There’s a simple fact about one of the most damaging scenarios you hear about whenever you talk to 9-1-1 teams: It’s universally curable, despite its ugly prevalence.
The scenario: A handful of deeply resentful and bitter employees spew bile and cause strife, all while running rampant and completely unchecked. Except for the select chosen few in their camp, they are feared, avoided and, we are told, “It’s just the way they are.”
We are expected to adjust to how they behave.
When looked at through a longer lens, this can seem catastrophic, insurmountable – but it isn’t, once you start to zoom in. It tends to have metastasized because it has been largely ignored by those who could best address and treat it.
9-1-1 folk are the heartiest, toughest and most resilient people you’ll EVER meet. Dealing with difficult people is in our DNA. We’re paid and trained to take it. But no human being (not even a superhuman working in a 9-1-1 center) is equipped for continual, bleak negativity from coworkers on top of everything else we’re dealing with. This goes hand-in-hand with our continual short staffing. And the toxic atmosphere. And our (insert other bad thing that we all share here). It becomes difficult to overcome. These bitter folks seem to take over and define what it’s like to work in the center. Watching our leaders do nothing to address what they know is occurring is typically the final straw.
At no time in my career was this summed up more succinctly than when Stacey, a long-time, deeply respected supervisor, walked into my office, having just returned from a long, restful vacation. “You know, I really didn’t realize how much we’ve normalized how awful some people treat others in here,” she told me, the realization marking her face with concern. “On my vacation, everything was so relaxed, my conversations were so laid back and enjoyable. My first day back, someone yelled at me from across the room, and it had that edge to it, you know? It was so suddenly unacceptable – I mean, it was completely normal for in here, but it really just struck me how we’ve normalized it, you know?”
Given the consistency with which we see this, why on earth do these folks flourish?
Because they are allowed to.
Somehow, someway, we’ve forgotten that our most important tools – policy & procedure – exist expressly to deal with issues just like this. Sadly, most centers don’t address bad behavior or tangibly terrible attitudes in their operations manuals. We DO universally deal with things like serial tardiness, work-related mistakes, insubordination, misuse of leave time, etc. We establish clearly what we will and won’t tolerate when it comes to this sort of behavior. But there seems to be a disconnect when it comes to defining and enforcing being a productive, positive teammate. To address it, the very first thing we MUST do is define expectations and spell out consequences in our policy manuals (don’t have a policy manual? Stop reading this immediately and start writing!). If we don’t make it clear, for example, that an employee must arrive at a particular time to start their shift, how do we deal with it if they don’t? If we don’t expressly define customer service expectations, how do we coach and improve poor QA results?
If we don’t define our expectations and enforce them, we get what we deserve.
Here’s the rub: 9-1-1 centers across the country are overwhelmingly teeming with amazing employees, doing the right things, being great teammates and serving our communities and user agencies with distinction. The handful of folks who muddy the waters are doing so at the expense of our good people, and we’re losing great coworkers because of it. Every time poor behavior is overlooked, potentially (or already) great employees determine that no one cares – and they have one foot out the door. That’s why it seems like bad behavior is unmanageable and good people won’t stay: We’ve created a scenario in which this is in perpetual motion, on infinite repeat. Only solid, consistently enforced policy and procedure can halt the cycle. The best part? The good folks will see it happening, be strengthened by it and THEY will flourish. Imagine that!
Put your expectations in writing. Be clear about what you will tolerate and what you will not. Investigate and enforce every incident of mistreatment in your center. EVERY one. Get directly involved each time and send the clear message that it will no longer be tolerated. Supervisors: document every instance and get the ball rolling. Directors and managers: if you aren’t on board, nothing changes. Empower your supervisors and back them fully.
The message you are sending each day that you aren’t acting is knocking the good folks in your comm center to their knees.
Only YOU can make it stop. What are you waiting for?
About Kris Inman:
Kris Inman is the Director of Program Development for The Healthy Dispatcher. A 28-year veteran of 9-1-1, Kris retired in July 2023 as Director of Springfield Greene County 9-1-1 in Springfield, MO. An awarded speaker and instructor, Kris has delivered standout educational sessions, keynotes, motivational talks and yoga instruction to dispatchers across the country. He is also a long-time college adjunct instructor, teaching courses in communication and public safety leadership. Kris holds a Master of Arts in Communication and a Bachelor of Science in Electronic Media from Missouri State University. He is also a registered yoga instructor.