The Mission-Critical Resource Center

Episode 2: How the 911 Community Can Thrive During and Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic: Rallying the 911 Resilient Mindset

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 make a difference in the well being of 911 center personnel.

An edited transcript is available below.

Panelists include:


Glenn Bischoff: Welcome to the MCP Podcast Network. I'm Glenn Bischoff and I will be your moderator. This episode is the second 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 how to rally the resilient 911 mindset for this purpose. 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 telecommunicator 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 telecommunicator 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: Well, let's get the discussion started with our first question, which is for Jim and Heather to provide a quick review of the key messages from the first podcast. Jim, why don't you start us off?

Jim Marshall: Sure. I think one of the things we've recognized is certainly our people, our 911 telecommunicators are generally resilient, gritty people. They have leaned in along with their leaders to do a very good job through COVID-19. We recognize that there are a really unique stressors as part of the COVID-19 experience. We looked at what those stressors were and then how they're responding to those, not just how they're struggling with them, but how they're becoming resourceful to deal with them. I'll leave the rest for Heather.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks, Jim. Heather, what are your thoughts on that?

Heather McGaffin: Sure. So, I couldn't agree more. And I think one of the things that we really should take away from episode one is definitely some of the tips and tricks that other folks across the nation are implementing in their centers. This isn't a time for us to kind of hold close vested what's working well, but definitely a time for us to be sharing resources and sharing ideas. So I think just understanding that and not feeling bad or being afraid to take somebody else's ideas and implementing it into your center for the best possible outcome.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks, Heather. The next question I have concerns examples of the resilient leaders mindset that could make a difference in the well being of an emergency communication centers personnel. Heather, why don't you start us off on this question.

Heather McGaffin: Sure. I think that's really important that leaders give it their all right now. The folks that we're leading need our all, and one of the things that I try to remember every single day, whether I'm I'm leading a scouting troop or whether I'm leading a team on a project, is to just be intentional as a leader. I think that's what people expect. I think that's what people need. So be intentional, be intentional in the way that you communicate, be intentional in your expectations. That's how people thrive, and there's a lot of training that's available out there. And so I'll let Jim talk about that a little bit more, but I think really to me, it's just waking up every day understanding that this is big, this is bigger than each of us as an individual and just taking those small chunks out of the elephant, so to speak. Don't try to conquer everything that needs to be conquered in this pandemic or in this crisis time or in any crisis, but be intentional with how you do kind of navigate those waters.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Heather. Jim, what are your thoughts?

Jim Marshall: Well, so I'm going to lean in on Michelle Lilly's research from Northern Illinois University, and she found that the biggest factor for telecommunicators being at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder was what she calls and what we call as clinicians, psychological inflexibility. They tell me a psychobabble like that, we need to unpack it. And so here's what psychological inflexibility is. It's basically the suck it up, emotional code. In other words, relating to life in all of our circumstances. I don't know what I'm feeling. I don't know what you're feeling. I don't really want to know. Let's just get the job done. Let's go home. If you can't handle it, get out. It's that old mindset. So for the resilient 911 mindset, and for the resilient leaders mindset, we shift the emotional code that says, we're in this together. It's okay to have any set of emotions. I'm there for you. You're there for us. We're not going to be holding hands, doing kumbaya in the middle of hot calls and tragedy going on in the comm center. That's not at all what we're talking about. We're talking about saying we're acknowledged together that we really need to lean in and have deeper supportive conversations about what this is like one on one with our people. And I have a little story about a leader in Michigan who's become a really kind of a legend. If you want me to share that.

Glenn Bischoff: Oh, I'd love to have you do that. Please do.

Jim Marshall: Okay. Once upon a time, there was a man named Lloyd Failing. He was the director of Genesee County 911 and Lloyd was a man's man. He should have died so many different ways because his health wasn't good and he seemed to live on and everyone was surprised that he could overcome so many medical problems. One day, just before his retirement, kind of sad, very sad. He was climbing the ladder of his house to clean the gutter out from rain stuff. And he got stung by a bee and Lloyd died. Now that's not the end of the story. That was very grievous. It was so impacting to his dispatchers in this comm center in Flint, Michigan that I got a call and they asked me to come to the center and sit with everyone in that center one by one. Here's what I'm getting at. Lloyd Failing wasn't quote, just a director. He was a director who was attuned to Heather's point. He was attuned to where his people were really at. Now this is hard to do and the bigger the comm center, the more you need a leadership team to help be attuned to your people. But when Lloyd was upset, his voice was very booming and an example of what I heard when I sat down one on one with people, I'm keeping this confidential so no one will ever know who I'm talking about. But Glenn, here's what happened. Somebody didn't handle a call well and his office was right outside of the comm center and they heard his voice, "Mary, get in here." It was, Oh no, I'm the next one in the barrel. I'm in trouble, it's Lloyd. The person came in there, not real name, Mary, sat down, shaking nervous. Lloyd says, listen to this, and he plays the call and it wasn't good. He stops it about 30 seconds in and says, what the hell is going on? What's going on for you? This isn't like you. What's going on? When he said what's going on and he looked at somebody, he wasn't saying rationalize your behavior. He's saying what's underneath the behavior? Tell me what's happening for you, I want to be supportive. What happened was people would open up to Lloyd and they would entrust him and he would look for solutions with them. Not to be a therapist, but to be a leader who is attuned. That's a resilient leaders mindset. It's one of attunement to the people, looking at them as humans and helping them sort out what they need to and sometimes it means referring them to professional care, to peer support. So I know that's long, but I think Lloyd represents what all of our leaders would want to be. Not rocking it exactly his way, but in their own way being super attuned.

Glenn Bischoff: Jim, that's a great story. And I really appreciate you sharing it with us. I'd like to now segue into the next topic question which concerns the mindset of front-line personnel and how that mindset differs from those of their leaders. Jim, start us off please.

Jim Marshall: Well, sure. First of all, every 911 comm center is, whether they like it or not, it's a 911 family. And if you think about it, like our natural families, we are families for better or for worse. Now that doesn't mean people are hanging out after work necessarily, but they're in such close confines that we affect each other deeply. So the resilient 911 mindset for the front-liner begins by saying we share ownership for how we create our culture. In other words, I know that my attitude, my behavior, affects the person next to me and I'm going to do my best to manage my mindset, my attitude, my behavior, and it's resilient. We'll talk about the skillset that helps it become resilient in a minute. But it's a shift to the way of thinking that says, okay, we each own our own stress. We manage it effectively. It's my job to help create a positive, respectful, supportive workplace and culture and the resilient 911 mindset for the frontliner and supervisors also, we're looking out for others to ensure that they have what they need as my peer, as my supervisors, so they can rock the console. So what that leads to, of course, then is that leaders need to provide the resilience resources that their people need to build this mindset.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Jim. Heather, what are your thoughts on the resilient mindset for front-line personnel?

Heather McGaffin: So, I often equate it to being on an airplane. When you're on an airplane and they're giving the instructions before take off and they talk about the masks, if you lose cabin pressure, and the one thing they always say is put your mask on first so then you can help others. So that you're not still in that anxious state, you're taking care of yourself before you take care of others. And I think that's really important, especially in this environment too. We're hit with a lot of different things and it's unknown. Every day is an unknown when we walk into the center, what are we going to be hit with today? And so making sure that we're taking care of ourselves and looking out for each other is super important. Also something that we say here a lot in our company is lead self first. If you lead yourself and you're doing that well then it's really easy to lead teams and then larger teams and then the company. And so just have that mindset, own it, own that we are all human and that mistakes are going to happen and when they do happen, own those. And I think that really helps to build that mindset of resiliency. It has to be a holistic approach or it doesn't help. Sometimes when you go into centers and people say, wow, their morale is really low here and I'm guilty. Guilty as charged. I would say that too when I sat at a console, the morale could be better. But then I always ask, because now I've been asked, what are you doing to help the morale? Everybody has to have ownership. From the person who's just been hired on to the 40 year veteran, to the leader, to the administrative and clerical staff. It is a holistic approach or it just doesn't work.

Glenn Bischoff: We've been hearing a lot in this episode about the resilient mindset, but there's also something out there known as the resilience skillset. And Heather, I like to have both you and Jim define for us what that means. And I'll start with you Heather.

Heather McGaffin: Sure. Being a leader is something that maybe it's not for everybody, and so when you do step into those leadership roles, you learn. You learn from how you were led, whether it was a positive experience and you emulate that or it was a negative experience and you do a 180 from that. But I really think the skill sets that are needed to really lead a group of folks are all things that we would expect from the people who we are led by. For me, I think that's transparency. It's communication. It's that intent that I talked about earlier, that intentional living. It's really just being able to get back into the trenches when you're needed. How many of us can honestly say as leaders, if we were needed back on the floor, on the operations floor, could we don a headset and jump right in there? That's just my thoughts and I would look to Jim to kind of to expand upon that a little bit more.

Glenn Bischoff: Thank you, Heather. Jim, please do so.

Jim Marshall: Sure. So the term resilient 911 skillset, I claimed that in the book, "The Resilient 911 Professional", to make a very specific point to leaders and to front liners as well in that is that it's one thing to say to people, come on, you have to behave well. You have to take ownership, which we're both agreeing to and making that point. Watch out for your attitude. Don't be toxic, but in order for people to succeed at that, if they have extraordinary stress, which 911 has, you have to equip them to manage what we now here you go for the seven syllable psychobabble buzzword here, what I call it, their psychophysiology. In other words, all that incoming stress that comes in through all the calls and managing field responders through the work of 911 changes what's going on hormonally and in the heart and then the brain and all the systems of the body so you're more at risk of getting jacked up and behaving in ways that are not helpful. The resilient 911 skillset is evidence-based training and resources that allow a dispatcher and a front liner and leaders in real time to notice distress and to activate skills that have been proven through research to be effective in doing what we call "resetting" that psychophysiology. What do we mean? Resetting the way we're thinking and then how we behave, how we manage emotion so that we're peak performing and that protects us physically, emotionally. It protects our relationships and it protects our performance. So that's the resilient 911 skillset. The way that I refer to it.

Glenn Bischoff: Heather and Jim, those are excellent perspectives and I think that there are a lot of people out there that might not be familiar with the term resilience skillset and now they are. So thank you for that. We're reaching the end of our episode here and we have one more topic question to get through, which is to discuss the lessons generated by the COVID-19 pandemic that can be leveraged going forward to enhance the mindsets and skill sets of emergency communication center leaders and personnel. And for that one I would like to first go to Jim.

Jim Marshall: Well I think you know a lesson to take away, and I haven't said this quite yet, so it's not so much a summary as it is a bottom line and that is our leaders out there are working so hard to do everything right. They're leaning in. The baseline dedication of 911 leaders in this country is ridiculously high. It's not so much trying harder. It's knowing what to do with the psychological impacts of this and that's what we're trying to offer in the series. The more our leaders understand what it means to have a resilient 911 mindset and a resilient 911 skillset, the more they can implement and relate to the people in a way that's going to be supportive. So not more effort per se, but more insight to guide that effort.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Jim. Heather, what are your thoughts?

Heather McGaffin: When I became a leader in a center, I just always thought to myself, I want to be the leader that people needed on their very first day, that I needed on my first day. I was lucky enough to have that and I wanted to emulate that, but just be the leader that people need when they first start out and be the leader that people need on their worst day. Because through this, people are going to have probably more bad days than if we didn't have this global emergency happening.

Glenn Bischoff: Thanks Heather. Well, I'm afraid we've run out of time. I'd like to thank MCP's Heather McGaffin and the 911 Training Institute's 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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