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9-1-1, Where Is Your Emergency?

Have you ever had the need for the police, fire department or ambulance? If so, across the USA you may have dialed 9-1-1 and heard this question, “9-1-1, where is your emergency?” While the emergency number varies from country to country, the appropriate and accurate training, equipment and management of these contact centers are critical.

Have you ever wondered who is answering a 9-1-1 call and how critical a few minutes can be? Having recently created one state’s certification training for 9-1-1 Telecommunicators, including an e-learning component and validated test, the stress, self-sacrifice and importance of this job is like no other contact center. 

I was dumbfounded to learn that all states do NOT require certification training for those individuals taking emergency calls, but no less so than contact centers who don’t have new hire training, or skill and performance assessments. There have been countless news stories that have unhappy endings because of the shortfall of skills of the person taking the emergency call.  Check with your state’s equivalent of a public safety department to learn how the 9-1-1 Telecommunicators are prepared for their job.

While a 9-1-1 public safety answering point (PSAP) has some similarities to typical contact centers, they also have requirements like no other centers. Contact centers often screen for an individual who can multi-task.  Most contact center employees require accurate listening and questioning skills. A 9-1-1 Telecommunicator has just seconds or minutes to listen to the caller describe the emergency, gather information with pointed questions, and dispatch appropriate responders, often working with several callers simultaneously while also keeping track of where responders are for each call.

How about new hire training, or continuous skill builders? Some states require several certifications and re-certification throughout the tenure of the Telecommunicator.  States may recognize another’s state’s certifications, while others will not, because it often is not standardized. PSAP’s across the United States have different levels of sophistication, or funding to train or re-train individuals. For example, emergency medical training,  learning to use software that provides signals from location position coordinates to direct responders to the right place, or how to use a their computer aided dispatch (CAD) system, often with  three or more screens to manage. All of these needs to budgeted, tracked, and have back up staff planned, often on a restricted budget.

Many contact centers focus on cross training to handle different call types when volume is high. Cross training is not a “nice to have” but a “must have” for a 9-1-1 PSAP. One hour, a Telecommunicator may aid in delivering a baby, while the next they are helping locate a person lost in the woods, and at the same time get a call about a gas leak or fire, or need to dispatch responders to an automobile accident.

Depending on geography and size of municipalities, a PSAP may have only one or two persons staffing phones, while larger cities have multiple staff.  Either way, the same person needs to know how to handle any emergency. Some emergencies are more life threatening than others. Consider what happens when a tanker truck has an accident on a highway with several vehicles involved, injuries, and potential fire or explosion.  Or when someone has been shot, a child or elderly adult is missing, or a terrorist has set off bombs. No matter what the emergency, the same person has to stay calm, think on their feet and be capable to know what to do in all of them.

Use historical data to plan staffing needs? Not possible.  It may be very quiet one whole shift, but no one goes home, because at any given moment there could be a sudden rush of calls. While back up is available from a neighboring PSAP, some emergencies cross counties or municipalities and they may already have their hands full.  Scheduled vacation time off? While vacation time is planned, if staff  is needed to cover a large, or long term emergency, such as a snow storm, hurricane or other weather related issues, they can often work 3 shifts around the clock, or can be called back to work at any given time. Three are three shifts to cover every day, every 24 hour period.  If it’s your son’s or daughter’s high stake game, birthday, or a funeral, and no one is available to take your shift, you miss the function.

Does your call center have to manage stressed out and burned out employees? This is no different than in a 9-1-1 PSAP, however the causes and effects of the stress and burnout are quite different. At the same time, 9-1-1 work can also be very rewarding.  Helping a citizen scared about a situation, or saving someone’s life is often an incentive to continue the work. However, not everyone has ready-made coping skills to manage the ongoing stress, so skill building in this area is as essential in 9-1-1 PSAPs as any other contact center.

How about your strategy to handle social media contacts? PSAPs are also in the midst of determining a standardized approach when concerns are sent anonymously, or watch different portals for public safety concerns that are not necessarily called in. Even managing cell phones that are not with a major carrier can cause issues, as they don’t project a location signal.

Hopefully you won’t have a reason to call 9-1-1, but if you do, thank the Telecommunicator at some point for helping you, or a loved one, during an emergency.

Anne Nickerson is owner and founder of Call Center Coach, LLC. She consults with a wide variety of contact centers for coaching supervisors, work flow management, design and development of training and leadership skills. She can be reached by phone at 860-849-1618.