An Essential Tool in the Staffing Toolbox
Friday, August 05, 2022 | Comments
Staffing always has been an issue for emergency communications centers (ECCs), also known as public safety answering points (PSAPs) and 9-1-1 centers. Right now, ECCs nationwide are dealing with a personnel shortage that has exceeded the crisis stage for many. The deficit has created pressures for ECC directors and managers to cover shifts, leaving important administrative and training tasks unmanaged and creating additional stresses for 9-1-1 telecommunicators (call-takers, dispatchers, and supervisors).

Due to personnel shortages, many telecommunicators often are forced into working unsustainable amounts of mandatory overtime to cover personnel gaps or are unable to take time off when needed or desired without impacting coworkers, which has a detrimental effect on their health and well-being and increases the risk of errors. Frankly, staffing, particularly the personnel shortage, unfortunately will be an issue for the foreseeable future for a plethora of reasons. For instance, not every candidate has the makeup required to work in the incredibly stressful environment that exists in most ECCs across the country, which effectively constrains the recruiting pool.

Now that 9-8-8, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, has gone live, in time there may be some relief concerning 9-1-1 calls that do not need traditional police, fire/rescue, or emergency medical response. The idea behind the lifeline is that a three-digit number will be far easier to remember than the previous 10-digit number used by the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. (An aside: the lifeline and the hotline are the same entity, only renamed to include mental-health and substance-abuse, as well as housing and food insecurities and other social issues in addition to suicide.)

On the surface, this is a very good thing. The desired result is that many calls that previously were made to 9-1-1 by default because the caller was unable to remember the 10-digit number now will go to the lifeline, at least in theory.

But even if the desired result comes to fruition, 9-8-8 will present additional stresses for telecommunicators, at least for a while. The additional stresses largely will come from telecommunicators feeling concerned that they don't have clear policies and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for transferring calls to 9-8-8. This eventually will be resolved, but policy and SOP development take time, and until they are in place, telecommunicators will have more stress to manage.

The exodus of seasoned 9-1-1 telecommunicators will continue for several more years. The exodus is largely driven by huge numbers of Baby Boomers retiring but also by telecommunicator dissatisfaction with their compensation, work-life balance impacts due to overtime, and lack of proper recognition of their vital role in emergency response. A corollary factor is that some ECCs are struggling to align their training methodologies with the current realities of the telecommunicator job, which increasingly are becoming more complex. The result is lower training completion rates than ever before, and additional stress being placed on telecommunicators still on the job, who already are overstressed.

Further, the lack of understanding of how the 9-1-1 system works and the criticality of the telecommunicator position by elected officials, coupled with funding shortfalls that exist in many jurisdictions, make it exceedingly difficult for ECCs to compete for candidates with the private sector, and even larger ECCs in the region, and to keep existing personnel satisfied. This drives further attrition that exacerbates existing staffing shortages.

But all is not lost.

Toolboxes and Tools
“Workforce optimization” is a term that has been bouncing around the 9-1-1 community for a few years. Many in the community think that “staffing” and “workforce optimization” are synonyms. They are not. Staffing is about getting people into seats while workforce optimization about getting the right number of people into the right seats for the long haul. There is a big difference between these concepts. The relationship between staffing and workforce optimization is analogous to the relationship between a toolbox and a tool. Workforce optimization is an excellent tool. In fact, it’s essential.

Here are a few tips to get you started:
• Know the difference between the number of personnel you’re authorized to have and the number that you actually need.
• Leverage performance data to address any inequities and to justify hiring additional personnel.
• Conduct staffing assessments regularly, at least every three years.
• Avoid the “post and pray” approach to recruitment. Be proactive rather than reactive. Hire a recruiter dedicated to the center or outsource the function to an organization that understands the ECC environment.
• Get creative to fill open positions. Seek candidates through nontraditional channels and look for new approaches to enhancing compensation if funding is an issue. Fresh solutions include engaging recruits where they are through social media, job search websites and cadet programs, and leverage existing applicants for other positions. Reverse searches on job search websites, known as mining, can help target previously untapped recruiting markets and enable recruiters to initiate outreach.
• Modernize access to job applications and make the process user friendly. Candidates should be able to complete a basic application on a mobile phone.
• Streamline hiring workflows and leverage nationally accepted screening and testing tools, such as allowing unlimited testing attempts and foregoing the out-of-date pass/fail approach, from within the industry, and tools such as CliftonStrengths and Topgrading from outside the industry, to increase the odds that newly hired or promoted personnel are right for their positions. Topgrading is a method of personnel recruitment that was developed by Dr. Brad Smart, who is considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on hiring practices. It is designed to identify “A” players, those who are among the top 10 percent of professionals in their chosen field. CliftonStrengths is designed to identify a person’s strengths as well as weaknesses. It is vitally important that people are placed into positions for which they are best suited, i.e., ensuring that round pegs are being placed into round holes. People tend to perform better, and sometimes achieve great things, when they are working in areas of strength.
• Train new staff members based on adult-learning principles. Align the training program with national, state and industry standards and best practices, to the greatest extent possible, understanding that stop-gap measures may be needed.
• Make training more accessible through new creative approaches. For example, use a video-conferencing platform to enable personnel to train when and where it is convenient for them.
• Ensure that training officers are certified.
• Leaders and supervisors often are promoted based on past performance without enough consideration given to whether they possess the attributes required by the new role. Worse, they often are not given leadership or position-specific training after being placed in the new role. So, leverage CliftonStrengths or a similar tool to determine whether personnel should be promoted and then ensure that new leaders and supervisors receive lots of leadership and job-specific training, if you expect them to succeed.
• Leaders often don’t engage with personnel enough, nor do they engage with them in their working environments, which would provide greater insight into their challenges and foster a more collegial work environment. So, promote such engagement on a regular and continuing basis.
• Conduct “stay” interviews to discover why personnel are choosing to continue their employment. Such interviews are every bit as important, or even more important, than exit interviews. At that point it is too late. Then, find ways of doing more of what is learned during stay interviews.
• Implement employee career-development and health and well-being programs. • Get creative regarding the compensation and benefits that are offered. It’s not always about wages.
• Improve the work-life balance of personnel. This is easier said than done but is essential. With as much as continuous recruiting costs an agency, the math may justify bringing on more personnel in creative ways, affording more work-life balance (e.g. administrative telecommunicators answering 10-digit lines from home).
• Recognize their efforts and scheduling sacrifices regularly, not just during National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week, and especially when they exceed expectations, in tangible ways. Bringing in pizzas once a month can pay enormous dividends. Do this for all shifts and try to include their families once in a while. They are already away from them a lot.
• Require personnel to engage in ongoing performance-based, skills-development training and/or continuing education.

This article merely scratches the surface of the vital tool that is workforce optimization — there is another essential piece that helps identify workload inefficiencies and eliminate the mission creep that has seeped into ECCs over the years. At Mission Critical Partners (MCP), we work with ECCs across the country to develop best-in-class approaches to recruiting, hiring, and retaining personnel.

Bonnie Maney is operations domain lead and a senior consultant for Mission Critical Partners (MCP), a consulting and managed services firm that supports public-sector organizations. Email her at

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