One day several years ago, Jaci Fox, the operations manager for the Medicine Hat (Alberta) Regional 911 Center, was mulling how to keep her people performing at a high level, which is not an easy thing to do in the high-stress crucible of the typical 911 communications center. Then it came to her: stickers. She would festoon evaluation sheets with the types of stickers that elementary school students receive when they turn their homework in on time or are able to differentiate between an adjective and an adverb.

The reaction at first was underwhelming, on the level of, “You've got to be kidding.” But as time went on, a funny thing happened: Fox's team began to respond, to the point that when she temporarily stopped awarding the stickers, the outcry was swift and loud.

“People who scored [highly] on their evaluations would come up to me and say, ‘We want our stickers,’” Fox said.

Regardless of how it is done, it is imperative that managers find a way to make employees understand how they are performing and feel they are valued. This is true in all businesses, but especially so in the 911 world, where life-and-death outcomes often hinge on the decisions that call-takers and dispatchers make.

“You have to make sure they get constant feedback and validation that they're doing a good job and retraining if they're not,” said Chris Fischer, executive director of the North-East King County (Wash.) Regional Public Safety Communications Agency and the current president of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). “You don't want them to walk in thinking, ‘What's going to hit me today?’ They have enough stress based on the types of calls they're taking.”

And plenty hits them. Dispatchers 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.

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 that the volume of emergency calls is increasing. According to the recent study, 83% of 911 centers reported an increase in the number of dispatched calls over the previous three years. “They have to ask to go to the bathroom or take their breaks, because they can't leave their positions,” Atkins said. “They're constantly tied to the dispatch console.”

Loredana Elsberry is APCO's communications center and 911 services manager in charge of the association's Project RETAINS program, which was created to develop best practices for hiring and retaining communications-center personnel. According to Elsberry, motivation begins with communication. And, while it is vitally important for managers to give clear direction and feedback, it's as critical for them to reciprocate by giving their employees a chance to be heard.

“They're not always going to make everyone happy; that's the reality in any work environment,” Elsberry said. “We can't expect a communications center to be different in that respect. But the fact is that, if employees are given the opportunity to say they're unhappy about x, y, z, management has the chance to say, ‘We hear what you're saying … and if you have suggestions, why don't you submit them to us?’”

The Phoenix Fire Department did just that, with excellent results, according to Elsberry. The department was planning to install a new phone system, and management had narrowed the possibilities to two systems that had similar capabilities and would satisfy the department's needs. Before any final decisions were made, employees were given an opportunity to vote on the matter and — more importantly — the department bought the system chosen by the majority.

“That might not seem like a significant thing, but it opened lines of communication, which goes back to the fundamentals of management and leadership, which is to make sure that employees feel that they're part of it,” Elsberry said.

Another tactic that might not seem like a very big thing — but is in reality — concerns the attire worn by 911 center employees. At the Western Will County (Ill.) Communications center — a consolidated public-safety answering point (PSAP) — dispatchers and call-takers are encouraged to wear shirts provided by the 10 fire departments served by the center. “It's like pride of ownership; they are part of that fire department,” said Steve Rauter, the center's executive director. “It's another form of recognition.”

Recognition is a very big deal, because there isn't much of it from the public. 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.

“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.”

Recognition takes many forms. Medicine Hat's Fox doles out stickers. Other managers present awards and certificates. Food always is a big winner. Several managers reported that they pull out all the stops during National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, which this year begins on April 12.

Then there's Atkins' center, which buys candy at a local warehouse store and sells it at the center. Profits are used to buy pizza for the staff. Once, they saved enough money to buy a flat-screen television for the break room.

Each year, the center selects a theme for telecommunications week. One year it was a Western theme, and a few “very talented” employees used cardboard and paint to turn the center into the OK Corral. All dispatchers and call-takers were given saddle bags, which were stuffed each day with a prize. “It could be as simple as a bottle of water and a flavor packet, but every day they got a surprise,” Atkins said.

In addition, managers hosted a cookout for the staff, reaching into their own pockets to kick in $40 each to help pay for it all. “We turned it into a heckuva week,” Atkins said.

While recognition from immediate supervisors such as this goes a long way toward keeping 911 center employees pumped up, promoting the exploits of call-takers and dispatchers up the chain of command to police and fire commanders resonates even more, according to Jones.

“Managers really must convince their supervisors, their bosses … that those employees are doing well,” Jones said. “So when a chief does walk through, he means it when he says he's heard numerous good reports. He's not just making it up because he's politically astute at handling large groups.”

Jones added that reaching out to the public is vital in terms of motivating dispatchers and call-takers. For example, speaking engagements arranged through local entities such as chambers of commerce, fraternal organizations and parent-teacher groups can be effective. Indeed, such engagements offer an attractive two-for-one: not only do they provide an opportunity to praise the work of those who, quite literally, are on the line, but they also give officials a chance to educate the public on how to best use the 911 system.

Managers also should develop a working relationship with the local media. That's not always easy to do, Jones acknowledged. “In a public-safety environment, unfortunately, too often there are barriers to working with the media, for valid reasons.”

Nevertheless, he stressed that cozying up to the media is essential to motivating dispatchers and call-takers. All too often, the only time a 911 center is mentioned on the news is when a screw-up has occurred.

“They constantly need to promo their people through the media,” Jones said. “There are agencies that give out awards to dispatchers for savings lives, but they don't tell the media about it.”

HOW TO CREATE AND RETAIN GOOD EMPLOYEES

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 centers You won't please everyone, but all will appreciate the effort.

Avoid burnout

Be cognizant of the number of tasks you're asking them to do at any given time. Consider rotating employees through tasks to keep things fresh.

Keep them in the loop

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

Fully staff

You'll never fully eliminate overtime, but reducing it will improve attitudes.

Empathize

Making overtime voluntary, rather than mandatory, when possible shows you respect that they have lives and that you're trying to work with them.

Promote

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