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PSAP Leadership: Tough Times, Tough Lessons

Author: Michael Fox, Police Dispatch Supervisor (retired) San Bernardino PD

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2013-09-10
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In August of 2010, Charles McNeely, the City Manager of San Bernardino (CA), warned the Mayor and Common Council that the city was heading to financial ruin. McNeely cited several reasons for his dire predictions. First came the economic downturn that was causing cities to struggle across the nation. Then came the housing market bubble shattering and tax revenues went south. McNeely warned that budgetary gimmicks to balance the budget would no longer work, it was time to tear up the contracts with the employees’ unions and enforce a new norm in which public safety employee (police and firefighters) were not automatically given raises. Instead they would take a 10% cut in pay. Most unions saw the implications and took the cut in pay, others did not. Finally the heads of the city government were warned to cut down on their spending. The employees were faced with pay and benefits cuts and austerity. Sad to say, the political infighting within city government did not stop. Neither did spending. On July 10th, 2011, after losing a court fight to regain Economic Development Agency Money from the state the mayor and common council voted to file for bankruptcy. The city filed in June of 2012, despite the best efforts of the California Public Employees Retirement System and the mid-management’s bargaining unit the bankruptcy was given the green light by the federal judge on 8/26/2013. During the time the city was waiting for the bankruptcy to go through, the leaders within the police department were forced to learn many tough lessons.

SBPD Communications in 1990. The Author is forefront working the secondary radio channel.

Lead from the front
General George Patton once told his subordinate commanders: “When you are called upon to lead, lead.”

The best place for you to lead is from the front. When things are going badly, you should not be inaccessible or secure in your office. Call it management by wandering around or mingling with the staff, it is imperative that you be seen leading. As Donald Rumsfeld once said:” Trust your instincts, success comes (at least in part) on your ability to carry it off.”


“Communications are the key to succeeding in hard times.” - Chief Rob Handy, San Bernardino Police Department.

Keep those you lead informed. Keep the information honest and factual with no conjecture involved. Even then rumors will fly. Past experience shows that mere denial of rumors will not stop them. The only way to truly control the stories that will circulate (and they will) is the truth. As Gene Kranz said during the flight of Apollo 13, “Let’s not make things worse by guessing.” Be honest, be to the point, and don’t speculate. The other key is to use all forms of communications to keep your people informed. Team meetings, face to face “one on one” meetings with employees, emails, or organized meetings with the public help to break down the walls. Don’t expect the press to help your cause – many rumors that stirred around the City of San Bernardino financial issues were reported in the press first. This created consternation in the leadership and employees who were just trying to survive and pay their bills.  Remember that the first reports are often wrong.


Do the right thing
“There is no right way to do the wrong thing.” - Ken Blanchard

If you are in the wrong: admit it, ask for forgiveness and go on. An organization that dwells in the past will never move forward. Hurt feelings mar performance. The only way to take away the power of animosity is to admit your mistake and ask for forgiveness.


Embrace Change
“The only thing that is constant is change.” - Heraclitus

The department and your workgroup will have to face changes in the form of:

  • Lay Offs
  • Downsizing
  • Restructuring
  • Policy changes

Customer service issues - As staffing shrinks your level of service decreases. As level of service decreases the customer complaints will increase. Have a plan on how to deal with complaints.

SBPD Communications in 2010

Don’t Micromanage
“Don’t tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and let them surprise you with the results.” - General George S. Patton

Donald Rumsfeld, former Secretary of Defense and Naval Aviator was once told by his instructor: “Don’t over-control like a novice pilot.” What is micromanaging? Wikipedia defines it as: A management style in which the manager controls everything and that the term “Generally has a negative connotation”.  Symptoms of micromanaging incudes:

  • Monitors and assess every step of a process
  • Avoids delegation
  • Generally irritated when a subordinate makes a decision
  • Requests for frequent unnecessary and overly detailed reports
  • Take credit for positive results
  • Shift blame for negative results
  • Effects of micromanaging
  • Resentment of the workforce
  • Lack of trust
  • Lack of teamwork
  • Lack of engagement of the employees
  • Force out skilled workers


Support your troops
“You must do what you think is right, of course.” Obi Wan Kenobi, Star Wars, 1977.

Some of your best and brightest will leave through retirement or lateral to other agencies. Don’t be judgmental. Others will stay albeit at a lower rate of pay or at a lower position. All will need reaffirmation. As Stuart Smalley, a character created by Senator Al Franken, said on Saturday Night Live: “You are good enough, you are smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” There may come a time to make a stand for the people you lead. Do you have the courage to do so?

SBPD 2012 – Note the lack of uniforms.
Budget items like uniforms 
became luxury items after the bankruptcy filing.


Don’t get embroiled in politics
“A politician divides mankind into two classes: tools and enemies.” - Friedrich Nietzsche

As a leader, you cannot afford to play favorites and create “tools” to help you towards your ends nor can you afford enemies. What you do need are those team members who are willing to be led by consent, not by coercion. Playing the political game allows you to coerce proper behavior but not excellence. You will not succeed by playing the “game.”


Don’t take it personally 
“Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.” - Nelson Mandela

People will criticize you, call you names, and question the decisions you make. Slough it off and go on. Although it is directed towards you, it is not always about you. It may be that they are venting or it may be you are a surrogate for those making the decisions above you. As long as you are not sucked in emotionally by their actions, you can still lead effectively.


It is about people, not numbers
“Everyone in your organization is dealing with something” - Joel Manby, Author of Love Works.

Each of us must deal with the difficulties faced by the agency. We must plan for what is best for ourselves and our families. All too often we are treated by those called upon to lead us as numbers. A salary to be cut or benefits to be excised. We must never look at those we lead as numbers, they are people who deserve to be led justly and with courage.

Each of us will be affected in different ways. More than a paycheck suffered in the financial issues faced by San Bernardino. Talented and well trained individuals moved on to other agencies thus creating short staffing levels and a greater workload. For dispatcher the temporary upside was overtime. As time went on the rising call volume and increased call stacking took its toll as the dispatcher incurred the wrath of the citizens of the city. Longer answer times on the phones meant more citizen complaints. For front desk personnel it meant callers who could not reach 911 either calling in on non-emergency lines to complain or vent. It became the domino effect in action. Team cohesion began to break down and only a strong leader was able to keep the focus on making it through together. In a series of emails, meetings, and memos; Chief Handy not only kept everyone informed he also kept them engaged through the tough times.

Each of us has different coping mechanisms. We deal with life in different ways. We need to understand and embrace that we are unique in the way we cope with adversity.


Have the will to survive
“There are no great leaders; there are only great challenges that ordinary people must rise to overcome.” - Admiral William F. Halsey

You hear it every time you fly. You could probably could repeat the instructions for putting on the oxygen mask should the cabin depressurize. You are to affix the mask to your face before you can help others. The same is true if you are facing a crisis on the ground. All leaders must take care of themselves first. Not on the job, per se, but off the job by taking a few steps.

First, each leader must remember the stress management techniques they were taught long ago and practice them.

  • Aerobic Exercise
  • Meditation/prayer
  • Hobbies

Next they must care for their home life by:

Avoiding Role Identity confusion – Ask yourself what you are. If you say “I am a…” followed by your occupation first, you already fall victim to role identity issues. You are more than a dispatcher or supervisor or any other role you play at work. Remember that.

Family issues – Gale Sayers, Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears, titled his autobiography “I am Third”. He borrowed the title from a saying he learned as a child. “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” Notice there is no mention of occupation there at all. Your family will suffer during hard times as well. Take care of them before issues at work.

Finally, be realistic: it can get worse. So remember to not dwell on the negative. Also remember that: “The only easy day is yesterday.” US Navy SEAL motto


Be accountable
Which leader are you?  “The buck stops here” (Truman) or “It’s not my fault!” (Han Solo).

You have to be accountable for your own actions as a leader. Difficult times are the time to fix the problem and not the blame. Weak leaders are busy looking who is at fault for the problems the team is facing. Strong leaders look ahead and work on fixing the problem.


Don’t count on luck
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” - Seneca

It is hard work and preparation that will get you past the difficult circumstances you are facing. There is an old saying that proper preparation prevents poor performance. Are you prepared for what lies ahead? Or are you depending on luck to face the challenges other leaders are currently facing?


Michael Fox has served as a Public Safety Dispatcher for the past 35 years, the last 24 with the San Bernardino (CA) Police Department. He has served as a leader in two agencies for over 20 years in various capacities: Shift Supervisor, Training Supervisor, Tactical Dispatch Team Supervisor, Critical Incident Team, Peer Support Team, and Terrorism Liaison Officer. Michael currently serves as a Chaplain with the SBPD as well as an instructor. Michael has developed and taught classes in terrorism awareness, stress awareness and mitigation, Active Shooter, Dealing with the Mentally Ill Caller, and Customer Service. Michael holds an Advanced Instructor Certificate from POST and is part of the Master Instructor Certification Course. He has developed a 24-hour course on leadership for civilian leaders that is pending POST Certification and is scheduled to be presented in late April, 2014.   

Photos by the author.


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