By Violet Rymshaw
It’s the elephant in the room…or more accurately, the elephant on the dispatch floor.
Almost everyone has experienced it. No one likes to discuss it. It’s the delicate balance between dispatch and management.
Now before going any further, I just want to stop and acknowledge all of the communications supervisors out there who are doing a fantastic job of building a team culture. It is no easy task! So many different personalities under one roof - usually without windows! - not to mention the nature of the work and the accompanying lack of sleep. To all of you who are there for your team, we are genuinely grateful for your healthy leadership qualities.
That said, as many of us have experienced, great leadership is not an automatic in the comm center. And unfortunately, in those comm centers with issues between management and dispatch, there is not a lot of healthy dialogue about it. Yet when I surveyed emergency telecommunicators about their most stressful aspects in interacting with management, they had a lot to say about it. Even more importantly, they also had some healthy ideas for achieving balance.
First let’s have an honest discussion about the stressors. In my study, the most frequently named stressors were situations related to an authoritarian style of communication, decision-making, and discipline – in other words, an “I am the boss, and what I say goes” atmosphere. That is really a heavy environment to work in, especially in a highly stressful occupation.
Participants’ responses fell under two categories: Apprehension and Disconnect. Apprehension pertained to having an anxious feeling about or during any of the following types of situations: reporting to management for discipline matters; having decisions scrutinized; having to ask management for help; or presenting a concern to management. In all, 56% of all the participants admitted that these situations added a significant level of stress to their job – and there may be more who did not disclose it, based on the stigma of admitting weakness among first responder occupations. One dispatcher dreaded having “spontaneous meetings or appointments with no info. I'd like a heads-up to mentally prepare.” Similarly, another dispatcher disliked "the stress of not knowing why they want to talk to you. Is it good? Is it bad? That's the worst."
One telecommunicator shared that her most stressful interactions with management involved “asking questions, asking for help, or attempting to stand up for myself.” Along those lines, another telecommunicator disliked continual lack of support regarding her decision-making on the job: “When they don’t have my back when I feel I’ve made the best decision I could at the time; when they are condescending.”
The other category, Disconnect, pertained to anything management said or did that conveyed a lack of interest in, respect for, or understanding of the responsibilities and demands of the role of an emergency telecommunicator. Disconnect was a highly stressful factor of the job for at least 50% of the participants. One dispatcher shared that they disliked “interactions in which I am told I am being heard and/or respected, yet it is clear that our position is a joke to them. Defending against change that management insists upon making which would negatively impact the morale or operations of the center.”
When management is disconnected from the actual demands of the role of an emergency telecommunicator, it takes a toll on their well-being. For example: “Always being asked to do more with less; with regard to pay cuts, overtime, and frequent staffing shortages. Dedicated staff give up much in order to provide these demands, and they come at a personal cost.
For some participants, Disconnect pertained specifically to emergency centers that are supervised by law enforcement. These participants perceived that because the officers and their superiors do not perform call-taking and dispatching at all, they do not have a clear picture of the realities of an emergency telecommunicator’s day-to-day responsibilities, needs, and concerns, for example: “Disinterested commanders trying to correct something they have not personally observed or been advised of and acting on general conversations.” Others felt that there is a difference in required accountability between emergency telecommunicators and law enforcement: “Group meetings where management expressed a list of trivial complaints from field units - but officers are not held to the same standard.”
Even in the case of management by civilians, several participants reported that their supervisors had never actually performed the role of an emergency telecommunicator during any point in their careers, or they had been out of the role of an emergency telecommunicator for some time and were completely out of touch with the demands of the job.
However, many of the participants provided ideas for change that might build stronger and more effective relationships between management and dispatch. These solutions fell under two categories: Culture of Respect and Accountability. Culture of Respect involved the creation of a work environment in which emergency telecommunicators felt valued, appreciated, and respected for their career role, and 63% of participants expressed suggestions for achieving this atmosphere. The most frequent suggestion was facilitation of two-way communication between staff and management, rather than authoritarian command. For example: “Establish a culture where making mistakes is part of the roadway to success. Involve staff in identifying solutions.” Even when discipline is required, “approaching things from a training perspective instead of a disciplinary perspective helps when dispatchers are not performing as they should.”
Dispatchers suggested that two-way communication should occur not just during times of discipline, but via a continual mindset of collaborative decision-making. “Create a feedback and collaborative culture. Create cultures where ideas are freely exchanged and valued, even if they aren't acted upon. Always make the dispatchers feel like the departments care for them.” However, some telecommunicators specified that the responsibility of openminded communication lies on both sides in order to establish a Culture of Respect, and that this can only develop through consistent and positive interaction between emergency telecommunicators and management: “Foster a comfortable and constant relationship, not just one where there is only conversation when there is a problem.”
Accountability involved measures through which to ensure that management continued to grow in their understanding of the needs of emergency telecommunicators, and 51% of participants provided ideas for achieving this. A popular suggestion was that management should spend more time in the trenches with emergency telecommunicators in order to truly collaborate and gain a clearer picture of their responsibilities and challenges. “Management generally doesn't have a very clear idea of the work functions or stressors of the telecommunicator. Learning more about the job instead of just questioning incidents after the fact seems helpful.”
Other participants provided feedback specifically from the point of view of emergency agencies in which all supervisors were law enforcement officers, rather than civilians. For example: “Currently they do not understand any aspect of our job because they are all police officers. They think our job is easy; it is not.”
In other cases, participants’ supervisors had been removed from the dispatching role for so long that they seemed out of touch with the needs of their staff. “They don't always see the big picture and forget how many balls we are juggling at all times. It would be nice to see them on a more frequent basis rather than only when we've dealt with a critical incident that they want to analyze.” Many telecommunicators suggested that management should spend more time working the floor and being equally responsible for the way they handle events.
Another popular idea was to improve the content and the frequency of management training, for the purpose of “creating an environment (where) staff feel like they’re respected and appreciated.” Types of suggested training for management included skills in “(building) your employee up, especially when they make mistakes.”
Regular check-ins between supervisors and their own superiors were also suggested. Check-ins might help supervisors understand how they may be contributing to stressful interactions with their staff, as well as giving them the opportunity to unburden any stressors in their own professional or personal lives which may be inhibiting healthy interactions on the job. “Making it mandatory ensures that management does not feel criticized and is open to an honest discussion, which can only result in improvement.”
One person can’t move an elephant. But a whole team can! My challenge to you today is to think about your own communications center. How might some of these ideas be implemented in a positive manner, as a cohesive team?
Violet (Lisa) Rymshaw, PsyD, is a former emergency telecommunicator. She is the CEO of Innovative Writing, a grant writing service for nonprofits who serve first responders and their loved ones. She also collaborates with the Los Angeles City Attorney’s Office to assist survivors of human trafficking and exploitation. You can connect with Violet on LinkedIn.
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