Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Ryan Dedmon, MA
911 Training Institute
Captain Mike Warner was sitting in his office in the basement of the Lake County Sheriff’s Office (LCSO), located in Painesville, Ohio, looking out into the communications center when he had an idea.
Like many public-safety agencies, LCSO has a rigorous training program for newly hired dispatchers. Training can last for several months as new employees learn department policy, procedures, protocols and hone the skills they will need to work independently.
“Our department is lucky if 50% of newly hired dispatchers successfully complete the training program,” said Warner. “We have to develop a better foundational training base and we need help addressing challenges with long-term employee retention. We need to change the brand of 9-1-1 to make it a career.”
Warner is no stranger to dispatch; his wife was a public-safety dispatcher for 25 years. Captain Warner is the Commander of the Communications Division, overseeing dispatch operations at the department.
“I started doing some research, but could not find any model I thought would help us with these challenges,” said Warner. That is when a group of 9-1-1 professionals in the area came up with a new idea to develop a program that would provide proper, standardized training and help new employees feel more invested in making 9-1-1 a career.
The idea was to create a certificate training program for people to complete prior to them submitting an application for employment. The program would be specifically designed for people interested in a career serving as a public-safety dispatcher. Students enrolled in the program would complete a number of hours of classroom training and then do an internship in a 9-1-1 communications center to get first-hand, real-life experience of what the job is like.
Warner started reaching out to other nearby 9-1-1 communication centers in the region. He was not surprised to learn that other agencies in the area were experiencing many of the same challenges with recruitment, training and retention. One of his first calls was to Nick DiCicco, the Director at Chagrin Valley Dispatch.
Chagrin Valley Dispatch is a consolidated 9-1-1 agency that provides dispatch services to 31 police/fire/EMS departments in the greater Cleveland area. They have about 100 employees working in three different regional communication centers and they average about 650,000 calls for service per year.
“This job can be quite overwhelming for new people,” said DiCicco. “We wanted to start a new internal program to optimize the training experience for new employees. But we also wanted to change the image of dispatchers for the general public and for other first-responders… we wanted to turn the job into a profession.”
They called other 9-1-1 professionals from other agencies in the area and together they worked to further develop the idea. Then they called Michelle Rodewald, the Director of Adult Workforce Education and Business Partnerships at the Auburn Career Center, well-known for providing public-safety training programs in the region. The Auburn Career Center is a career technical center for adult learning and continuing education that is accredited through the Council of Occupational Education in Ohio. Their mission is to match educational training programs with work force needs in the region by offering short-term licenses or certificates for a career.
The new Public-Safety Telecommunicator Program at the Auburn Career Center aims to do just that. It will be an intense classroom learning environment of 400 hours that will cover telephone communications, radio communications, line of questioning, priority dispatching, interpersonal communication skills, ethics and Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM).
“We all found it critically important that we include 24 hours of CISM into the training,” said Warner. “We have to give today’s dispatchers a better understanding of the signs and symptoms of trauma and stress they will likely experience during their career. This will be the foundation for helping keep them mentally and emotionally fit for the job.”
Upon completion of the classroom training, students in the program will then be placed on-site in a 9-1-1 communications center for an additional 200 hours. According to Lisa Davet, the Assistant Director at Chagrin Valley Dispatch, this learning experience will be very similar to what a new employee would experience in training. Students will shadow call-takers and radio dispatchers and see first-hand the real-life experiences of working as a public-safety dispatcher.
Davet, who also oversees the training program at Chagrin Valley Dispatch, estimates on average it takes most new employees nearly six months to complete training at her agency. She hopes her agency can significantly decrease that amount of training time for students who graduate this program and are then hired by her agency.
This program will not be taught by traditional teachers. Instead, instructional blocks will be taught by working senior-level dispatchers, who are subject matter experts in these areas. Davet says the dispatchers from her agency are excited to teach and she is working to flex their schedules for the hours they will instruct in the program.
Several agencies are partnering together with the Auburn Career Center to deliver the program, including Lake County Central Communications, Chagrin Valley Dispatch, Heights Hillcrest Communications, Geauga County Sheriff’s Department Communications, Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Department Communications, Community Care Ambulance, Southwest Communications in the Strongsville Police Department, and the Mentor Police Department.
Overall, it will take students approximately nine months to complete the total 600 hours in the program at the Auburn Career Center. They will graduate with a special certificate, which will make them more desirable candidates for 9-1-1 agencies to hire.
Currently, there is a pilot underway as the above agencies polish the program before the Auburn Career Center officially offers it in January 2021.
“This program will be another feather in the hat for what the Auburn Career Center will provide to the field of public-safety,” said Rodewald, who is already fielding inquiries from people interested in enrolling in the program in January. “Well-trained dispatchers benefit everyone in the community and we are excited about bringing something to the community that it really needs… this program will be a real diamond.”
For more information on the Public-Safety Telecommunicator Program, visit the Auburn Career Center to learn more.