Most services have room to improve their communication times, and as we’ve seen, seconds do matter. But improving communications times is not as simple as having your call handlers talk or type faster. Improving your times will require you to look at the people, the technology, and the processes you have in place.
As a starting point, you can ask questions such as:
Are staff following protocols and are they properly trained?
Are there enough staff working at any given time?
Do staff have sufficient supervision?
Are some staff performing better than others, and if so, why?
This last one is crucial. Drilling down into the differences in performance can highlight the situations, the process issues, and other tangible areas for you to realize improvements. Faster is not necessarily better. It is a combination of efficiency and accuracy that is needed for ideal performance.
We'll now look deeper at the three main aspects of your communication time performance.
Call handlers need to have a fairly diverse skill-set in order to do their job well. They need to be empathetic, but detached; quick, but attentive to detail. Hiring the right aptitudes and skills from the get go will reduce headaches later on.
Beyond having the right people, they need to have the right training. Do they know how to use the technology? Do they know that seconds count? Do they know how to handle the “hard cases”? Do they know your process cold? Investing a few hours of training can pay off huge dividends.
Finally, are your people well-managed? Do they know how well they are performing and are they accountable when they’re not? How do you assess and reward them?, and how do you ensure that they’re performing to their potential? Managing performance if done properly can have dramatic results.
It is often useful to visualize your entire call handling process. What are the major steps that occur in handling a call and how long does each one take. For example, do your call handlers ask for a type of emergency (police, fire, or EMS)? What action do they perform after this? What additional questions are asked and actions performed before the call is handed off to dispatch?
When looking at the process, try to imagine where tasks can be shortened, done in parallel, or delayed until after the handoff to dispatch. Or come at it from a different angle by asking: “How early could I hand this off to dispatch?”. We know that seconds count, and if your process is adding five or ten seconds on each call, it’s costing your performance dearly.
One last thing. Make sure your process isn’t too complicated. If you can’t wrap your head around it at a glance, then it’s probably confusing your call handlers as well.
Your Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) and related systems present another opportunity to improve call handling. Systems may be cobbled together and not seem to work well together. Or maybe they work well for known addresses or situations, but fall apart when the caller is mobile or the initial address unknown.
Are there unnecessary technology delays? Does the CAD take more than a few seconds to resolve an address? What happens when one system goes down or is not available? Are you simply running the default CAD settings? Are you using “best practices” or “ this is always the way we have done it” in terms of how you use the system?
Relatively small investments can again make a large difference. If your computer takes more than a few seconds to lookup an address, perhaps an upgraded processor will reduce this to sub second performance. That one thousand dollar spend will pay for itself a thousand times over before the computer needs to be replaced in terms of improved performance.
Finally, consider imperfect or stressed situations. What is the protocol for when the CAD system stops responding, what happens when the phone system or Internet goes down? Scenario planning and stress testing will prepare your call centre to handle the inevitable emergencies.
Putting it all together
Start first by tracking your call handling well, and then comparing good performing staff, days, or call types, to the poor performing ones. Why are you faster on some calls than on others. Use the people, process, and technology lens to further refine your diagnosis, and then invest where needed. Remind yourself that a 10 second reduction in communication time can improve response time performance as much as a new station.
Sending the wrong resource to a call can have severe consequences and at the very least make them less available for the next call.
About Dan Bishop
Dan has spent over 30 years in the emergency services sector. He’s worked as a field paramedic and dispatcher and has worked his way up to senior management in some of the largest systems in Canada. He has particular experience in quality assurance and performance improvement in both Fire and EMS systems.