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In the quest for a fully staffed communications center, it can be difficult to know what people really want out of their work experience. Fortunately, if you don’t know, it’s not a problem. The best comm centers don’t try to motivate their people. They focus on something much more powerful instead.


Why do your team members come to work each day?

Some just want a job with decent pay. Some want to make a difference in the world. Others seemingly don’t care—they just do their time and leave. Even if your team members have never specifically asked the question, “What do I want out of work?” they know the answer when they feel it.


Unfortunately, many good employees at comm centers around the country arrive at a similar answer: “Not this.” Then they leave.

It’s tempting to blame external circumstances for the frequent departures. The job is stressful. There’s long hours. Shift work. Low pay. The problem with blaming external circumstances is it doesn’t change anything. If we believe this is just the way it is, that’s it. Game over. No amount of hoping and praying will create a different result. The nature of the job is not going to change drastically enough to address external circumstantial concerns. However, as a friend of mine says:

To get something we’ve never had, we have to do something we’ve never done.


Take inspired action to help your 911 dispatchers

The good news is there are centers who are modeling a way to do that. In my previous article, Improving Your PSAP's Morale: Whose Job Is It?, I told the story of a center in Texas who dropped their turnover rate to 0%. Another center saw a dramatic improvement in CPR save rates. A center in Florida slashed overtime spending by $200,000 per year.

The leaders of these centers didn’t offer bonuses or incentives to motivate their people to comply with the stated goals. They didn't fire all their employees and start over. They didn’t otherwise coerce behavior by force or fear. Instead, they took bold and motivating action, and their people responded.

Leaders at the best comm centers are great at establishing the conditions of a genuinely motivating environment. What do these conditions look like? According to top leadership researcher, consultant and coach, Susan Fowler, the conditions must meet three psychological needs:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Relatedness
  3. Competence

When these needs are met by the organization, employees are naturally more engaged and motivated on the job, are more likely to go the extra mile, and feel like they matter.



Autonomy is our human need to perceive we have choices. It is our perception that we are the source of our actions. When we don’t feel like we have a say in the matter, we become less satisfied.

APCO’s 2005 Project RETAINS contained several data points that reflect how engagement and satisfaction are affected when autonomy is challenged. On average, employees whose primary role in the center was supervisor or trainer were significantly more satisfied than employees whose primary role was call taker or dispatcher. Additionally, employees who had been employed at their current assignment for 6 or more years were significantly more dissatisfied than those who had been at their current assignment one year or less.

The real enemy of autonomy is stagnation. If you feel like you have no input into your daily work life—every day for your entire career, it’s going to be a long slog. The best centers work to engage people at every level of the organization and actively foster buy-in.

The center above that increased CPR saves instated a training program to teach operators about anatomy and what happens to the body in a short amount of time. They trained for more assertiveness and quickness, measured call processing times by person, shift and team. They cheered people on and created ownership in the process. Employees weren’t disciplined for deficiency, they were invited into a process of becoming better together.

The center that slashed mandatory OT spending by $200,000 engaged the line by offering opportunities to participate on committees (Morale Committee, Shift Rotation Committee, Recognition Committee). They offered advancement opportunities in the form of Shift Lead, Tactical Dispatch, and Peer Support appointments. They gave everyone an opportunity to help solve the center’s challenges, and work together towards lasting solutions.



Relatedness is our need to care about and be cared about by others. It is our need to feel that we are contributing to something greater than ourselves. If we feel like our efforts aren’t valued, we become less engaged.

Leaders can inspire this quality by getting to know their team members, getting out of the office and onto the dispatch floor, and authentically recognizing work well done. One center posted a “brag board” where any team member could put up news they were proud of — a child’s graduation, an anniversary, or a thank you to a fellow coworker.

To gauge where your center stands on relatedness, you can use Reich’s Pronoun Test. When former U.S. labor secretary Robert B. Reich talks to his employees, he listens carefully for the pronouns they use. Do employees refer to their company as “they” or as “we?” “They” suggests at least some amount of disengagement and perhaps alienation. “We” suggests the opposite—that employees feel they’re part of something significant and meaningful.

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Competence is our need to feel effective at meeting everyday challenges and opportunities. It’s feeling a sense of growth and flourishing. They say that if you’re not growing, you’re dying. We all want to hone our skills.

The Texas comm center with 0% turnover completely revamped their training program to get there. They increased the number of check-ins with trainees from monthly to weekly. They held instructors accountable for the success of their trainee, improving both the trainee’s abilities and the instructors. They offer ongoing training opportunities for all team members. They adhere to regular and frequent QA monitoring.

Every employee knows what they’re working towards, and how well they’re doing on the path to achieving these goals. In Teresa Amabile’s article for Harvard Business Review, “The Power of Small Wins,” she explains,

By supporting people and their daily progress in meaningful work, managers improve not only the inner work lives of their employees but also the organization’s long-term performance, which enhances inner work life even more.

Now, get started at your PSAP!

A team that comes together daily to achieve meaningful goals is more likely to want to continue to come together daily. Great leaders provide the vision, focus and structure for this to happen.

About Adam Timm


Adam is the president and co-founder of The Healthy Dispatcher. Previously a 9-1-1 telecommunicator with the Los Angeles Police Dept. for over a decade, Adam now provides leadership and resilience training to PSAPs around the country.

Adam's second book, Dispatcher Stress: 50 Lessons on Beating the Burnout, is out now.
Visit for more.

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