In an era of rapidly evolving technological challenges, we often overlook the fundamental basic staffing needs of the public safety answering point (PSAP). No one could argue that personnel costs in every PSAP are typically the largest reoccurring expenditure. Although technology has enhanced the quantity and quality of what is delivered, there continues to be a necessary human element that brings it all together.
We invest heavily in our staff in terms of recruitment, training and retention, because it directly relates to the quality of service we provide. Many of the standards related to this industry are organized into technical, operational and training categories. Standards related to personnel are difficult to define, and many are in the form of best practices or guidelines. Some communities have even enacted local ordinances that govern minimum staffing in certain disciplines within public safety. It would be interesting to know if there are any best practices, ordinances or standards that provide information to an agency about the appropriate ratio of telecommunicators per call volume, or the population of the jurisdiction. There is a good chance that if you looked, you would not find any.
Currently, there are studies, tools and formulas to assist us with staffing recommendations. However, as you will see, there is an immediate need to update the input data used in present-day staffing formulas. This article will not attempt to determine specific incident types or other data for future consideration, but it will hopefully provide some much-needed insight.
If we are to keep pace with public expectations and demands, increased investments in staffing need to occur. Public safety officials need to seek out solutions so that we employ the type of individual that provides this essential service in an environment that fosters continued improvement. Because of the unique challenges that accompany the work that is accomplished, equally unique solutions that improve recruitment selection and retention need to be developed and implemented. The urgency of this endeavor cannot be emphasized enough. As an example of how pressing the situation is, we need only to be reminded about the amount of negative media reports we see relating to the quality of our service. Many times, the effects of forced overtime and understaffing have a direct relationship with the quality of service we deliver. There are staffing formulas that exist today that we can learn from and improve.
Current models that aid in determining adequate staffing are available; however, updates are needed in the area of input data for accurate calculations in a Next Generation 9-1-1 environment. For example, some current staffing formulas require the input of incident types such as domestic violence and emergency medical dispatch to help compute staffing recommendations. It will be necessary to re-examine these and make additions so we can adequately capture the challenges that Next Generation 9-1-1 incidents will bring and the time it takes to process them.
The effects of text to 9-1-1 on workload can be examined where it is implemented, and as we accumulate information it should provide useful data that can serve as legitimate input for future staffing formulas.
Certainly the introduction of multi-media data into the PSAP will have a dramatic effect upon the agency occupancy rate. The agency occupancy rate is “A measure of the average amount of time when employees are busy with incoming calls or dispatch activity. It can be viewed as available or ready time and a reasonable cushion of excess agency availability should be included in staffing estimates as a safety factor.”(1)
In future research, particular attention should be paid to this factor, because if the percentage of busy time for a telecommunicator is too high it often results in job burn-out and decreased retention rates for the agency. Utilizing updated input incident volume data and calculating peak busy times will also help ensure that the existing staff operates in a more efficient manner. Remember that staffing tools not only provide recommendations in terms of how many personnel the PSAP needs, but also aid in effective scheduling.
Tools and formulas such as Erlang and APCO Project RETAINS (Responsive Efforts to Assure Integral Needs in Staffing) exist today and are fairly comprehensive; however, they may not sufficiently address the additional data elements that are necessary to effectively consider future technological processes that affect staffing calculations.(2) Questions about what incident types take a considerable length of time to complete will probably become evident over time, and experience with the new communications technology will have to be simulated or in place before this can be adequately determined. Using the same logic, the actual number of new incident types to include in future calculations will also require more research.
Once work is completed in the area of what data is needed, the PSAP call processing equipment will need to be capable of sorting, storing and disseminating information related to processing time for Next Generation 9-1-1 incidents. Current limitations of older systems make this step in the process challenging. New features will have to be developed and deployed so that this data is not only captured, but able to be used in a defensible manner so as to aid in future staffing formula determinations.
Considerations commonly overlooked in staffing calculations are function positions. Examples of these positions include, but are not limited to: management, supervisors, administration, computer aided dispatch (cad) administrators, training coordinators, information technology and geographic information system (GIS) support personnel. Typically, these positions are not included in staffing formulas because they are not specifically dependent on call type or volume the way telecommunicators are. However, with the increased technology PSAPs utilize they certainly need to be considered. There is current work in the area of standards development that relates to these support positions, but additional work may be needed to determine how the size and call volume of a PSAP relates to the need for, or the number of, function positions in the form of a recommendation.
Once we glean data from actual or simulated Next Generation 9-1-1 incident types, it will be necessary to identify a representative sample to justify inclusion into a new formula. Other concerns may focus on how flexible the new formula is and its ability to be utilized by various-sized PSAPs.
A new set of statistical information that merits recognition and directly affects retention rates is in the area of current workforce trends. Gone are the days when an employee stays at one agency, or even in the same occupation, throughout their career. There are several questions that we should consider. Can we learn from the creative approaches that successful companies or the military use to recruit select and retain staff? Is it possible to utilize some of these strategies so that our workforce is as engaged as they are? If we implement some of these techniques our service quality may improve.
It is evident that hanging a “help wanted” sign, or estimating staffing needs without reliable data will be insufficient. Collaboration with stakeholders to identify concerns and find solutions is critical at this juncture. Current models can be used to enhance future staffing formulas, and work in the area of standards development and best practices needs to continue. Improved tools to provide more accurate recommendations will ensure that the public receives the help they need in times of an emergency, and hopefully that negative media attention due to staffing shortages is minimized or eliminated. Examining current workforce trends, and investing in people (our largest budgetary expense) are steps in the right direction.
Steve Leese worked in public safety for 31 years before moving to APCO International as an Operations Program Manager in 2013.
1 P. Clark, V. Gardner, B. McCombs, M.J. Taylor (2005). Effective Practices Guide And Staffing Workbook. APCO Project RETAINS Responsive Efforts to Assure Integral Needs in Staffing.