APCO: 3 Secrets to Increasing Employee Engagement at Your PSAP

Reigniting passion for the job, setting a good example and focusing on people can help your center thrive.


At the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials’ (APCO’s) annual conference, the organization hosted a professional development session titled, “Increasing Employee Engagement.” The seminar featured Doug Showalter, a 28-year veteran of the California Highway Patrol, who leads one of the area’s 26 communications centers and has run the statewide training program for the better part of a decade.

According to a Pew Research study, 60% of public safety professionals have reported feeling demotivated, disengaged and unhappy with their current employment, Showalter explained.

While some unhappiness might be expected, especially given the difficult nature of the job, for Showalter, there’s no reason for the statistic to be so high.

Outlining the challenges of emergency communication as a profession — exhausting hours, emotionally taxing calls, pay that could be higher – Showalter questioned why so many emergency communication professionals are disengaged with their jobs.

Why are [emergency comm centers] in that constant state of recruiting/hiring/training?” he asked. “We keep losing people, can’t hold on to people – what is that all about?”

For Showalter, the reason is clear: After years of tough work, many emergency communications professionals just lose the engagement they had with the job in the beginning.

During the presentation, he explained how reigniting passion for the job, setting a positive example and focusing on people can go a long way toward increased engagement at your PSAP.

Key Takeaways for Increasing Engagement at Your PSAP

#1 Reignite the Passion in Emergency Communications Professionals

Showalter described how many trainees begin their careers excited and enthusiastic about their new profession – only to lose that passion a few years later. When he was in charge of his center’s academy, Showalter explained, there was a post exchange where students could buy shirts, hats and other goods identifying themselves as public safety professionals.

The first week that our brand-new folks were up there, they’d buy out the PX,” he said. “You’d see them wearing [the shirts and hats] every day to class. And then you see these people about two years down the line, and you [ask], ‘Where’s all your [public safety] stuff?’ ‘Oh, I don’t wear that.’ What happened to the passion?”

Emergency communications professionals impact people every day. They save lives, help deliver babies and make a difference in their communities, Showalter reminded the audience, but those contributions can be easy to forget.

“They think, ‘What I do is just another call, another phone ringing.’ But they don’t realize that could be the call of your career. Each one of us are given the chance to make a real difference – good or not so good. When that phone rings and we answer it, we have the chance to change that person’s life.”

The key, Showalter said, is to reignite the passion employees felt when they first started, but that can be a tall order for many agencies who aren’t sure exactly what that means.

“When I go to agencies and ask them, ‘What do you do to get your employees engaged?’ [they say], ‘We buy them pizzas on Thursdays.’ OK, so you fed some angry people ... now what? ‘Well, we buy them Starbucks, I don’t understand why they’re not happy now.’ So you gave them something to drink,” Showalter said.

“But you haven’t engaged them in what we do – involving them in the day-to-day operations out there, [enabling] them to say, ‘What we do is actually important, and we need to remember that.’”

#2 Consider the Example You Set as a PSAP Leader

It can be difficult to maintain a positive mindset in a profession so demanding, but according to Showalter, one person’s example can have a huge impact on the way everyone else works.

“I hear a lot, ‘Well, we can’t hire anybody good.’ Or ‘look at the people we’re working with,’” he said. “But I always tell people, [ask yourself] this: What are you doing to make [your comm center] a better place?”

Setting a good example can also mean being approachable, keeping a positive demeanor even when supervisors are out of earshot and remembering that less experienced employees look to you for inspiration and guidance, Showalter said.

“Are you watching what you say when you’re at work? Do you walk on the floor like, ‘Oh god, another day’? Because is that really going to ignite anybody’s passion to do this job, engage them? It’s important to say [to your coworkers], ‘Hey, I’ve been on 27 years and I’m still excited about answering calls.’”

Extending emotional courtesy to one another is another way to increase how engaged employees feel, especially during hard shifts.

When someone gets off the phone with a particularly difficult call, do you say, ‘Are you OK? That was a tough call. Are you alright?’” Showalter said.

“We’ve all had those incidents where you know it’s impacting you,” he continued. “But a lot of people just assume, ‘It’s part of the job. Move on.’ To me, it’s not. We’re people. It’s time we invest in our employees, spend that time to talk to them. Are you that way? Are you willing to help your coworkers, the people you’re sitting with?”

Your example goes a long way to not only keeping your employees excited to do their jobs, but also engaged enough to ask for help when they need it, Showalter said.

#3 Focus on People and Outcomes to Engage PSAP Staff

Where is your focus? Is it on your state-of-the-art building, new technology, cutting-edge equipment? While those are important elements of the job, they can never replace the most critical part of emergency communications, which is the people, Showalter said.

One of the most important strategies to engagement and making your comm center stand out is to have clear focus, and that focus has to be on the most important thing in your comm center – the people,” he explained.

People can be motivated by many things. New radios and fancy equipment never hurt, and everyone wishes for more pay, but it’s things like shared values and trust that really engage employees and motivate them to do their best, Showalter said.

Where do trust and shared values come from? It isn’t any one person who’s responsible, according to Showalter.

“Everybody in your comm center is in a leadership role. [Good] leaders set the tone for engagement in the workplace,” he said.

Showalter described one experience while visiting a comm center in Wisconsin that illustrated one way to keep the job focused on people.

“I was walking through the halls of their comm center with their director. In the hallway, on one side there’s all blue and pink paper storks on the walls, and on the other, red paper hearts. I was like, ‘Dang, your people like to get married and have a lot of kids.’ And she goes, ‘Oh, no, these are babies we’ve delivered, and lives we’ve saved.’ Holy cow. Can you imagine the feeling those dispatchers have walking into that comm center every day going, ‘These people are alive because of what I do.’ That’s power. That’s something that makes you realize that what you do counts.”

During hard times, it can be difficult to remember the good you or your employees have done, but according to Showalter, that’s the heart of workplace engagement.

“Why are we still in this job?” he invited his audience to ask themselves. “Because we know, down deep, that we make a difference out there. And it’s important that we realize that. That’s how you engage people – by reminding them of what a great job we have.”

Lexi Wessling is a freelance writer completing criminal justice studies. She has worked as a writer and copy editor for more than seven years.