Experience Knows Best

Heidi DiGennero

How many of you work with people who have been there since the dawn of dirt? How many of them do you think need to go, just retire already? Think their brain has checked out ahead of their actual retirement date? How many keep a simultaneous clock counting down until when so-and-so retires so you can plan an after-retirement party to celebrate their leaving? Yeah, we all know or knew people like them.

What about the people with several years, a decade, or more time in? Or have a couple years, some of them hard years, under their belt? What do they all have in common?

Experience. Words frequently repeated to trainees are “it will come with exposure” and “as you gain experience.” There is no substitute for experience. Until your butt is in the hot seat with the world crashing spectacularly around you and YOU are expected to know what to do, you won’t understand experience and what it can teach you.

Don’t misunderstand me; simulations are great to create a foundation for you. Tabletop exercises, asking what if?, or even reading policies you haven’t seen since they were put into effect DO help you. They give you an idea of how things should go, what needs to be done, and keep the panic/anxiety/stress monster at bay. Which allows you to fake it until you make it.

Let’s be clear. We don’t want you to fake it—we want you to know what to do. But when you don’t know, you need a starting point. Find your starting point and that’s where experience becomes a factor. Examples: Okay, the last time I had a fight with a ridiculous number of people I called SaveMyButt County next to us and they sent us people. If I have another big fight with weapons, let’s call SaveMyButt County again. Or let’s say the summer kids camp is turning into a mass casualty from heat exposure. SuperRich County has an MCI trailer and they offered it the last time the camp had a problem, so let’s call SuperRich County. If there isn’t already a policy or MOU saying to call them, your experience gives you a tool.

Take your frequent callers. When that one person having their daily mental health crisis calls in, experience lets you know what calms or triggers them and where to find their family member’s phone number. You may not have had this caller before, but your co-worker—the one about to retire—is on a first-name basis with them and is comfortable asking them after protocols if they drank their favorite cold medication again, the one that alters their mental status.

Experienced co-workers know where businesses used to be so when one of the Old Guard out on the road calls out there’s an emergency at the restaurant that burned down 10 years ago, the co-worker knows exactly where they are. This knowledge helps you when a caller doesn’t know where they are other than saying they are in the parking lot of that restaurant that burned down and you have no map. These experienced co-workers will help you through major incidents even while complaining the entire time.

If you have an incident that you think you could have done better, review it. Ask your supervisor to go over it with you and offer suggestions. Ask for an after-action. Learn from what went right, what went wrong, and where you can do better. You are using experience as a teacher.

Final thoughts: As you gain experience, you’re going to be the one that the newer people will turn to for help. You’ll be their guide, you’ll share your experiences, and you’ll forget you were ever that scared or nervous when you first started. Remind yourself you are going to be a teacher and ask yourself what kind of teacher you want to be.

Heidi DiGennaro started in 1995 in police dispatch and meandered down the career path of calltaking backup for a dispatch statistician., assistant supervisor, and, finally, shift manager for the Harford County Department of Emergency Services in Maryland (USA). What an Adventure! (hadigennaro@hartfordpublicsafety.org) 

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