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Millennial Civic Engagement

How does a 20-something with a civil service bug break into the public sector?

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Working in a local, state, or federal government environment may be less foreign for a young person who has military experience or familial connections, but what about those without? Where is the door to step inside? Are the steps so high and intimidating that individuals are deterred? This is a huge portion of our young, active workforce population.

These questions examine a topic that is as multi-faceted as anything else. The three points that arise for me are as follows…

  1. Not even on the radar.
    Unless an individual has a personal connection with someone who works in the public sector, how might they ever know about these career paths? It could be suggested to them by a professor, sure – but what if they are not in college? There are few if any media-marketing efforts made to recruit fresh blood into the public sector. With the barrage of attention hooks seen throughout their day, many people lack the information (or any connection) they need to pursue a career in the public sector. The information might be out there, but they’re not seeing it.
    Some people might argue that this is okay – that the public sector is better off hiring those who seek those jobs specifically. I would argue that if a talented individual is just starting out in the world, they are going to keep getting swept up by the private sector companies who are a) getting their recruiters out there, b) actively informing their target audience, and c) incentivizing the hell out of it.
  2. Where do I start?
    Here I will give huge props to communities that participate in career day festivals and offer internships. That’s great! I still think it should be better advertised. Consider the portion of the workforce that is bright and eager but lacking a technical certification or degree. If a community can get their message in front of all of those eyes, they will benefit from casting a wider talent net.
    (This post’s voice will turn towards the public sector management now, but everyone else is welcome to listen in.)
    As internet savvy as they may be, cyberspace is too wide and too busy to simply rely on them finding your job posting. Again, kudos to the communities (and their media managers) who are posting on social media.
    Specifically with jobs that (typically) require no certification or degree – i.e. emergency communications – cast that net wide! Get the word out there. We need good people, and they need to know that they are eligible. If this can be a door for them, we need to shine a light on it!

    3. Stable, sustainable incentives.
    I heard about an agency that is offering a $10,000 hiring bonus for emergency dispatchers. Another retention idea is scheduled pay increases. Shift differential. Tuition assistance. Child care. Retirement matching. Brainstorm what you could offer, and how much is sustainable. Having progressive financial compensation – particularly tied to certification levels, years of experience, continuing education, etc – is really important. They might work for beans at first, but everyone wants to know that some bacon is in their future. The incentives don’t have to be all money – but if a comm center is so short-staffed that you can’t offer them non-monetary benefits like lunch breaks – the situation is not sustainable.


I speak as a millennial with that civic service “bug”. I searched for a door and found emergency communications. The hiring process was so long and drawn out that I actually ended up taking another job for two years (working as a public safety state contractor) before re-applying. I’ll note that the crazy long hiring process is a real deterrent for a lot of people – so if you’re a potential applicant, hang in there! It might take a while. (For those who might roll their eyes and label me as ‘another impatient millennial’, please know that this was ~2009 and my application was caught in a hiring freeze.)
So I figured out where to start, but where to go from there? After three years I became a trainer in our comm center, and later created this blog. I enrolled in a local university ‘public sector leadership’ program in pursuit of a Bachelor’s degree with the help of my employer’s tuition assistance program. Still, I wanted to feel that my path was progressing… when lo and behold, another door appeared.
This is my last week in dispatch. I will be transitioning to my agency’s community affairs unit. Instead of being a strictly “vocal” liaison to our community, I’ll have my face out there! I’ll be collaborating with a great team in coordinating our many community outreach events. Our agency strives to engage our citizens through many (many!) different programs, and provides quality-of-life services with the help of donated time and resources. We have a strong team of volunteers from all walks of life that truly believe in strengthening our community through service. While working in dispatch I joined that team of volunteers, and now I’ll have the opportunity to help even more.


What will happen to this blog? (Oh no?!) I will maintain it as I have been, with thoughts and musings about once a month. The 911/PSAP world is changing with new technology (FirstNet Partners with AT&T to Build Wireless Broadband Network for America’s First Responders), and there will always be folks trying to learn about how to be a 911 dispatcher. I remember, I was there at one point!

P.S. I’m keeping up my Telecommunicator license as well as my TCIC/NCIC Associate Trainer certification, so I do expect that I will remain active in dispatch periodically. The “last week in dispatch” line was for dramatic effect. 😉

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National Telecommunicator Week

Last week (April 9-15) was National Telecommunicator Week. If you’re in the industry, you have my commendation and appreciation. As the true behind-the-scenes crew, we are that “invisible gold line” that connects public service through all kinds of communication. I say all kinds because with fast-evolving technology, 911 operators are finding themselves sending text messages to citizens asking for suspect descriptions. In an environment when any delay is too long, waiting for a text back can really try a person!
Moving forward, I would like to send this message out to every community: Take care of those behind-the-scenes folks. The 24-hour, 365-day crew that helps keep your loved ones safe – they are that golden glue that holds things together in the middle of the night.      For all the potential citizen callers, I’ll offer this: Know your location! 🙂 Seriously though, help us help you – try to be concise and patient with the person on the other end of the line. They will do their best to get you help as quickly as possible – there is a method to our questions, so try to trust the process. Particularly with the industry norm of short staffing, please consider that we may be doing three things at once. Time is critical in an emergency, but stay with us an we’ll do our best to get everyone home safe at the end of the night.
These next few weeks may be a turning point for me in public safety – check back soon! Thanks for reading!

Should there be an app for that?

One of the assignments in my course (the catalyst for this blog) is to sketch up an app related to the topic of my blog. I’m not 100% sold on the idea of using an app to learn about dispatching, but I like the idea enough to run with it (also digging an “A” in this class). : )

My initial idea for the app is that it would be customized to pull data from an agency’s website, social media presence, and other online resources. For example, the agency that I work for has their city ordinances in a database online (https://www.municode.com/). This element would be incorporated into the app as a job preparation tool. Another element of the app would be the use of Google Maps and Google Streetview to help the user become more familiar with the agency they are/will be working for. Here are a couple mock-up screenshots, per assignment requirements.

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Shift Shirt Humor

In this line of work, if you didn’t have it when you walked in the door (and let’s hope you did), you’ll develop an odd sense of humor. It helps us get through those long shifts, and helps form a bond with your partners that’s strong enough (hopefully) to get you to come back for more! Today I’ll share with you some of the fun dispatcher shirts that I’ve acquired over the years. They are non-agency-specific, but custom designed. Enjoy!

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If you’re looking for custom shirts, check out KidsWithScissors.
Some of from those folks, but I don’t remember which ones, sorry!

The Most Important Thing

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It’s hard to argue with the notion that two most important pieces of information of a call are the call location and the caller’s callback number. Out of those two things, the trickier variable is the location. The type of phone line used to call in affects the kind of information available to the call-taker. If the call for service is inside a building or out on the street – those details make a big difference. Sometimes the caller is third-party, maybe not even on scene- they may not know the address. Child callers may or may not know their address, or they may not know how to describe where they are.

It is critical that the caller know where the response needs to go – but in a moment of crisis, sometimes that’s hard to communicate. For example, if a caller is at a friend’s house, they may not know the address. If they are in an intersection, maybe involved in an accident, they may be too disoriented to explain where they are located. Many people function on some level of ‘autopilot’ while they are driving around – often unaware of the name of the street they are on or the cardinal direction they are traveling.

This is where the knowledge and skill of the dispatcher comes in – verifying the location of the call for service. If you are interested in becoming an emergency call-taker or dispatcher, I would highly recommend that you work on becoming extremely familiar with the area the agency services.

(Hey, prospective applicants!)
You’ll need to know:

  • The jurisdictional boundaries of the agency
  • General jurisdiction of surrounding agencies
  • Major landmarks in the area – shopping centers, hospitals, city facilities
  • Names and locations of apartment complexes and neighborhoods/subdivisions
  • Major roadways in the area (including outside of your jurisdiction)
  • The cardinal orientation of all major roadways (N/S, E/W, SW/NE, etc)

 

I’ll offer an example of why it is so important to know your area. A frantic person calls in on 911 and says, “I need help here, quickly!” They are calling on a cell phone. We can see the general area where they are located (they are calling on a cell phone), but do not have enough information to plot a call location. They advise the call-taker that they are on the highway, and there has been an accident with injuries. They keep repeating that they are on the highway. The area that their cell phone is plotting near has two major highways with four levels of roadways/flyovers. If the call-taker incorrectly plots the address of the call, the police, fire, and EMS response could be delayed several minutes as they drive to the wrong location — only to have to exit, backtrack, and respond to where they can see the accident has occurred. What can the call-taker do?

Ask for landmarks. What do you see around you? Any businesses or signs? If the call-taker knows the area, they can start to picture in their mind what the caller is describing. What direction was the caller traveling (north, south, east, west)? If they don’t know, the call-taker can ask where they were traveling from (from X city? from Y road?), and where they were traveling towards. If they are on the highway, are they on the actual highway (often called the “proper” or the main part of the highway), or are the on the service (or “frontage”) road? These details can affect the response time by several minutes.

Callers — know your location! If you don’t, stay on the phone with the call-taker and keep answering their questions. The call-taker talking to you doesn’t slow down the dispatching of first responders, but they need priority information to relay to those who are driving to help you. Its not like in the movies – we don’t always know where you are. We will need you to answer our questions so that we can get you the right help as quickly as possible.

A final PSA – please teach your children their home address, and consider writing it down in multiple places in your home. In a crisis, their frightened minds may have trouble remembering it – but they can read it to the call-taker if its taped to the fridge. Consider teaching your children (even the very young ones!) the names of the roads that you travel to and from school, the name of the parks you visit, and which neighbors to go to in case of an emergency. The call-taker who answers a child’s call for help will do everything in their power to figure out where they are, but please consider preparing your child with this information. Your local dispatcher will thank you!

P.S. Last year, John Kelly and Brendan Keefe of USA Today released an investigative piece about the lack of location data (consistently) available to 911 dispatch centers throughout the country. Chapter 4 of their article provides a more technical explainations of cell phone data flow to public safety answering points (PSAPs).

911’s deadly flaw: Lack of location data

Brain Overload

Digitally generated My brain has too many tabs open

Image from eremedia.com

I am currently working with a trainee that has no previous dispatch experience. When I started with my agency, I also had zero experience- so I sympathize, I really do! In hindsight, its hard to believe that I survived the pressure and the struggle– but I stuck it out, and here I am.

As a trainer, I view my role as being that of a facilitator. I can help facilitate the learning process. I cannot learn for someone else. I encourage that they take ownership over their training experience by actively engaging- asking questions, asking for clarification, taking initiative with documentation (or asking for it). Particularly with on-the-job training, like we have in our agency (greatly due to staffing), the trainer may be able to talk and teach for a portion of the day (as workload allows), but it is ultimately up to the trainee to retain that information.

As a trainer, every day I remind myself of the two biggest challenges that I faced as a trainee:

  1. Limited frame of reference. In other words, a trainee may hear or receive a piece of information, but they don’t know enough to understand how it connects to everything else.
  2. Self-confidence/self-esteem. Everyone wants to go home feeling like they did a good job. There is an enormous amount of pressure inherently present with this job. The training/ramping-up period takes an excruciatingly long amount of time. They warned me about this, but I still struggled with it! I make a point to repeatedly remind my trainees that it is important to trust the process.

The nerdier side of me has been delighted and comforted by reading about how the brain learns and re-wires itself with repetition and pressure. It has also been particularly relevant with the shift work that this job entails.
I really like this article about how the brain works. If you are interested in being a trainee, being a trainer, or if you have a brain – I recommend reading it! (I’m also a total plant-nerd, so their “your brain is like a garden” line really got me!)

Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button—Here’s How To Use It

Multitasking Octopus

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Image from clipartbest.com

The video I am going to share with you makes me laugh and shake my head every time I watch it. I can’t believe what I’m watching, but I know that I do it every day. Aside from the bit of dramatic music, this is the most accurate depiction of what it can be like to be an emergency dispatcher. The ‘running tally’ of to-do’s is a mental function that must be developed and carefully tracked – I think it is very well illustrated here!

Perhaps you will watch this video and get a bit wide-eyed. That’s probably normal. But if you are interested in being able to multitask like that as a dispatcher, what can you do to start the process? On a very basic level, I would recommend that prospective applicants practice taking dictation. It doesn’t have to involve a person – you can take dictation from the radio or TV. Maybe sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop on a nearby table- it’ll build your listening skills! (Kidding.) Practice your ten-key entry. Copy names, addresses and phone numbers out of a phone book. Enter the text into a text document or a spreadsheet, and consider toggling between the two. Data entry and navigating between software windows are both critical skills.

Consider another avenue: Emergency simulators and games- have you tried them?

I remember searching for them while I was waiting for my next interview with the PD, but I never found any that seemed applicable. Since then I’ve found several online, and these two seem to be the most popular:
911: First Responders® and Steam’s “Emergency” series, such as Emergency 2016.

I’ve never played any of them first-hand, but from what I’ve seen they are much more flashy then what we get to see in the comm center. Perhaps our imaginations are enough!

The agency I work for uses CritiCall testing software, and it is much more relevant to the tasks and skill-set we utilize. I’m still searching for a hybrid of the two – a skill-developing interactive game that can help strengthen visual, auditory, and fine motor skills during those long hiring months.

Have you found something like this? Are you a game developer? Maybe we can put our heads together – there is definitely a demand for this product from both the (prospective) employee and the employer.