It's a high-stress job, one that demands its practitioners master a million details, and one in which policies and procedures keep changing all the time. Training employees to work in a 911 communications center is tough in just about any situation. But in a multiservice, multijurisdictional center, where one person might do three different jobs on three different days, training poses particular challenges.

For instance, there's the challenge of teaching linguistic skills — and those aren't the skills call-takers also need to help people who understand only Spanish or Korean.

“Police officers have their own language,” said Wanda McCarley, operations group manager at the Tarrant County 911 District in Fort Worth, Texas, and immediate past president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials. “It's codes, and sometimes it's clear voice with words like ‘DL’ for ‘driver's license,’ ‘perp’ for ‘perpetrator.’” Fire and ambulance services each use their own lingo as well, “so you really are speaking three different languages,” McCarley said.

On top of that, call-takers and dispatchers working in a consolidated center may face geographical puzzles. That's true at the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center, which serves first responders in Oak Park, River Forest and River Park, Ill.

“Each one of the villages addresses differently,” said Greg Riddle, the center's director. “So you don't have a continuity of address ranges. You don't have continuity of streets by name.” For instance, two buildings in neighboring villages might both be located at 123 Lake St. “You have to really be careful in making sure that you clarify the community along with the numeric and the name of the street,” he said.

In addition to address assignments, variations in terms and procedures might trigger confusion in a center serving multiple jurisdictions.

“One city's police may have one set of codes. Another city might have a different set,” said Angela Bowen, communications training coordinator for the Georgia Public Safety Training Center, which provides 40 hours of state-mandated training to local communications officers from throughout the state.

Ideally, agencies that consolidate their dispatch services will agree on policies and procedures, Riddle said. “One of the things you try to provide uniformity in is, do the departments respond to the same types of calls?” he said. “Such as vehicle lockouts — some departments respond and some don't.”

Despite efforts to get all agencies pulling in the same direction, inevitably some of them will hang onto certain non-standard practices. They might resist the change. Or one police department might be so small that it can send only one unit on a certain kind of call, where neighboring departments routinely send two. Dispatchers must remember all of these idiosyncrasies.

The best way to make sure telecommunicators retain and correctly apply all the detailed information that pertains to the job, experts say, is to train them thoroughly.

“The key is just to learn the things to begin with. Then it's not so hard to remember which procedures to use when,” Bowen said.

Some of the best tricks for learning are the same ones that work in elementary school — “like flash cards,” Bowen said. “Some will record the information on an audiotape or MP3 and listen to it while falling asleep, to imprint it on their memory,” he added.

“The key there is just to keep their skill levels up and deal with all the changes,” said Tom Hanson, executive director of the Emergency Communications Center for Charlottesville, the University of Virginia and Albemarle County, Va. Public safety agencies constantly are changing their policies and procedures, and each time they do, the communications center must get the word out and enforce the change, he said, “so staying up with those is obviously a big deal.”

The training protocol for new emergency telecommunicators varies from state to state and center to center. In Texas, for example, it starts with at least 40 hours of classroom training, McCarley said. In contrast, training at the West Suburban Consolidated Dispatch Center starts with three weeks in the classroom, Riddle said.

New telecommunicators at the Department of Public Safety Communications in Fairfax County, Va., attend 10 weeks of formal training, the first eight based on a local curriculum and the last two devoted to a state-mandated program, said Steve Souder, the center's director.

Chris Fischer, interim director of the North East King County (Wash.) Regional Public Safety Communications Agency presently under development, recommends using simulation and practical problem-solving in the classroom. “There's a lot of technology involved, obviously, and we have to teach them the technology,” she said.

Fischer, who starts a term as president of APCO this August, spent 20 years as director of Valley Communications Services, another consolidated center in King County. One thing she learned there was the value of sending trainees out of the classroom and onto the operations floor, to watch experienced call-takers at work.

“We started interleaving observation time with classroom time,” Fischer said. “It was validating what they were learning in the classroom when they went out on the floor, so they could see how it really applied to the call.”

Watching call-takers also eased the transition for trainees when they progressed from handling simulated calls in the classroom to taking real-life calls. “That adjustment is pretty hard,” she said.

Trainees also benefit from observation in the field. “People go out and ride with squads, and they learn from listening and watching,” McCarley said.

When new recruits complete the classroom training, many centers put them to work as call-takers-in-training. A communications training officer supervises each one and offers continual feedback.

“They do that in a very controlled environment, with a fully-certified call-taker/dispatcher at their elbow to listen to what they're doing and to correct them if any errors have occurred, and to evaluate their performance on a daily basis, so that mistakes that are made do not occur again,” Souder said. In Fairfax County, that mentoring period lasts 10 weeks.

Once an employee graduates to independent call-taker, he or she might specialize in that job or move on to train as a police and/or fire and rescue dispatcher.

Moving cross-trained employees from job to job is one way to help them remember the ins and outs of the different agencies they serve. “We rotate our folks on a daily basis. So every day, hopefully, you're working a different radio so you can keep your skill levels up,” Hanson said.

Frequent rotation also helps employees keep abreast of new procedures in all of the services and jurisdictions, Fischer said. “To be able to see a memo come out is one thing, if it changes something. Being able to actually work the change is pretty important.”

Besides learning how to take calls and dispatch, 911 telecommunicators often have to acquire additional skills. For example, anyone who interacts with the FBI's National Crime Information Center requires special training, McCarley said. “If you're doing data entry, entering stolen items and warrants and the like, it's a week-long course.” Each state's crime database system has its own training requirements as well, she said.

“If you're dispatching fire calls, you're probably going to want some NIMS [National Incident Management System] training,” McCarley added. Also, many call-takers learn how to help callers with medical emergencies, talking them through the Heimlich maneuver or CPR until help arrives. They also might learn hostage negotiation.

All of this training takes time and costs money — sometimes more than centers can afford. “By the time we hire an employee and take almost a year to train him, it's cost us about $30,000 per employee,” Hanson said.

“When the budget gets cut, it's always the dispatch training budget that gets cut first,” McCarley said. “We're usually pitted against squad cars, body armor, bullets for the range — those kinds of issues.”

And not all centers can train new recruits or offer continuing education in-house. “There are some areas of Texas where training is really hard to come by,” McCarley said. “The second issue is getting your people off shift to train.”

“The smaller centers are very challenged, because they only have so many people to go around. And when you pull them off the radio or off the phone, somebody's got to be there,” Fischer said.

Online training could provide an answer to that problem. “My sense is, that will become more and more critical,” Fischer said. While telecommunicators still have to leave their stations to take online training, “they don't have to travel, and they don't have to stay overnight, and you don't have to pay for meals,” she said, adding that such training might keep them off shift for just four hours rather than two days.

Officials at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center hope to get an online training module up and running by the end of the year, Bowen said. While that won't cut the number of hours trainees spend at the center taking the state-mandated course, it will let them learn the basics on their own and use classroom time to focus on the practical aspects of the job.

Despite all the challenges of training emergency telecommunicators, especially in a consolidated environment, center operators agree that a thorough training program is essential, both to make sure the job is done right and to retain employees in a high-stress, high-turnover field.

“The more comfortable they are doing the job, the more likely I think they are to stay in our industry,” Fischer said. “I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get them trained, so that they know their business and so that they will stay in our business.”

BEST PRACTICES FOR TRAINING TELECOMMUNICATORS IN A CONSOLIDATED 911 CALL CENTER

  • Encourage jurisdictions that share a call center to develop uniform codes and procedures.
  • Get the word out quickly about all changes in policies and procedures.
  • Use flash cards and audio recordings to review information.
  • Use simulation and practical problem solving in the classroom.
  • Alternate in-class lessons with observation of call-takers at work.
  • Have trainees ride along with first responders in the field.
  • Have each new call-taker work one-on-one with an experienced mentor.
  • Rotate employees from job to job daily so their skills stay fresh.
  • Use online courses to make training less expensive and time-consuming.