Harnessing the power of public safety communications centers

Enable communications personnel to be the brains of the service and recognize their important quasi-supervisory role

By Jay Fitch, PhD

When I think about the way our colleagues in communications are treated, I often think of Rodney Dangerfield’s classic comedy routine: Telecommunicators simply don’t get the respect they deserve. 

When civilians were first utilized in 911 centers, workers were predominately female. Their role was largely considered a secretarial function by male-dominated leadership. Times have changed and so have the capabilities and responsibilities of communications center personnel.

But old paradigms and perceptions persist. Recently a federal committee considering revisions to the Standard Occupational Classification system determined that it would not change the official classification under which Public Safety Telecommunicators are designated. They remain undervalued as "office and administrative support" workers rather than being acknowledged as the professionals we depend on every day. 

Far more than call takers
Front line communications personnel do far more than answer the phone. They guide callers through complex algorithms, provide pre-arrival instructions and give advice on how to handle critical situations.

They are the initial first responders and provide a safety lifeline for field responders. Communications personnel work under a unique kind of pressure and stress.   

It’s well known that when an incident does not initially go well at dispatch, the potential for issues on scene and at other points in the customer service cycle increases exponentially. For EMS agencies, measuring the customer experience is one of the components of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s Triple Aim and is anticipated to be a factor in Medicare reimbursement in the future. Effective call reception and pre-arrival instructions significantly influence how patients and families perceive the care and service they receive. 

Beyond that role, communications centers are a key element when optimizing the system’s agility, efficiency and effectiveness. I frequently refer to communications personnel as the brains of the service with communicators serving in a quasi-supervisory role.

As calls ebb and flow, managing deployment and mobilizing and re-allocating resources have become higher-level tasks for modern centers. Monitoring crew meal breaks, unit-hour utilization and fatigue are emerging day-to-day responsibilities of communications centers.

Effective centers work closely with field personnel and top leaders proactively to shape the system’s deployment plan. They constantly manage risk by balancing coverage, demand and crew resources.

Emerging opportunities
Expanded roles for communications centers are also emerging. A number of centers, including University Medical Center EMS in Lubbock, Texas, provide call center services and bed coordination for area hospitals.

Others deliver advanced communication services, such as nurse advice lines and support for community paramedic programs and home health agencies. More proactive, out-bound call services including post-discharge well-being follow-ups, medication checks as well as other in-home monitoring services are helping prevent hospital re-admissions. In addition to filling gaps in the health care system, these new services may become additional revenue opportunities for communications centers.

Data are the lifeblood of modern public safety systems; progressive communications centers have assumed a significantly expanded role integrating multiple data sets from CAD systems, clinical initiatives, fire prevention and other administrative record management systems. The real challenge is harnessing and analyzing that information to turn it into useful intelligence that becomes a powerful force, facilitating decisions that shape the system in a positive way. 

Training and development
Changing responsibilities require communications center leaders to have a broader set of skills than in the past. Forward thinking police, fire and EMS agencies are focusing on development of these personnel. The International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, National Emergency Number Association and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials each sponsor development programs.

The IAED’s Communications Center Managers program is comprehensive and covers human resources, finance, operations and deployment, customer and media relations, administration, legal issues, managing technology and other emerging issues. CCM is taught by well-known industry leaders in an interactive learning environment. It provides emerging and experienced leaders an expanded professional network as well as the perspective essential for successful participation on their agency’s senior leadership team. 

Public safety systems are being challenged to do more with less. Budgets and staff are decreasing even as demands for expanded services, improved efficiency and compulsory sustainability initiatives are on the rise. Transforming the communications center paradigm from order entry personnel to a high-functioning team capable of providing meaningful input on day-to-day operations and emerging strategies is essential to an agency’s long-term success. Supporting administrators’ decision-making by providing valuable data and information demonstrates clear value and is a solid way to harness the power of communications centers for the future.

Jay Fitch is the founding partner at Fitch & Associates, which has provided leadership development and consulting for emergency services for more than three decades. 

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