The Mission-Critical Resource Center

Episode 3: How 911 Can Thrive During and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic; Protecting Future 911 Resilience

MCP's informational podcast series features the firm’s subject-matter experts and other industry leaders exploring a wide range of timely topics pertaining to mission-critical communications.

The MCP Podcast Network, created by Mission Critical Partners, recently launched a three-part series entitled, “How the 911 Community Can Thrive During and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.” This episode explores how an emergency communications center (ECC) leader's mindset and skillsets can protect future 911 resilience.

An edited transcript is available below.

Panelists include:


Glenn Bischoff: Welcome to the MCP Podcast Network. I'm Glenn Bishop, and I will be your moderator. This episode is the third in a three-part podcast series that we'll examine how the 911 community can thrive during and beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. Today's focus is on strategies to protect future 911 resilience, which was the focus of the last podcast. Before we begin, I'd like to introduce our guests. Heather McGaffin is an MCP project manager who is a certified emergency number professional. She also is certified by the international academies of emergency dispatch as a tele communicator instructor and the association of public safety communications officials as a training officer. Heather started her career with Calvert County, Maryland Department of Public Safety, where she was assistant chief of communications. Jim Marshall is co-founder and director of the 911 training institute. Jim is a leading voice in the 911 community regarding tele communicator wellness. He co-chairs the national emergency number association working group that produced the nation's only standard on acute traumatic and chronic stress. Jim also is the co-editor of the resilient 911 professional guidebook. Welcome Heather and Jim.

Jim Marshall: Thank you, Glenn.

Heather McGaffin: Thanks Glenn.

Glenn Bischoff: So let's get the discussion started with our first topic question, which I'm going to ask both Heather and Jim to provide a quick review of the key messages from the last episode, Jim, why don't we start with you?

Jim Marshall: Sure. So I think what we were looking at among other things was the need for leaders and 911 personnel to practice what I call the resilient 911 mindset and the resilient 911 skillset. And that means we have to be able to recognize how we're reacting to stressors, how we're managing our thoughts, emotion, our behavior. And so that takes some equipment. And then we have to implement a skillset that allows us to not get hijacked by that stress, but be able to respond strategically so we have our best management of emotion, thought, behavior and manage our best performance as well. That was one of them at least from my perspective.

Heather McGaffin: I think another key takeaway from last episode is the idea of a holistic center. We're all leaders, whether we're putting on a headset and answering the calls every day, or we're managing the center as a whole. And just understanding that it's a collective approach to thriving and being resilient.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks, Heather. The next question, concerns strategies that 911 leaders can leverage to build on the foundations that were discussed in the last episode. Heather, why don't you start us off? What strategies are we talking about?

Heather McGaffin: Sure. So the strategies that I think leaders need to leverage coming into this, during this, and then of course maintaining once this is past are things that we probably have always been doing, but we need to be a little more intentional about doing or just being more present. It's kind of hard right now with social distancing to really go out there and have a cup of coffee. But the director of Charles County, Maryland's 911 center, Tony Rose, he told me one time, "Every day Heather, I go out with a cup of coffee and I sit down with my staff and I ask them, how did it go? How was last night?" So even for his folks that are working the overnight shift, he's present to them. And I think that is something that makes him a terrific leader.

I think it's folks doing things like that all across this country that are making center's thrive because they feel like there's a sense of leadership that is present, that is engaged and is invested. I think communication, I think understanding how people are motivated and motivating them that way, some are motivated by money, right? So they thrive when they get those pay raises or that special assignment pay. Others thrive when they get the gold star or the public recognition on Facebook or in the local newspaper. So I think you really just have to understand what your center and what your staff are looking for in a leader and play to that.

Glenn Bischoff: Awesome perspectives. Thank you, Heather. Jim, why don't you share a few awesome perspectives of your own?

Jim Marshall: Oh, the pressure. Okay. Well, I'll try to be as awesome as I can here. So look, when it comes down to folks, our leaders are already, I think typically feeling pretty overloaded. I've cherished the one-on-ones with leaders over the years and still do where they're able to unpack their own stress with me. And I know there's a lot of overwhelm already, so I want to be sure you're saying that I don't think the things I'm going to suggest are work you should be doing all on your own. I hope that you have some key support people who can with you implement some of these suggestions, but we need to embrace systematic care of the wellbeing of now professionals. We have to sustain the priority on optimizing what I call their health-driven peak performance. In other words, the more we support them being mentally and physically healthy, the more peak performance we're going to get from them, but we do it also because we value them.

So in the NENA standard that we're working to revise now as this episode airs—the standard on resilience and what that standard in 2013, when it first came out and what it proposes now, it includes some key elements of care that we want to urge leaders to embrace in their comm centers. The first one is work towards building out peer support programs. And we have more information on our website about that, but also a lot of our comms centers, they can't implement a program on their own because they are small, but they can team up with other centers in their area to do that. Does that make sense so far Glenn?

Glenn Bischoff: It absolutely does. Jim, thanks for those great perspectives. Is there anything else or should we move on to the next topic question?

Jim Marshall: Well, we can move on Glenn, but if you want awesomeness, then I think there's a couple more points that our leaders will appreciate. Can I unpack those for you?

Glenn Bischoff: Absolutely, we always strive for awesomeness.

Jim Marshall: All right. It's mission critical, right? Look here's the deal. It is mission critical that our leaders not only strive to build out peer support programs, but also that they encourage their people to use their EAPs—their employee assistance programs. We need to make sure that those mental health professionals are coming into the center, doing sit-alongs, learning from 911 pros themselves before they try counseling them. But we need our folks to encourage as leaders to encourage use the EAPs. The next thing is we need our leaders to know what evidence-based treatments for PTSD and depression there are in their community. In other words, ask your Employee Assistance Program providers who the clinicians are in the area that are experts in treatment of PTSD and depression and who get responders. We need to have their names on a list and our people need to get those names along with the information on their EAPs and last but not least Glenn, our folks need to be sure that their employees are getting resilience training to build that resilient 911 mindset and skillset. They've got to be trained in resilience.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks, Jim. So we've been talking a lot about strategies and what I'd like to ask Heather and Jim now is how those strategies can be used to prepare 911 leaders to be more proactive in the future in any adverse situation rather than reactive? And Heather, I'd like to start with you given your background earlier in your career as an ECC leader, what are your thoughts?

Heather McGaffin: Sure. Thinking back those several years ago, right? When I sat at a console and then as a shift supervisor, and then as an assistant manager of a center, the thing that I found and some of this was through, training throughout the industry and including some of that training that Jim offers was that the three realms, right? The personal, the professional and the center, everything really had to be in order. Those houses have to be in order for there to be success. And I think for me, that's the greatest strategy, and Jim has this really cool term that he's coined the health-driven peak performance. And I think that's really something that we should focus on. A strategy where we build our strategies from, if we focus on that and I'll let him kind of unpack that a little bit more and delve into that, but just making sure that everything is cohesive in all three arenas for that greatest success to really rock the console.

Jim Marshall: Yeah. Heather, I agree. And I guess I'm going agree to the idea of health-driven peak performance, because I do preach that. And this is to say that look, we don't expect our 911 leaders to be experts in everything. I'm certainly not an expert in everything. I've got my niche and you have yours. But for our leaders, what a burden to feel that they have to be in a way, the chief wellness officer for their comm centers, that they don't have to do this work on their own. What we want to do is share expertise. And when I talk about helping our mental professionals be achieving health-driven peak performance, what I mean is the more we're investing strategically, systematically in creating comprehensive resilience resources for them, the healthier they're going to be. So in training, we want to be able to make sure that they get equipped to relate to those stressors and deal with them really, really effectively. So then I can say more about that in terms of the training as you guys want.

Glenn Bischoff: Yes, absolutely. And that actually is a great segue to our penultimate topic question, which concerns the training resources that are available. Jim, why don't you start us off?

Jim Marshall: Sure. So at the Training Institute, our passion and  expertise is focused on optimizing the resilience of our telecommunicators because they matter as humans because their performance depends on it, their longevity, their retention. And so the way we address that is in two realms. So we help optimize the resilience of dispatchers by training them in core resilience skills in mindset. We also help build up peer support teams. So we train in peer support, which remember is everyone's responsibility. So we provide an organic peer support training for all the members of the comm center. But then we help build out peer support teams with select people who will be able to lean in more deeply, more strategically, more effectively. And so resilience for the individual, as Heather said earlier, really the key to having success as a team in caring for each other is practicing self-care ourselves.

So that's part of the resilience, but then what we also do, we know from research that the more competent dispatchers feel, the less anxious they feel managing some of the worst calls that they experienced. Suicide calls, calls involving mental illness for example. The more safe they're going to be in their own health, and the more effective they're going to be at the console. And so we create courses and systems for managing calls involving suicide and mental illness and specifically protocol for handling those calls. All of that protects the dispatcher's resilience. So it's one thing for us to say to leaders, "Hey, your people need to be resilient. They need to do well." It's one thing for our leaders to tell their people, to pull it together and stay strong during a ride like COVID-19 and beyond COVID-19, but really what we need to be sure we're doing is equipping folks, not just with the technology and the basic training and 911, but with resilience, skills, and mindset. And so that's what we're trying to do at the Training Institute.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks, Jim sounds terrific. Heather, what training resources would you recommend or training approaches to build on what Jim said?

Heather McGaffin: Sure. So I think sometimes when we think about training, we think about that time spent outside of the ECC or that time away from the console. And it's really hard to be doing that right now. So there are a lot of resources out there. There's a lot of webinars that are available. If your folks don't have access to the internet from their consoles, considering putting a standalone computer in your setting right now, of course, with all of the necessary cleaning supplies with it too, since it will most likely be shared, but just letting folks take part in some of these training programs that are being offered from NENA and ATCO. From Jim's group, the 911 Training Institute, and from Mission Critical Partners, our resource page, let them have that ability. I think for a lot of folks being educated on topics is a comfort, it's like that security blanket, if they know what some of the expectations are, if they know what the information is out there, I would also look to your public health officials, the memos that they're putting out.

Some people are comforted in knowing what the numbers are in their community. So just being transparent and sharing that information that you're getting from your allied agencies, from the law enforcement agencies you serve, the fire and rescue departments that you serve. Anything that they're putting out there for their folks ask for it to be shared with your folks within the comm center and just let them really take their own time to get through it. I don't think that this is a time for us to be saying by the end of the week, you need to do this and that, as far as training goes, just because of the increased policies that we're putting on them. And there is an expectation, right? For a timely understanding and comprehension of those, but just providing those alternative, maybe kind of out-of-the-box training solutions that they can kind of drive themselves, I think is really beneficial.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Heather. As we wrap up this podcast series, I'd like to get final thoughts from both Heather and Jim. Heather, let's start with you.

Heather McGaffin: Sure. So COVID-19 is something that we didn't plan for. A lot of the folks that we deal with on a day-to-day basis have really great continuity of operations plans and disaster recovery plans. And the piece that we find is often missing is pandemic response, right? We literally have people sitting at their kitchen tables taking 911 calls in a couple places in this country, some are in command vehicles working off of laptops. One of the things that we really have to understand is that our staff are always going to make it work because that is just who they are as telecommunicators. It's what sets them apart, in my opinion, and we, as leaders and managers have to make ourselves available, we have to make sure that we're keeping a pulse on these folks, understanding that a lot of us are working from home to comply with social distancing rules, make sure at the end of the shift we're calling them.

I think Jim brought up the point earlier, it takes about five minutes before the start of a shift or five minutes after the end of the shift. And I guarantee you that 10 to 20 minutes in between shift changes that you're going to be spending, engaging with your folks is a small fraction of your day, but it's really going to mean the most to them. And I think the other thing is just kind of not letting this go, right? When this is done, sitting down, having that hotwash, writing down those lessons learned, what did we do well? What didn't we do well? And then implementing change based off of what we learned, you can't grow if there was no challenge. And so just be eyes wide open to this now. And of course, as we move forward, because I think that's going to yield the best success and the best outcome for you as a leader, for the center and the people that you lead and for your community as a whole.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Heather.

Jim Marshall: Okay. Thank you, Glenn and Heather. Great thoughts there. So Nietzsche said to... Everybody's heard this, but Nietzsche said, "What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger." Well, I would like to say that depends. It depends on what we do with what could kill us. They can make us stronger. I believe most of our comm center personnel in the United States and Canada and Mexico, couldn't be stronger as we travel beyond COVID-19 depending on what we do. And here's what I want to suggest for leaders. Again, a theme for me is that we don't want to pile more on exhausted leaders already.

It's not necessarily about a lot more. It's about how we roll through it in leveraging subject-matter expertise that we don't have to possess personally. I want to just suggest this as a leader directly practice the open door policy and be sure your people know that you mean it and that they can believe it by how you convey your concern to them each day, if you're in a massively big center or a small one, and you're overwhelmed, our leaders can be overwhelmed either way, but I think letting your people know that you truly do want to hear from them, but then beyond yourself, how about tapping a team member at your comm center whose got a passion for the wellness of your people?

So that they can be sort of your chief wellness officer. Let's take a look at what that means, a standard is what those supports are, those resources that we talked about in the prior episode, let's look at some of the information that we're going to be providing for you on the Mission Critical Partners resource page, and then related to this, visit our website at the training [inaudible 00:18:30] as well, because we want you to be empowered as leaders to empower your people. And you can do it with the resources that are available. I just want to thank our leaders because it's incredible what they're trying to do, what they're trying to lead our personnel through and they deserve thanks not only the front liners on National Telecommunicators Week all of them together. Thank you.

Glenn Bischoff: Well, I'm afraid we've run out of time. I'd like to thank MCPs Heather McGaffin and the 911 training institutes, Jim Marshall, for their great insights during today's podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope to see you again for the next edition of the MCP Podcast Network.

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