More Than ‘Just’ Co-Workers

Bonni Douglas

In the world of dispatch centers, there is nothing that quite compares to a place that is truly a “home” to its staff. A place where family comes first, and the health of the organization depends upon the good and purposeful work of the family members. A place where the mission, vision, and values are daily fare … along with the state’s famous cheese. Such is the culture at one of Wisconsin’s consolidated emergency dispatch centers, Waukesha County Communications (WCC).

Waukesha County, in southeastern Wisconsin, consists of 576 square miles and, according to the 2014 census, a population of 395,118. WCC engages 35 emergency telecommunicators, eight telecommunicators in training, seven supervisors, training and operations manager, director, communication center specialist, and emergency preparedness assistant. The WCC team provides emergency communication services for 19 law enforcement agencies and 21 fire/EMS agencies in Waukesha County. In 2016, we answered 346,000 calls for service.

We continue to grow.

The beginning

WCC was formed in 2004 with the consolidation of the Waukesha County Sheriff Department dispatch center, the Lake Area Communication Services dispatch center, the Brookfield Police Department, and the majority of municipal fire departments in Waukesha County.

“It wasn’t easy those first few years,” said Sherri Stigler, Training and Operations Manager. “I always tell people that it was like blending three families together, each with their own way of doing things. It certainly wasn’t the ‘Brady Bunch’ by any stretch of the imagination. There were hurdles for sure. We learned that with open minds and appreciative attitudes, obstacles and challenges can be overcome.”

Consolidation is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Technology, human resource management, and the ability to serve the respective law, fire, and EMS partners efficiently and effectively does not happen overnight. New and unaccustomed processes require open and respectful communication to create a center determined to provide the best service to agencies and the public.

Accomplishing the impossible

Keeping connected

Organizing police and fire/EMS protocol groups went a long way in unifying WCC, and they continue to do so. Monthly meetings of fire, police, and EMS field leaders and WCC staff provide the conduit to address issues, including personnel and equipment updates, feedback, and problematic calls. The center stays connected and hears what is working and what is not.

Recruiting and selection

Recruiting interested and qualified individuals as telecommunicators is a never-ending task. To assist with that initiative, WCC appointed a committee of telecommunicators, led by a supervisor, that is responsible for advertising job opportunities, recruiting, assembling resources used to help in making selections, and participating during the panel interview. Typically, jobs are advertised on the APCO, NENA, WILENET, and USAJOBS.com websites, and through the WCC Twitter and Facebook accounts. The WCC hiring team is always on the lookout for potential recruits at community and four-year college job fairs.

Applicants must take a standard typing test and a skill-based telecommunicator exam, and those passing both tests are scheduled for a two-hour “sit-in” with a telecommunicator and a one-hour written questionnaire covering introductory knowledge typical of a first interview. Candidates proceed to a panel interview, representing communication center staff, human resources, and fire and law enforcement departments. The final hurdle to gaining employment is a background investigation by the Waukesha County Sheriff’s Department, and conditional offers are provided pending successful completion of hearing and drug screenings.

Training

The WCC Training Team consists of 12 communication training officers (CTOs), three training supervisors, and the training and operations manager. Each training team member is APCO CTO certified and, as part of the job, updates training materials and takes adult learning training courses when not actively training a probationary telecommunicator.

Training begins with six weeks in a classroom. Probationary telecommunicators certify as International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED) ETCs, EMDs, and EFDs, and are taught basic skills in geography, CAD system/record management systems navigation, customer service, phone system operations, and center specific call types. It’s the dispatch floor where probationary telecommunicators begin calltaking training with a CTO and progress through their training on the Teletype, five police dispatch radio channels, and one fire dispatch channel. Based on prior experience and skillset, the process takes six to nine months.

In June 2016, WCC received APCO International Project 33 Training Program Certification, which is a first in Wisconsin for a consolidated center.

Community

WCC is more than “just” an emergency dispatch center. The entire WCC family strives to represent the communities served.

During the December holiday season, staff donates non-perishable goods, personal hygiene items, and money to local nonprofit organizations. This past holiday, a group of telecommunicators and supervisors baked and distributed thousands of cookies to law enforcement departments and fire departments in Waukesha County.

The WCC leadership team created a Community Education Team (CET) that promotes positive community relations between dispatch and the public and provides education about the 911 system and emergency dispatch. The CET participates in several events to forge better relationships with the community and law enforcement and fire agencies.

Staff has been working with Wisconsin state legislators to raise awareness for public safety communication minimum standards of education and training as well as #iam911 to reclassify dispatchers to the status of protected safety telecommunicators.

Celebrating success

We celebrate what we do, especially calls involving dispatch-assisted CPR “saves” and births. Family, media, and staff are invited to these celebrations—when a dispatcher is able to cradle a newborn she helped to deliver or hug a cardiac arrest survivor.

“It does not get any more real for dispatchers,” Stigler said. “These are the reinforcing moments that soundly deliver the ‘this is why we do what we do’ message.”

We are family

Each new hire receives a WCC Challenge Coin and signs the “WCC Oath” describing our mission, vision, and value statement with an emphasis on core values: Family, Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, Service, and Trust.

As a family, we throw parties or potlucks to celebrate major life events such as milestone birthdays, pending births, and weddings. WCC Director Gary Bell also gets into the act; he recently baked a cake in the center’s kitchen to celebrate a probationary employee’s 30th birthday. Each month, shifts cook family dinners. At the holidays, everyone picks a name out of a hat and buys that person a gift to put under the WCC Christmas tree.

Through trial and error, WCC discovered that focusing on hiring people complementing existing staff and principles, offering comprehensive training, providing community involvement opportunities, and establishing core values provide the foundation for best serving the public and the fire and police agencies depending on what we do.

“We are in such a better place now that we are established,” said Stigler, who was hired in 2004 for a supervisory position. “The level of trust and cooperative spirit we see among our agencies and the center is a testament to the commitment of everyone who works or partners at WCC. We can be very proud of that.”

Bonnie has been a dispatcher with Waukesha County Communications, Waukesha, Wisconsin, USA, since 2010. She is an APCO-certified Communications Training Officer, a member of the center’s quality assurance team, and an IAED ETC instructor. She enjoys working with and sharing her knowledge and expertise with people interested in the emergency services career.

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