and tactics identified in this article, emergency communications centers can begin reducing the pain points they are experiencing substantially and maybe even eliminate some of them.

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Bonnie Maney is the operations manager and a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners, a consulting and managed services firm that serves public safety and justice organizations. She can be emailed at BonnieManey@MissionCriticalPartners.com.



 
 
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Comments
On 3/23/22, Steven A Reed said:
A very well written substantive and thought provoking article. I particularly like the suggestion of a sit-along early in the application process and the stay-interview.


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