It’s not easy working in a 911 communications center. Dispatchers and call-takers routinely deal with domestic violence, lost and missing children, people who believe they want to commit suicide and people who are incoherent or unintelligible—often because they are drunk or high on drugs. On top of that, they get abuse all day long, said Lisa Atkins, communications manager for the Irving (Texas) Police Department.

“It’s a very thankless job. They get yelled at, cussed at. Nobody calls 911 because they’re having a good day,” Atkins said.

Generally, those on the front line—such as police, fire and emergency medical personnel—reap the public’s adoration and admiration. Little thought is given to the person on the other end of the phone who took the emergency call, processed the information quickly and efficiently, and then dispatched the proper equipment and personnel to the scene. In many cases, the telecommunicator has the additional crucial task of keeping the caller calm and focused until help arrives.

Motivating 911 dispatchers and call-takers is becoming a bigger issue. According to an APCO report released last month, the turnover rate among telecommunicators nationwide currently stands at 19%, a 3% jump since the initial study was conducted in 2005. The highly stressful nature of 911 calls eventually leads to burnout. Adding to the stress is the continual scrutiny dispatchers and call-takers find themselves under--with good reason, as their decisions can make the difference between life and death.

That’s why experts recommend that 911-center managers make it a point to recognize jobs well done.

“When you don’t have recognition, you’re not as motivated as you should be,” said Rick Jones, operations director for the National Emergency Number Association.

Steve Souder, the director of Fairfax County (Va.) 911, agreed. “These are the most unsung of heroes … and you cannot praise them enough. Recognition, not salary, is the thing that people crave the most.”

The following are tips from the experts on how to effectively motivate dispatchers and call-takers:

Set the tone: People want to be part of something that’s good.

Hire well: Often, centers hire “maybes” simply to fill a chair. Don’t do it.

Train and re-train: Technology is changing how work is done. If employees aren’t trained, they’re not prepared. If they’re not prepared, they won’t perform at a high level, which destroys motivation.

Show appreciation: ‘Attaboys’ create relationships, which are crucial to a well-functioning center.

Mentor: Head off hazing rituals—no matter how well-intentioned—that new employees often endure. They breed resentment.

Listen: Give employees a say in their work environment, shift assignments and what they wear on the job.

Create a good environment: Do they have ergonomic chairs? Desk lamps? What’s the temperature in the center? You won’t please everyone, but all will appreciate the effort.

Avoid burnout: Be cognizant of the number of tasks you’re asking employees to do at any given time. Consider rotating employees through tasks to keep things fresh.

Keep them in the loop: Give employees a heads up when center policy is about to change. Better still, give them the opportunity to weigh in.

Fully staff: Managers never will eliminate overtime completely, but reducing it will improve attitudes.

Empathize: Making overtime voluntary, rather than mandatory, when possible shows that managers respect that employees have lives and that the managers are trying to work with them.

Promote: Employees like hearing managers sing their praises, but they love it when they sing to others, especially commanders, the media and the public.

For an expanded article on the topic, see the March 2009 print edition of Urgent Communications.