Sitting in a classroom every day, eight hours for six weeks, staring at a computer screen, can be monotonous and mundane for even the most spirited, diligent workers.
That was an integral part of the seven-month long training program to become a public safety emergency dispatcher with the Juneau Police Department, and it wasn’t working, JPD spokeswoman Cindee Brown-Mills said in a recent interview.
She estimated about 50 percent of trainees drop out of the program before it finishes.
“Our attrition rate through our training program has been pretty high,” she said,” ... which isn’t uncommon for com (communication) centers, but it would sure be nice if it wasn’t that high.”
To make matters worse, the high turnover rate kept the communication center chronically understaffed, probably for past 10 years, she added. But hopefully, all that will change soon.
The department under Brown-Mills’ supervision is restructuring its training program to help retain new hires who quickly tire of tedious computer tasking by breaking up classroom time with observation periods and hands-on work in the actual com center at the station.
The program is now broken up into six phases, including call taking, computer programming and responding to the police, fire and EMS radio calls. The new approach is designed to help new employees become a critical link in the police chain — they answer the first call when someone dials 911 and dispatch the necessary agency to the right location.
Brown-Mills said the department tested the six-phase strategy earlier and had received good feedback.
“We said, well, alright. How about we do that kind of on a broader scale, and we break our training program down into what we’ve now figured out to be six different phases,” she said.
Two new hires, Keith Byrne, 25, who recently moved to Juneau from Ireland about 15 months ago, and Amber Lampe, 23, a former tour guide in Hoonah, are the first to experience the restructured program, and just finished up the fifth week of training. The first four weeks were dedicated to navigating different computer programs. Two weeks were spent in the classroom with dispatcher trainers, and two were spent in the com center where they observed dispatchers balancing multiple calls simultaneously, all in a tight time frame.
So far, so good, they said.
“It’s definitely a lot better to do training stuff in (the classroom), and then put it all together in the com center,” Lampe said. “... We’re kind of going piece-by-piece instead of learning it all and then going in there.”
Byrne noted that the hands-on training in the com center helps him apply the skills that he just learned before he forgets it.
“It made everything sink in a lot quicker and a lot faster, so we really like that,” he said.
He added, “It can get quite dry in (the classroom) with just the overhead information and oversaturation, and we, Amber and I, have talked about it. We really like the two weeks in here and the two weeks in there broken up so we can really easily apply the skills you just recently learned with real world situations.”
Brown-Mills, who is also the JPD administrative manager, says she hopes attrition will be reduced to about 25 percent instead of 50. She also implemented another change to help reduce turnover — candidates for the job will now have to spend time in the com center before they are hired.
“One of the things that we found with candidates is they don’t have a very realistic idea of what is involved in being in the com center,” she said. “Really, you’re looking at shift work — we have to staff it 24/7. You’re not going to get holidays, you’re not going to get weekends.”
Because the com center is understaffed — there are only seven dispatchers of the 12 funded positions; Byrne and Lampe bring that number to nine — dispatchers typically work about 60 hours a week.
“They work 12-hour shifts, five shifts a week, roughly 60 hours,” Brown-Mills said, noting that the com center used to have 14 funded positions. “We need more people in there in order to get those numbers down so that they can work a normal shift.”
Two of those funded 14 com center jobs were cut last fiscal year to help save the city money as it faces a $7 million deficit between fiscal years 2013-14. In fact, that’s why Brown-Mills took on the added responsibility of managing the com center in July. It was previously supervised by a lieutenant, but that position, along with six others (two from dispatch, two police officers, one in records, one lieutenant and one sergeant), lost funding.
Brown-Mills is currently in the process of hiring two new dispatchers so they can begin the training program in January. Finding them is tough, she said, because though the qualifications are lax (you just have to be 18 years old and have a GED), the written test is difficult to pass.
Thirty-eight people applied in the most recent hiring spree, which just ended. Thirteen have been tested so far, and only one passed.
“That’s pretty common,” she said. “Our test is not easy.”
There’s also extensive background checks, psychological testing and a rigorous interview process. But for those who manage to land the job, at least they won’t face spending six weeks in front of a computer in the classroom, day after day, daydreaming of a different job.
Interested applicants can check the JPD’s website, www.juneaupolice.com, to see when the department will again hire dispatchers.
• Contact reporter Emily Russo Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org.