Recognizing 9-1-1 dispatchers and call takers as critical to public safety

by Chris Lombard - Assistant Chief, Seattle Fire Department

The entire public safety response starts with 9-1-1. Without them, things would get pretty quiet pretty quickly. So there's a growing recognition that as part of the team that identifies the need for help and gets it going to resolve situations, 9-1-1 dispatchers and call takers really are part of public safety's emergency response. They are the first first responders.

Today, 9-1-1 responders are going through what EMTs went through back in the late 1960s, early 1970s, when they made the transition from simple ambulance drivers to needing and getting the training and skill sets for a more  aggressive role in patient care and management.

A few years ago, national efforts began to formally recognize 9-1-1 call takers and dispatchers as being part of public safety. Many states, Washington included, have since recognized that they are absolutely critical to emergency response, both at the beginning of the incident and throughout the duration of the incident.

Throughout the U.S., there are several different ways we address 9-1-1 services. There are some places where 9-1-1 is within another agency like a police or fire department. Then you have a lot of independent consolidated centers. And sometimes you’ll have hybrids where it may be within one department, but they’ll also dispatch for others. In Seattle, we have two 9-1-1 centers.

But in every case, the job that 9-1-1 dispatchers and call takers do is absolutely essential for public safety. And as leaders, we need to ensure that we are caring for these people and giving them the tools they need to succeed and stay mentally and physically healthy.

Keeping employees safe

In the summer of 2020, there was quite a bit of unrest throughout the United States and Seattle was not immune. People were very upset with the status quo – with the unfolding pandemic and in policing and law enforcement in the United States.

In Seattle, the City Council opted to take the civilian divisions out from within the police department. The biggest of those was the 9-1-1 division. Our Council created a unique city department with the vision that it would not only take on the police 9-1-1 function, but also start incorporating elements of alternative responses to those experiencing more chronic challenges like mental health, drug/alcohol abuse, etc. This would be for those wellness calls – sending help to people who are down on the sidewalk and don’t know what’s going on or community mental health issues.

At the time, I was the director overseeing the Seattle Fire Department’s fire/EMS 9-1-1 center. When the city created this new Community Safety Communications Center (CSCC) , the fire chief asked me to help get it launched.

There were challenges. We had to establish new policy and procedures, we had to make sure we could keep answering 9-1-1 calls even as we set up the new department, we had to fill positions, we had to set up all the logistics (finance, purchasing, payroll), and more. We were able to put together a great team to lead the effort.

Added challenges

That was a very tough time for the existing 9-1-1 folks in Seattle. The Seattle 9-1-1 Center is very close to one of our police precincts. During the civil unrest, protesters focused their ire on different police precincts across the city, including the one closest to the 9-1-1 center.

Our civilian dispatchers were having to cross protest lines. They were having tear gas thrown near them. Protesters were yelling/screaming at them.  All the things most 9-1-1 folks don't sign up for. We were receiving hundreds and hundreds of calls an hour from all over the country, telling our folks how evil and hated they and Seattle Police were. And the dispatchers were taking the brunt of that.

Plus we were changing the whole department, taking them out of police department. Staff were worried if they were going to have a job, they didn't know what the new department would look like, and we had this perfect intersection of internal/external stressors wreaking havoc just as we were coming on board to start this new department.

Staffing and morale in 9-1-1

Staffing was at about 40%. As fast as we were hiring people, we were losing them. Many centers across the country have been facing similar staffing issues. Much of that has come from some of those very same stressors – having to bear the brunt of frustrations people have, not necessarily with 9-1-1 itself, but with other dispatched responding agencies.

At some point 9-1-1 became not just the call for help, but also a complaint line for public safety. There was also a feeling among the staff of lack of respect from the city, from the public, from the elected officials, from the departments they were trying to support.

In those years, when we were first starting, we didn’t have a whole lot of funding available for training. We had a small, but almost insignificant critical incident stress management (CISM) team. So a lot of people who were still there at that time were struggling.

In public safety, there's this ‘call to duty’ to help serve the public. It's a very high and noble calling. But you can only sustain that for so long. At some point you have to take care of yourself and your team so you continue to have the emotional energy and stamina to provide that care and service for the public. When that starts to break down, you start to see the impact everywhere.

9-1-1 Performance standards

There are three main standards bodies that oversee 9-1-1 performance. They are the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), and the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). The guidelines are all pretty closely aligned – with benchmarks for how quickly you must answer calls.

When we assumed leadership over the center, everybody was working 56-hour work weeks. We were just barely hanging on and we were also losing people.

So, we decided that if the compliance with the standards were going take a hit, let’s do what we can to at least keep the people we have so we would have an employee foundation to build upon. We started to roll back the mandatory overtime. Again, we recognized this would hurt the performance metrics initially – in terms of how fast and how many calls we could answer. They did take a little bit of a hit. But we noticed that when people were able to get a break, either in regularly schedule breaks from the work, or regular days off – to get away from the insanity of the job – they came back more refreshed. We saw an almost immediate drop-off in our separation rates, and we were able to build on that.

We also built up a very strong Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) team to work on the peer-to-peer aspect, so people didn’t feel alone in their stress and frustration. We were able to create a team, where people could express their frustrations and their fears and then do something about it.

We also had a good manager for our recruiting and hiring – a former call taker and a dispatcher who could give people a much more ‘reality-based’ view of the job. Through these efforts, we were able to start building on that foundation. In the two years I was here, we hired almost half of the entire department. Before I returned to the fire department, we were almost at a 100% of our allocated staffing levels.  That’s almost unheard of in 9-1-1 these days.

We had a waiting list of people who were interested or wanted to be here. Just walking around the center, people seemed to be a lot happier. They felt like they had more control over their life.

Another part of the initial (temporary) workload adjustment was the decision to primarily focus on 9-1-1 vs. other business responsibilities like administrative phone calls/lines.  There were periods where we weren’t able to answer administrative lines. That was very frustrating for our calling public. But we were able to get the numbers back up once we hired more people. And all of those performance metrics were able to rebound.

The single biggest benefit for the public was our ability answer 9-1-1 calls faster to get them the help they needed. They were starting to get friendly, helpful call takers talking to them as opposed to people who were tired or close to burnout.

On our other customer side – the police, fire, and EMS – were able to get people who were in the game, dialed-in, rested, and refreshed.

Becoming a role model

I've been back at the fire department for a couple months now, but before I left, the center had come back into compliance with the call-answering standards. In fact, we even had a little bit of a cushion in there.

Some of the successes that we found in improving our staffing numbers goes back to not just talking about putting people first but having the political wherewithal to put it into practice AND to be able to justify to higher authorities, the public, et al, about how and why.

One of the things the military and the fire service recognized some time ago was that an injured firefighter, at an emergency incident, has a negative compounding effect – that you don’t just lose the capabilities of that one firefighter, but you also lose the capabilities of the other firefighters who will stop their other important tasks to focus on the injured.  If we don’t ensure firefighters are fit and happy, healthy, trained and able to perform, they aren’t just an ‘unavailable resource’ but become a risk to other parts of the team. If a firefighter goes down in the middle of the fire, the activities towards stopping the fire become focused on that downed firefighter. 9-1-1 is very similar. If you're not taking care of the people, the system's going to crumble.

For 9-1-1 to improve, we've got to start treating our folks as that element of public safety that they are. Your team will rise to challenges for you, but there have to be reasonable limits to how long they should be expected to do so.  Otherwise, you’ll burn out your workforce.

The other thing we'll see starting to change is compensation and benefits to be more aligned with police and fire and EMS – and a recognition that these are consummate professionals. This is not dispatching package delivery trucks or concrete trucks.

These are life and death decisions our people are making. They’re trying to identify resources that will save your life, your house, or help with whatever is going on. Once we start treating them that way, people will rise to the challenge.

It has been said that people will go to where you set the bar. If we set the bar high and treat people accordingly, they'll rise to the challenge. We certainly found that here in Seattle. If you keep pushing people too hard in 9-1-1, the system is going to crumble. Most all emergency response starts with 9-1-1. If you want police, fire, and EMS to be able to know what the problem is, know where the problem is, etc., you don’t want the system to crumble at 9-1-1.

Chris Lombard is Assistant Chief with the Seattle Fire Department. He is also Chair of the FirstNet Public Safety Advisory Committee (PSAC), which advises the FirstNet board on issues pertaining to public safety and first responders. And he serves as vice chair of SAFECOM, the advisory committee to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on public safety communications issues.