By Audrey Fraizer
Make no mistake about it: Stephan Bunker wants the best qualified individuals possible answering 9-1-1 calls and dispatching response, and the best qualified individuals possible supervising those who have those responsibilities.
But that doesn’t mean finding or defining the “perfect” individual, because perfect doesn’t exist. It does mean making accommodations so everyone has an equal chance at the ballpark.
“We are all looking to recruit, hire, train, and retain qualified individuals in our agencies, especially with the huge turnover most of us have,” he said. “And it could be the accommodations we make that help us hang onto people.”
Bunker was prefacing his talk “ADA Compliance for the Communication Center Manager” at the NAVIGATOR 2013 conference held in Salt Lake City; and while the subject may seem to address a certain “group” of individuals, the issues discussed present a universal approach to hiring and developing any employee.
After all, shouldn’t every agency or business have job descriptions, policies and procedures, open dialogue between employer and employee, and multitask adjustable chairs or consoles in place?
Of course, but that doesn’t mean the agency is ADA compliant. The ADA—or the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)—goes far beyond the more commonly recognized issues surrounding building access obstacles.
The ADA aims at preventing discrimination and counteracting distinctions that establish “certain” group kind of thinking and categorizing people as such. The law, which went into effect in 1992, provides equal protection under the law and equal opportunity. The ADA section on employment forbids discrimination against “qualified individuals with disabilities.”
So, why is a 60-minute talk about the ADA vital for communication centers?
“Because ADA for a PSAP is a topic seldom discussed at length,” said Bunker, former training, certification, and compliance officer for Maine’s centralized 9-1-1 system.
And that can be to an agency’s distinct disadvantage.
The ADA defines “disability” and distinguishes between what’s included and what’s not in the definition.
For example, ADA covers a person with a disability that limits major life activities such as hearing, walking, and speaking; the law does not protect a person with a prison record or quick temper (without a documented psychological condition), despite potential consequences for that individual regarding employment.
The ADA outlines the accommodations an employer can make for the individual to accomplish the job’s essential functions.
For example, a person with a documented life-altering disability may request—and receive—modifications to the physical workspace, revised training programs, and a break from full-time work schedules to part-time. An employer is required to accommodate a known disability of a qualified applicant or employee, but is not required to make accommodations for situations the employer might anticipate, although at the time, don’t exist.
There are plans an agency can put in place, however, that protect an employer in the hiring process and help the applicant determine if the job is suited to interests and abilities. Many elements in the process work much the same way they do in the overall employment process.
For example, while the ADA does not require job descriptions, written job descriptions do establish what the person must be able to accomplish on the job; an employer should be sure to describe the job’s essential functions completely, objectively, and in enough detail to support why they are important to the overall job duties, Bunker said.
“Job descriptions are the unsung task that gets the little bright blue star,” Bunker said. “You don’t have to have them, but it sure helps potential applicants decide whether they can meet the job’s requirements.”
Maine’s 26 PSAPs use the same application that’s been “tweaked” according to the specific needs of that agency, generated from a statewide job task analysis (JTA) for the position of dispatcher/calltaker.
Bunker also recommends an employer ask qualified applicants for a dispatcher or calltaker job to sit at a console prior to a formal interview. Since an employer cannot ask whether a person has a disability—even if the disability is obvious—or needs accommodations, the chance to observe the job in action gives applicants a window for a decision and invites a “two-way” dialogue.
If the qualified applicant hired requires accommodations, the request and reason for the subsequent modification must be kept confidential and, as Bunker recommended, ADA training for dispatchers, calltakers, and their supervisors should include issues that must not be disclosed or discussed openly.
“You must be very cautious about disclosing any information because of the potential damage it could cause the agency and individual,” he said. “Any harassment must be nipped in the bud. That can only lead to bad feelings and retaliation.”
The accommodation doesn’t have to break the bank, either. An employer can’t use dollars as a defense, although the employer has a final choice among the appropriate accommodations available. An employer, for example, can pick the $350 multitask chair rather than the chair that costs double, as long as the less expensive model meets the individual’s requirements for modification. An employer is not required to make an accommodation if it would impose an “undue hardship” on the operation of the employer’s business.
Bunker said he could easily fill a weeklong workshop with the amount of information he has learned from studying the ADA in preparation for NAVIGATOR and serving as a member of the Maine Commission for the Deaf, Hard of Hearing, and Late Deafened.
“I’m a proponent of ADA,” he said. “But there are many parts of the law an agency should know because there are parts that make it a specialty all its own.”
About the speaker: Stephan M. Bunker recently retired from the Maine 911 bureau where he was the manager for statewide dispatcher training and certification. He now consults for police and fire dispatch training (Maine 911 LLC). The recipient of the 2012 Dr. Jeff Clawson Leadership Award, he is also an IAED™ instructor for ETC, EPD, and EFD in the U.S. and Canada. Contact him at: email@example.com