Overcoming Adversity in Public Safety Communications

[Originally published in the September/October 2022 PSC magazine.]

By Angela R. Batey

On Christmas night, 1776, against all conventional wisdom, General George Washington crossed the Delaware River with more than 2,000 cold, hungry and ill-equipped soldiers during a severe winter storm. Having suffered a series of defeats, the Continental Army, made up of citizen soldiers with little training and even less food, was no match for the powerful British Red Coats, at least on paper. But, because of his vision and decisiveness, Washington was able to eventually defeat the British, and the rest is history.

What does George Washington have to do with public safety communications in the 21st century? I argue his example is exactly what we need to meet the challenges facing us today. The last three years have seen unprecedented change. A global pandemic and one of the tightest job markets in history have left ECCs much like the Continental Army — underfunded, understaffed and facing seemingly overwhelming challenges that threaten their chances for success. It is times like these that call for bold thinking and unwavering leadership. Had Washington done what was expected, he would have stayed in camp, kept his troops as warm as possible, and fed them whatever they could find to rebuild strength and morale. Instead, he seized the opportunity to surprise the enemy and earn an unexpected but badly needed victory.

Today, ECCs badly need a victory to overcome the staffing crisis facing our industry. Yet, many jurisdictions continue to use recruiting methods and hiring practices that are outdated and ineffective in today’s job market. “The way we’ve always done it” does not work and is a cowardly fallback position for the timid or uninformed.

Although staffing has been a perpetual problem within emergency communications, an unemployment rate of 3.6% makes competition stronger than ever for the few job applicants suitable for a position in this industry. Some agencies are hampered by traditional hiring practices that can take months, and the best applicants have found other jobs before the process is complete. Others cling to outdated policies regarding tattoos, facial hair, piercings and even educational requirements that prevent them from considering otherwise qualified applicants. It is time for a change.

Change is not easy. Change takes bold and decisive leaders willing to look beyond the way things have always been done to see what is possible. Bold leaders respect tradition but are willing to try something new in the best interest of their organizations. What changes can ECC leaders make today to address the current crisis and to prepare for the future?

We can work with our agency’s human resources director or other county or municipal leadership to revise the hiring process. I am not suggesting cutting corners but rather that we seek ways to improve efficiency and reduce wasted time.

  • First, we can consider changes to policies that prohibit visible tattoos, long beards, unusual hair colors, facial piercings or those that require higher education. Unless there is a safety issue or they cause a distraction to other employees, does an individual’s personal appearance really affect their ability to do the job? Does a college degree prepare someone to answer and respond to emergency calls, or would be better off creating apprenticeships within the ECC?
  • Second, we can join other agencies to recruit and hire staff. Joint job fairs with nearby agencies can allow candidates to complete a generic application and have a preliminary panel interview on the spot with representatives from the various agencies. Interested agencies could then schedule a follow-up interview, eliminating the wait time candidates normally face after submitting applications.
  • Finally, we can find ways to make job sharing between agencies a reality. Admittedly, differences in equipment, policies and practices present challenges for employees who float between agencies based on staffing needs, but those challenges might present other opportunities for innovation. If fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies can effectively work together in mutual aid situations, why can’t ECCs?

Washington’s example provides a blueprint for ECC leaders facing today’s staffing crisis. Overwhelming odds require that we see the possible and seize the unexpected but badly needed victory with the same bold, decisive and courageous leadership.

Angela R. Batey, RPL, CPE, is the Director of the Office of Professional Standards at the Georgia Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, Georgia. She has worked in public safety communications for 34 years and is the President of APCO International.