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Quality Assurance: The Behavior Allowed Becomes the Standard

Author: John Brophy

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,

Date: 2011-06-27
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Maintaining High Performance in the Communications Center

Originally published in our Sep/Oct 2007 issue.

We all learn from the mistakes of others when they result in serious injury or death.  Unfortunately, this does not benefit those who were seriously injured or killed.  We need to recognize that when these significant events take place that it was not an isolated occurrence, but rather that something similar had happened to someone else numerous times with less catastrophic results.  The communications center is not exempt from the consequences that can result when deviations are allowed and minor “variations” are overlooked.  By no means am I suggesting that communications center personnel receive a disciplinary penalty for every mistake; quite the contrary.  Having disciplined professionals will go farther than having employees that must be disciplined through punitive measures.

Put the “why” before the “what”

In the modern workplace employees have a desire to know why they are being required to do things and often resent the “old school” just-do-as-I-say approach to management.  Policies and procedures need to be explained to and understood by everyone.  Often times, if the reasons are clear and the consequences of their actions, and not for their actions are emphasized and understood the resulting compliance will be greater.  For example, if your long standing policy states that dispatchers are required to repeat the address and phone number back to every caller, some may question why this is still necessary when technology provides this information right on their screens.  By providing an explanation why the redundancy is important that includes examples of such things as the inaccuracy of cell phone data or the fact that, for a number of reasons, people often call from locations other than where the help is needed, a better understanding of the bigger picture will be provided.  Armed with the knowledge of why the policy is what it is, dispatchers will be more inclined to follow it and perhaps even to offer suggestions on other policies that need to be established or revised. 

Tapping into the Talent “Already in the Room”

Creating the buy-in necessary to develop and maintain high standards is vital to both short and long term success.  Most communications centers have a wealth of knowledge and experience that is sometimes overlooked when it comes to such things as policy development and equipment acquisition.  Tapping into the wealth of knowledge and skill that your organization has invested literally thousands of dollars in training and developing over the years just makes sense.  For example, you may find there are people with exceptional computer or training skills whose expertise could be used to the benefit of everyone involved.  Including the talents and input of a variety of supervisory and line staff alike creates an “ownership” that, if properly nurtured, has significant potential with respect to the development and maintenance of high standards of performance.


A dispatcher for the Sûreté du Québec in Canada works the radio.  Efficient
management, realistic and ongoing training, and a proactive
quality improvement program aid agencies like this in maintaining high standards of performance.


Develop Realistic Training Programs

When putting together or revising your training programs for new dispatchers it is important to be certain that it has the right balance of structure and flexibility.  A great place to start is with that “talent” I previously mentioned and include their input in the process from the start.  Talk to the people who have been doing the training to identify what they found works and what they feel does not.  Develop a plan that lays out minimum and maximum time frames as well a performance-based criteria that assures all necessary material and skills are adequately covered, practiced and mastered.  In short, a comprehensive training plan that matches your communications center’s specific needs will provide a foundation for the success of new personnel and reinforce the importance of and focus on the high quality performance that is expected.  Doing so will go a long way to assuring that it will be maintained. 

Since it is a well known fact that old habits often die hard, creating good habits from the start with new personnel is often a very effective way of contributing to the development and maintenance of high standards of performance in a preemptive manner.  One mechanism that I have found effective while training personnel in the call taking phase is a modification of the Quality Assurance (QA) form so that it includes all the criteria the trainees will be expected to meet, but without the scoring that is attached to the QA review.  By removing the scores and having the trainee focus on the things they need to do without being distracted by or focusing on point values they seem to build better skills from the start. 


Quality Assurance and Improvement Programs

When the topic of Quality Assurance and Improvement is mentioned responses are often mixed.  The importance of identifying both agency and individual trends is vital to the long term maintenance of high standards.  But just gathering the data is not enough, it must be shared with the people who need it most, the ones doing the job.  In looking at a hypothetical situation where an across the board analysis identifies a drop in the percentage of calls where the address is routinely repeated to the caller there is important information that needs to be shared with dispatchers and front line supervisors.  For best results it needs to be shared in a way that encourages everyone to renew focus on it without losing focus on other areas.  How it is approached will make a difference in how it is received.  Knowing your people and what works with them and what does not will go a long way in determining how to get the information out there.  Some people respond well to personal one-on-one, some to memos, and some enjoy educational materials.  The medium can be as important as the message.  Think about what works best; employ a combination of these and other ideas if necessary.  Take home point, don’t just gather Quality Assurance Data and file it away - use it for Quality Improvement in a timely and effective way.


Noticing and Taking Advantage of those “Teachable Moments”

I am a firm believer that education goes much further than discipline with respect to maintaining high standards.  While there will be times that disciplinary action is required or unavoidable, I believe there are far more opportunities that create moments in which something can be taught or reinforced.  I call these “teachable moments” and use them as opportunities to focus on a particular aspect of the job while it is fresh in the minds of those involved.

Perhaps it was an incident that reinforced a policy or procedure that will further enhance the understanding of “why” we do certain things.  Perhaps it was on the other side of the coin and reinforced “why” certain things should not be done.  Either way, if approached properly and in a timely manner it can have as much effect in 5 minutes as an hour-long PowerPoint driven lecture on the very same topic. 

When taking advantage of these teachable moments my suggestion is that you focus more on ones that promote positive reinforcement than those that correct a mistake.  I say this because the reality should be that there are far more “positive” moments over the same period of time then there are “negative” ones.  Therefore, positive teachable moments should be easier to find and will serve to both praise and reinforce a dispatcher’s actions while at the same time educating others through the reinforcement of proper performance.

Inevitably however, there will also be “teachable moments” that were the result of some kind of mistake.  The important thing in cases like these is to immediately do what is necessary to overcome the mistake with respect to the incident it is associated with.  Once the mistake has been mitigated, take some time to think through how you will approach the dispatcher and what lessons you want to reinforce.  I don’t think anyone enjoys the thought of someone telling them they made a mistake however, even though this is an educational event and not a disciplinary one, the individual should be afforded both privacy and dignity so that they can take away the right message.

Sharing the teachable moment is easy when it is a positive one.  Most people like it when someone else shares their successes with others.  However, if it was a mistake that contains a valuable lesson for others it would be better to get buy-in from the individual before sharing the lessons their mistake has yielded.  That way they are part of the performance improvement process and not simply someone whose mistake is being made an example of.  In short, the value of the lesson can be overshadowed or even destroyed if the perception is that someone’s mistake is being used in a belittling way. 


A Royal Canadian Mounted Police dispatcher processes a call.  Continual
attention to detail and an ongoing enthusiasm for the job
even among veterans will reinforce high performance standards, which should
be both an agency mission statement and a personal responsibility
among each of its staff.

Don’t Ignore the “Little” Things

To me one of the biggest keys to maintaining high standards is not to ignore the “little” things.  Lapses in radio etiquette, appearance of personnel, timeliness in reporting to work, and minor deviations from guide cards are just a handful of examples of things that can reasonably and unavoidably happen on occasion.  Allowing them to become the standard rather than the exception can set the stage for disaster.   Not confirming the address with the caller because the Automatic Number Locator (ALI) is “always” correct and repeating the address is perceived as a “waste of time” by call takers is just one of the “little” things that could very quickly become a “big” deal.


Some Closing Thoughts

Every agency has it’s “norms”.  The key is establishing and maintaining behaviors that are positive and assure that high quality performance is the “norm”.  Doing so through positive guidance and reinforcement of “why” certain things are important is central to success in this area.  Many agencies are already there and are a model for others.  They must now work to maintain what they have achieved.  Others need work to improve what they are doing.  Creating buy-in and an understanding of the importance of maintaining high quality performance is sometimes easier said than done.  Don’t expect results over night, but do start working on it tomorrow.

John R.  Brophy serves as an EMS Communications Supervisor, Navy Corpsman, EMS Instructor and Fire Department Lieutenant.   His insights are a culmination of his domestic and international experience as an educator, author, and leader in his field.




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