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CALEA Update Magazine | Issue 108

Better Than ‘Good Enough’ - Overcoming Obstacles to CALEA Comm Center Accreditation

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This article was originally published in the August 2012 Public Safety Communications and is posted with the permission of APCO International. For membership and subscription information, visit http://www.apco911.org/.

The myth: CALEA accreditation for the communications center is too costly, too time consuming and requires too much work to even get started. The reality: PSAPs around the country continue to overcome these very obstacles time and again, at an average rate of four to five comm centers per year, since the program began in 1993. CALEA has seen 13% growth over the past four years. As of March 2012, 85 PSAPs are CALEA accredited.

CALEA accreditation for the communications center is too costly, too time consuming and requires too much work to even get started. The reality: PSAPs around the country continue to overcome these very obstacles time and again, at an average rate of four to five comm centers per year, since the program began in 1993. CALEA has seen 13% growth over the past four years. As of March 2012, 85 PSAPs are CALEA accredited.

Why Accreditation?
Robert Greenlaw was the director of the first accredited comm center—N.W. Bergen Central Dispatch in northern New Jersey. Greenlaw pursued accreditation for the legal safeguards. "We were complying with nationally accepted policies," he says. "When issues come up, we could say our people were trained to national standards, and we were in pretty good shape." 

The legal protection CALEA accreditation offers is common knowledge. Your agency is agreeing to operate according to the best practices established by industry leaders. Every three years, your center is evaluated by an independent group of assessors from outside your state who, according to Greenlaw, verify you’re doing a good job. "Accreditation is a message to your stakeholders—to the agencies you serve—that you’re willing to open up to scrutiny, voluntarily, to show your stakeholders your value," Greenlaw says.

Communications accreditation focuses on 216 standards, covering a variety of topics, including organization, direction and supervision, human resources, recruitment, selection, promotion, training, operations, critical incidents, special operations and homeland security.

There is a fee, ranging between $3,700 and $7,500 depending on the size of your agency, but cost is rarely the deterrent you may think—or hear others claim—it is. Surprisingly, the largest hurdle to becoming accredited, according to CALEA Deputy Director Craig Hartley, is how overwhelming the process can seem. "And rightly so," he adds. "Everyone is so busy with daily operations—dispatch, training, technology needs—it’s very difficult to carve out the time, to stop and plan to move forward."

And therein lies the problem. According to Hartley, when we’re so busy managing the day-to-day operations of the comm center, we neglect the data sitting right in front of our faces that can help to make our jobs easier. Managers find themselves dealing with the fallout of an ongoing problem that could have been identified and avoided through adherence to proven national standards.

"Until you dissect your culture and your administration, you don’t know what you don’t know," Hartley says. "Find the funds to make it happen. You’re making choices all the time without a structured tool to help you make those decisions."

LaGrange, Ga., Police Chief Lou Dekmar, whose agency received law enforcement accreditation in 1999, encouraged his local consolidated dispatch center in Troup County, Ga., to pursue accreditation. "Having shared standards ensures critical tasks are addressed in a way that compliments our mission: to make sure we can respond quickly and effectively," says Dekmar who has served as the president/chairperson of the CALEA Commission since January 2009.

Although Dekmar’s agency is CALEA accredited, only 63 standards in the law enforcement accreditation apply to PSAPs. Troup County and other 9-1-1 centers pursuing CALEA comm center accreditation agree to adhere to 216 standards specific to PSAP management and operations. "Good centers want to be the best they can be, not just good enough," says Dekmar.

Establishing good relationships with everyone involved in the accreditation process is a key component of success. Dekmar notes that he works weekly with the 9-1-1 director in Troup County, Ga., in his department meetings, and supervisors from the 9-1-1 center attend an annual retreat with department officers each year. "We maintain the kind of relationship that facilitates fluid change in policy," Dekmar says.

CALEA’s true value can be found in the number of other agencies that unite to create best practices for the industry.

Support & Compliance
"There’s no copyright on policies, so share them and modify them for your agency," Greenlaw says. "There’s no need for you to reinvent the wheel!"

There is a variety of organizations to help centers considering CALEA accreditation. One such group is the Public Safety Communications Accreditation Support Network (PSCASN).

"If you don’t know the answer, you can get it from others who are doing it," Greenlaw explains. "It’s not an adversarial group. We’re a group of people who want to see you achieve and be the best."

Kathy Strickland, the public safety services coordinator at Cobb County, Ga., 9-1-1, near Atlanta, oversees CALEA compliance at her agency. Cobb County has the distinction of being the first CALEA accredited communications center in the Peach state. Strickland credits her manager’s passion for CALEA as the main reason they became accredited. 

"People think the decision to become CALEA accredited is largely a budgeting prerogative. This isn’t decided by the budget but by what the center’s director values," Hartley says.

Accreditation requires "a lot of buy-in from the top down," Strickland says. "It may take a while to get line-level employees to understand why we’re doing that."

Cobb County received its initial accreditation in 2002, while Strickland was still working on the floor as a telecommunicator. She was suspicious of the process mainly because she simply didn’t understand what it meant. 

"We thought we were changing how we were doing things because of CALEA, but no," she says. "CALEA tells you to meet the standards, not how. We wrote our SOPs to fit our agency."

But changes did come to her agency because of CALEA accreditation. Strickland used the standards to help CTOs get a 5% pay raise. Reports that weren’t being done were completed. Performance was measured, and calls were reviewed. The agency is now considering differential pay for telecommunicators who earn college degrees. "Now, employees are listening to their calls and submitting them as proofs for certain standards," Strickland says. "It’s a way of life."

Greenlaw says you don’t have to hire an accreditation manager to gain CALEA compliance, but if you do, Strickland says the person chosen to oversee compliance at your agency needs to be very organized but flexible enough to work with the administration and employees without alienating everyone."

Joe Bui is the quality assurance specialist at Fairfax County 9-1-1 in Virginia and is just starting the process of pursuing CALEA accreditation. When his agency director, Steve Souder, oversaw the consolidation of dispatch operations in their county in 2005, he shared his vision to become CALEA accredited. But they had other priorities to accomplish before they could start.

"For the first three years, we had growing pains, and we had to fight for what we could get," Bui says. "In the past few years, we’ve been exploring our budget options." Along the way, Fairfax County 9-1-1 took small steps toward CALEA accreditation, first becoming certified partners with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, then achieving APCO Project 33 certification for its training program, and Bui recently completed APCO International’s Accreditation Manager Course.

His next goal is to begin the process of applying for CALEA accreditation in September. "We’re revamping our SOPs to prepare," Bui says. "We’re lining them up with our daily operations and training, vetting them through our agency. It takes a little bit of time to do that."

Stephen Martini oversees training and quality assurance at the Hamilton County 9-1-1 District, where he’s worked since 2004. He also operates a business, creating custom, response-based dispatch simulators for 9-1-1 agencies around the U.S. Contact him via e-mail at martini_s@hc911.org.  

Author
Stephen Martini
Hamilton County 9-1-1 District
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