Finding – and keeping – good dispatchers is still a challenge for localities

Virginia research project highlights possible solutions for filling hiring and knowledge gaps


One of the trending topics in the public safety world is the movement to reclassify individuals who answer the 911 calls and then dispatch the appropriate public safety assets from that of clerical workers to first responders.

I agree that it is a long overdue action that would provide public recognition for the critical services provided by public safety telecommunicators (aka dispatchers). But a change in job classification is just the tip of the iceberg when discussing the staffing for public safety answering point (PSAPs) and public safety dispatching operations.

Questions geared toward the dispatcher staffing crisis

Whatever you call them – public safety telecommunicators, dispatchers, emergency communications officers – they are the critical communications link between those who need help and those who can render help. (Photo/Getty Images)
Whatever you call them – public safety telecommunicators, dispatchers, emergency communications officers – they are the critical communications link between those who need help and those who can render help. (Photo/Getty Images)

Recently, over on LinkedIn, my public safety colleague Dan Wright posted the article “The New First Responder Crisis: Not Enough Dispatchers.” In the piece, authors Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene state: “We’ve come across a less-noticed shortage that is just as critical to residents’ safety: The widespread difficulties many communities are experiencing in hiring and retaining emergency dispatchers, the men and women who pull together the information that police, EMS and firefighters need to quickly reach and help people in trouble. 

In his post, Wright wrote, “In response to this story, these questions are directed toward ‘us’ as a 911 industry”:

  • Why do we allow six months to train a new hire?
  • Why do new hires quit during training?
  • Why is the turnover rate so high?
  • Why do we not get adequate applicants for openings?
  • Why are we in this “staffing crisis”?

Not a new problem for communities

In reading the article, I found myself thinking the familiar phrase, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

In 1997, I was a captain assigned from my fire and EMS department to co-manage the Chesterfield County (Virginia) consolidated Emergency Communications Center (ECC) and PSAP along with a police officer from the county’s police department, Sergeant Robert Pridemore.

In the ECC, emergency communications officers (ECO) answered incoming 911 calls for service, entered the calls into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, and then dispatched the public safety resources (fire, police, EMS) recommended by CAD to the call location.

Soon after we took the helm, the ECC was in a staffing crisis. We had only 42 full-time ECOs on staff to fill our 64 authorized (and desperately needed) positions. Two of the biggest drains on our staffing numbers were:

  1. Private sector communications companies offering better pay and daytime work schedules (it was during the “telecom boom” of the late 1990s); and
  2. Other county departments, particularly the police department, adding new positions that also offered better pay and better work schedules.

I entered the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program (EFOP) at roughly the same time that I was assigned to co-manage an emergency communications center.

Originally published in 1998, and I believe still relevant to this discussion today, is my first Applied Research Project (ARP) in the EFOP: Employee Turnover in the Chesterfield County Emergency Communications Center.

What we found

When we started evaluating what we were doing in the ECC, one of the challenges we found was a hiring process that was a process in name only. When we looked at the outcomes, for every 10 candidates interviewed, we realized only three on average were hired, and only two of those would complete their training and become a full-time ECO.

Our supervisory staff took the biggest hit from that employee poaching. We had incumbent supervisors who weren’t up to the job, and we had newly appointed supervisors and assistant supervisors who never had any supervisory training or education.

The starting salary for an ECO was $22,380 per year while the starting salaries for both police officers and firefighters were $25,800. (The ECO, once trained, will make more decisions that have an impact on service delivery during an eight-hour shift than either the rookie police officer or firefighter will likely make in their first year on the job.)

The best ECOs were not training our new hires. We had relatively new ECOs (less than three years on the job) training newly hired ECOs. Mediocrity was being passed along to the trainees.

What we did

The ARP served as the foundation for our successful efforts to get the entry-level salary for ECOs on par with that for new firefighters and police officers. We also received a promise (later fulfilled) to regrade the entire pay scale for ECOs to match that of the fire/EMS and police departments.

We found a testing process that was specifically designed to measure the desirable characteristics of a successful ECO. After we began administering the test to prescreen applicants to determine if they warranted an interview, the numbers for both interviewees hired and new hires completing training rose significantly.

We provided those new hires with training from the best of the best. We selected those incumbent CEOs whom we felt best qualified to be our trainers based on their 1) technical competence, 2) their ability to work well with others and 3) their commitment to the future success of the ECC.

We interviewed our incumbent supervisors and laid out our plan for getting staffing numbers up. We clearly told them what we expected from them as supervisors and it was up to them whether they could stay and support our plan or look for another job.

For those who chose to stay, we identified training and coaching opportunities to help them improve their job performance. For our appointed acting supervisors, we outlined a supervisory training program that plugged into existing professional development programs within both fire/EMS and police departments. We also added course elements from Chesterfield County’s Learning & Performance Center, formerly known as Chesterfield County’s TQI (Total Quality Initiative) University, and its leadership and management offerings.

Finally, we created a scenario-based assessment process for use in making promotions to full-time shift supervisors and assistant shift supervisors.

It was a slow effort to recovery, but we were successful because of the great legacy ECOs we had, the great ECOs we hired, the great trainers we empowered, and the great supervisory staff we developed and empowered.

By the time I returned to the fire/EMS department in 1999 when my “hitch” was over, we’d broken the “50 hurdle”; in another year, the number of full-time employees had reached 56 out of the authorized 64 ECO positions.

Critical links

Whatever you call them – public safety telecommunicators, dispatchers, emergency communications officers – they are the critical communications link between those who need help and those who can render help. And like the smoke detectors in our homes: We don't think about them, but when they're needed, they're needed.

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