It starts harmlessly enough
Jim Gillihan was the chief dispatcher at the Lawrence, KS, Police Department back before there was such a creature as a “9-1-1 center manager.” For that matter, he was there before Lawrence even had 9-1-1. (The department did have mechanized vehicles and running water, however.) During his roughly 35-year tenure at this hometown to the University of Kansas, Jim was relentlessly active in Kansas APCO. Actually, before APCO it was KLERA (Kansas Law Enforcement Radio Association), and Jim served in all of the elected positions. While not always quiet, Jim was unassuming about himself — but not about public safety communications. Jim was always looking at and working on ideas, suggestions, plans and improvements. These were what today we would euphemistically call “opportunities.” And it always began in a conversation with “Well, I was just a-thinkin’ …” delivered in a sort of imitation hillbilly drawl. But Jim was already way ahead of “just a-thinkin’” by the time he started talking.
Being an employee of a public safety agency is a pretty good job — not highly profitable, but satisfying and rewarding, nonetheless. As I’ve mentioned before, an agency may expend more than 90% of its budget on personnel services. For anyone involved with issues of contemporary technology, this can make the job a real challenge. For all the reasons we’ve also discussed formerly, including operational goal setting, technical planning and financial forecasting, it is often difficult for public safety communications administrators to meet the basic goals of center management. Is is also difficult to embrace the climate of continual change that is both inevitable and, we hope, productive. So, when someone who was “just a-thinkin’” pipes up with a suggestion about a problem we didn’t even know we had, it isn’t always particularly welcome. After all, because center managers solve problems, aren’t they the ones who get to identify them, too?
As it turns out (and as Radioman finally “discovers” after about 20 years on the job), nothing stays the same forever. Equipment may continually operate with technical proficiency, but its use (and the associated system) seems to be constantly changing in function or context. So what is Radioman Reality, after all?
When it comes to change, the simple reality is that Radioman can often spot it a mile away. Whether these changes arise from adjustments or agency policy, they are the result of someone who was “just a-thinkin’,” or they arrive as regulatory mandates from people far away who are presumably much smarter. Radioman often has a technical foresight bordering on second sight. After all, to a technical person, changes involving a technical system are often obvious. But the other half of this reality is surreal: Occasionally, agencies embark on a course of change stimulated solely by the confusion of “motion” with “action.” In these cases, poor Radioman will be led screaming (to himself) and kicking (only on the inside) toward an equipment change-out or a system replacement that he never will understand.
The missing part of this reality puzzle is that Radioman can, and rightfully should be, a “change agent” partner within the public safety agency. (This part is not a triumph in logic.) Additionally, though, (this is the hard part) Radioman should bring to the table a detached, objective viewpoint about technical issues (easy for Radioman) and agency operations (policy matters) that he is in a unique position to view. How many times, during the course of either a routine or late-night repair, does Radioman think of an idea, no matter how simple, for improving operations or furthering the cause of the agency?
It seems simple enough, this concept of helping to promote change for the sake of improvement, but often Radioman is seen only in the context of his own business interests or his involvement in the technicians’ parallel universe. Overcoming this stigma is the hard part, but it’s potentially rewarding for both the center manager and Radioman’s commercial interests. So maybe we could take a cue from Jim Gillihan when we introduce our discussion with “Well, I was just a-thinkin’ …” And don’t forget to speak slowly.
Dunford, MRT’s public safety consultant, is technical services consultant for the Lenexa, KS, Police Department. He is a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials — International. You can email Dunford at [email protected].