APCO: 5 Ways Great 911 Leaders Keep Their Best Employees

Setting examples, planning small victories and inspiring shared visions can help your PSAP attract and retain great employees.


At the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) annual conference, the organization hosted a professional development session titled 0% Turnover: How the Best 911 Leaders Keep Their Best Employees. The seminar featured Adam Timm, founder of The Healthy Dispatcher, a training company that seeks to help emergency telecommunicators boost leadership skills, better manage stress and thrive in their demanding profession.

Timm worked for the Los Angeles Police Department as a 911 telecommunicator for more than 10 years. Working with nearly 700 people in LAPD’s telecommunications division, Timm learned quickly that supervisors who used the right leadership approach made a huge difference for their dispatchers.

During my 10 years, I answered to roughly 10 different immediate supervisors,” Timm said. “I found that a couple of them approached their [employees] in a very different way. They made me feel seen, heard, like a human being. I felt that when I was heard and respected, and listened to by my immediate supervisor, I was more engaged on the job.”

Increased engagement led Timm to another important discovery: When he worked with better supervisors, he called in sick less. He treated callers better. He was a more pleasant coworker.

Leadership, he found, directly impacted the way he and the 600 other dispatchers at the LAPD did their jobs.

Using that revelation, Timm went on to implement a stress-resilience program at the LAPD that led to a 45% decrease in sick time usage. After leaving the LAPD, he began to take his ideas to emergency centers around the country in an effort to help other agencies thrive.

During the seminar, Timm used five principles from Barry Posner and James Kouzes’ book, “The Leadership Challenge,” to discuss what makes a good leader, outline the ways good leadership affects employee performance, and illustrate how supervisors can attract and retain great talent.

Key Takeaways for Improving Leadership at Your PSAP

#1 Model PSAP leadership by setting examples and planning small wins

Timm shared the story of one small PSAP that was struggling to graduate an adequate number of trainees from its training program. When leaders evaluated the program, they realized that instructors were meeting with trainees only about once a month.

If you’ve ever been a trainee in this profession, you’ll know that once every 30 days isn’t enough to be coached. If you have 30 days of bad habits, it’s really hard, especially when you’re first starting out, to break those habits.”

Leaders decided to plan small wins by changing their training program to meet with trainees once a week. They also took a new approach to dealing with instructors.

“Your success is tied to your trainees’ success,” Timm said center leaders told instructors. “You are successful if your trainees are successful.”

The difference was huge: The training program went from graduating only 40% to graduating 95% of trainees.

“How can you [model the way] to change your comm center?” Timm asked. What are some specific action that you can take as a leader to plan small wins?

#2 Inspire a shared vision

Average leaders focus on the present, but great ones lead their teams by envisioning the future and enlisting others, Timm said.

“This is a very hard quality to embody because we are so busy putting out fires and doing day-to-day tasks that [we say], ‘Who’s got time to envision the future?’ The problem with that is if your people are not excited by the direction you’re going together, and they’re not sufficiently aware of the mission, purpose and values that undergird success as a team, we shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t have team camaraderie.”

Too often, Timm said, the industry talks about high-performance teams, but fails to recognize that many PSAPs struggle to unite their employees into one cohesive unit.

So many comm centers feel like just a collection of disparate individuals coming in, doing their [shift] and getting out,” he said. “So, by envisioning the future and making it very clear what the vision is, then you empower your people to say, ‘Oh, I know how we can get there.’”

Timm referred to a small emergency center in Michigan whose new director was charged with transforming the center’s toxic work culture and uninspired employees into a successful team. Though the center was budgeted for 23 employees, for over a decade, it only had 11.

When the new director got to the center, however, he made efforts to get every employee on board with his vision.

“He painted a very clear vision of what success looked like on his terms, and then he did something very important,” Timm said. “He said, ‘Here’s where we’re going. I don’t know how we’re going to get there, but I know we can all do it together.’ This showed that [the employees mattered]. It galvanized their intent. It got employees who were about to leave to stick around.”

Four years later, Timm said, that same center now has 36 employees and just began construction on a new comm center.

#3 Challenge the retention process

In a time where it’s more difficult than ever to attract, hire and retain great talent, we’re finding that the old ways no longer work,” Timm explained.

What are the new ways? That’s up to you as a leader.

Good leaders challenge the process by searching for opportunities, and by experimenting and taking risks, Timm noted. “How many of us are modeling the way that it’s OK to experiment and take risks? That it’s OK to offer solutions?”

One emergency call center in Florida brought in a director to oversee a consolidation effort. The center had 64 employees and a history of internal problems.

“The director said, ‘If I don’t solve these issues now, when we consolidate, the 145 of us are going to have many more issues,’” Timm said.

One of ways this director challenged the process was by convening a series of committees. He tapped his most negative employees, those who most often overpowered the silent majority, and did something many leaders wouldn’t: He put them in the spotlight.

He said, ‘You know what’s wrong with this place. Would you be on the morale committee and help fix what’s wrong?’”

Then, he combined this morale committee with a policy and procedures committee to draw up policies and procedures that would help locate and eradicate workplace toxicity.

“He pushed decision-making power down to the front lines. What do you think he that did? It empowered his people; it fostered buy-in,” Timm explained.

#4 Enable others to act

Many leaders think it’s enough to just act on their own, but those leaders are the ones who most often fall short.

According to Timm, good leaders enable others to act -- and they do this by fostering collaboration and strengthening others.”

In emergency communications, where centers are often divided by day shift and night shift, it can be difficult to bring entire teams together in one room to talk, problem-solve and bond. But it’s critical that employees feel like a team, Timm said.

He encouraged leaders to think: When was the last time you met with your entire team? Has your entire team ever met?

One director at a California PSAP with a staff of over 120 decided to gather all of their employees together for the first time. To do this, Timm said, they had a neighboring comm center cover their calls for a few hours while all 120 employees met in one room.

It is this kind of commitment to unity and teamwork that makes an emergency communications center successful, Timm said.

#5 Encourage the heart by recognizing PSAP staff

Telecommunicators Week celebrates emergency communications personnel, but that alone is not enough, according to Timm.

“Telecommunicators Week is awesome, but one week a year is not enough. This job is unforgiving every single day. Once a year for a week isn’t enough to say, ‘Hey, thanks for being here.’ Because there are 51 weeks of the rest of the year where your employees are questioning whether or not they want to keep coming into their job. They need to know that they’re doing a great job every single day,” he said.

To that end, leaders should strive to celebrate accomplishments and recognize individual contribution.

It does not cost anything to walk to the console and say, ‘Thanks for being here.’ ‘Thanks for picking up that shift.’ ‘Thanks for pulling this overtime,’” Timm explained.

“If your team is pulling lots of voluntary overtime, they are volunteering to save lives and putting all else in their life on the backburner. And you can say, ‘Well, that’s just part of this job’ – it’s not. There are centers that don’t mandate overtime. We’ve simply allowed it to be the norm.”

When teams feel appreciated and valued as individuals, they work better as a team, according to Timm. That’s how one center in the Houston area came to operate with a 0% turnover rate.

“Ten years ago, a new director came in. Her vision, the vision she started off with, was, ‘I want to create a comm center that I would want to come in to work at.’ It took her four years of tinkering with the people side, tinkering with the policy and procedure, [before] she ran the numbers the fourth year and [found] they had done it – they had 0% turnover,” he said.

“They maintained for the last six years a turnover rate of between 0-8%, because they fundamentally changed the culture of the comm center. Start there: Build a place where you love to work.”

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