In our first webinar event of 2019, our subject-matter experts discussed the trends to watch in the coming year and at the top of that list was the challenge agencies and leadership face when staffing public safety answering points (PSAPs). Today, nearly three-quarters of the way through the year, staffing remains one of the top two things that keeps PSAP managers up at night. If you ask a group of PSAP leaders what word comes to mind when they think of staffing, most of them aren’t going to say “good.” Instead, you’ll hear things like “tired,” “revolving door,” “challenging,” and “stressful.”
Staffing struggles are not new. They have plagued public safety agencies for a long time and instead of improving, they seem to be worsening for many agencies across the country and the lack of available, qualified staff makes it difficult for PSAPs to keep up with call volume. During our August webinar, we asked a group of public safety leaders if actual PSAP strength can meet the call-answering needs of the center – 75% of them said no. When a 911 call goes unanswered, the results can be devastating and, as new technology and media make their way into the PSAP environment, it becomes even more imperative to not only make sure PSAPs are staffed adequately, but that the staff is well-trained and supported by leadership.
WHAT IS WORKFORCE OPTIMIZATION?
According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), Americans place an average of 240 million 911 calls each year. Finding people to answer those calls is one thing, but training and retaining those who excel in the position is an entirely different animal. Workforce optimization is a holistic way of thinking about staffing. One that, ideally, can help PSAP leaders address today’s staffing challenges while also preparing for the future of emergency response.
Workforce optimization embraces four core pillars – recruiting, hiring, training and retention – that highlight the impact of internal, external and municipal/jurisdictional factors that impact staffing and operations. Each of the pillars offers its own solutions to overcoming a specific obstacle to adequate PSAP staffing.
Pillar #1 – Recruiting
Traditionally focused on finding people with excellent verbal, typing and multi-tasking skills, today’s telecommunicators need to be able to do so much more. The ability to respond to visual cues and analyze data are key skills to look for in potential candidates.
In order to find candidates with the skills telecommunicators will need now and into the future, it’s important to widen the net and change where we’re looking for candidates. In our survey of webinar attendees, a combined 40% of respondents said they leverage in-person recruiting at high schools and colleges, as well as recruiting events like job fairs. As PSAP leaders seek candidates with more advanced technical and analytical skills, they should also be changing where they look for those candidates by expanding their recruiting strategy to include social media, online job boards and other digital means.
Pillar #2 - Hiring
On average, it can take an agency anywhere from two to five months to complete the hiring process for one candidate. Not only do agencies need to change where they’re looking for potential candidates, but when they find them it is imperative that they shorten the hiring process.
How does this work? Here are some places to start:
- Make the process more user-friendly by posting jobs online
- Develop standard applications that can be filled out quickly and easily both online and in-person
- Collaborate with other regional PSAPs to create a common online and in-person application process and candidate pool
- Establish new screening workflows, policies and procedures that help to speed up the hiring process
- Modify outdated eligibility requirements
- Require candidates to participate in an observation session to gain a real-life perspective into the telecommunicator role as part of the hiring process
Pillar #3 – Training
During our August webinar, 50% of survey respondents said new hires weren’t making it through training due to failure to meet position expectations. What steps can PSAP leaders take during training and beyond to overcome this?
- Develop well-designed training programs, including advanced training for training officers that promotes consistent training application
- Implement expanded training curriculums for current staff to encourage professional development and help grow skill sets
- Develop quality assurance programs and implement data-driven metrics for staff evaluation
- Offer an ongoing mentoring program that is separate from onboarding programs with the training officer
Pillar #4 – Retention
This is, arguably, the most important pillar of workforce optimization. However, most agencies are not placing enough focus on employee retention programs and 50% of webinar attendees said this is the pillar that they struggle with the most. One of the simplest, most straightforward places to begin to shift focus to employee retention is by developing careers paths for telecommunicators, PSAP managers and other staff. By outlining these paths from the outset, new hires have a clear vision of their role within the agency and how they can grow professionally. For those who may not be interested in climbing the ladder, instituting special assignments and roles within a project can keep employees engaged.
Are there other ways to improve employee retention? Yes. Even if agencies are unable to raise salaries offering incentives and perks, like gym memberships, mental health resources, retirement packages and improved benefits can make it worthwhile for employees to come, and stay, on board. Another option may be exploring ways to reduce call volume in centers, which would reduce the number of trained telecommunicators needed on-site. Could there be an option to use an online form or social media to report things like road closures, instead of calling 911 or a non-emergency number? If so, it may also be possible to create a specialized remote-work position for someone to handle distributing and responding to these messages.
WHERE TO START
PSAPs that successfully optimize their workforce have thought strategically about how to attract, hire, train and retain talent. A PSAP-focused strategic plan can serve as a roadmap to helping public safety organizations overcome their staffing struggles and implement effective programs that identify the right people and put them in the right seats while making a conscious effort to sustain and retain them.
For more information on workforce optimization and how this holistic approach to staffing demands and PSAP efficiencies can help your agency, visit us online to view a recording of our August webinar on workforce optimization and download our white paper on the topic.