Central Monitoring Operators: training, empathy and thinking really fast

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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

YARMOUTH, Maine—A central monitoring station can be a cool place to work—if your idea of cool is not knowing what’s going to happen from one minute to the next, or talking people through crises, real and perceived, or getting information fast and accurate while determining whether lives are at stake.

Experts at four security firms weighed in recently on the stressors and satisfaction that operators experience—and the kinds of support these employees receive to keep fresh.

“It can be stressful for a new hire,” said Steve Crist, director of customer support center at ADS Security, based in Nashville, Tenn. “The most difficult aspect of the job is the stress of handling multiple high-priority alarms. At any time there could be a multitude of priority alarms, from a burglary to environmental alarms, all of which require immediate attention. The randomness is the unknown X factor. Sometimes the planets align in a certain way and (seemingly) everyone’s alarm goes off.”

A common theme among those interviewed is that ongoing professional development for veteran operators is at least as important, and possibly more critical, that the fundamental training for newbies on the job. There are limitations to what security companies can do to prepare inexperienced operators for the unforeseen and the heat of the moment at a monitoring center.

“We keep our teams small and lean,” said Chris Newhook, central station manager at American Alarm and Communications Inc., based in Arlington, Mass. “It’s a welcoming environment, bright, open, upbeat with esprit de corps. We keep people’s interest with a diverse workday.” The company spends training time with new and experienced operators, helping them walk callers through technical trouble shooting, so that the operator doesn’t automatically pass off a stressed customer to a technician. This involves more than technical training, Newhook said. It involves verbal/communication skills, empathy and quick decision-making.

“We don’t have a 300-page manual for operators,” Newhook said. “We might have 18 or 15 pages. Keep it tight, keep it easy. I don’t ever want to hear, ‘Sorry, I am just the operator.’ That’s not acceptable. I need thinking people.”

Monitoring centers take great pride in their screening of job applicants, knowing that if they don't, the attrition rate for new hires and operator turnover will become a problem for everyone -- the company, customers and public safety agencies.

“It’s a difficult job,” said David Smith, VP of marketing and business development at COPS Monitoring, based in New Jersey. “If you’re not a good fit, in terms of temperament, emotional maturity, it can be overwhelming.”

COPS has proprietary procedures for screening applicants, including psychological testing developed with the assistance of an industrial psychologist trained in matching people to jobs. The system gives the company baseline information on whether an operator has the right stuff.

A routine exchange with a customer can turn stressful, such as when the caller gives the operator a wrong password for his or her security device. “Is it because they don’t know, forgot or is it because they are under duress?” Smith said. “Because we have no way of knowing, our job is to assume they gave a wrong password because they need help. Unfortunately, as you can imagine, customers are not always grateful that we sent the police after they gave us what they thought was a valid code.”

In addition to an exhaustive training program for new hires, including 120 classroom hours, and several weeks of tandem training with an experience operator, COPS’ system of redundancy provides operators with layers of response, expertise and backups from multiple monitoring centers.

When experienced operators reach a high level of proficiency, the company provides rewards and perks—including days off, day trips, dinner and entertainment, according to Smith.

Morgan Hertel, vice president of technology and innovation for Rapid Response, headquartered in Syracuse, N.Y., also addressed help for veteran operators. The company is well aware of an occupational hazard that may fall under the category of “human nature.” When taking a stress call from a customer via mobile device at sea, for example, every operator knows that scripted responses get tossed overboard. An operator thinking on his or her feet and on the fly is one thing, Hertel noted. Asking for the right kind of help at the right time from the right source is another.

“Everybody can’t be a cowboy,” Hertel said. “You have to know when it’s time to say, ‘I need help.’”

Hertel and other supervisors stressed the importance of intense applicant screening first, then keeping new hires fresh and alert by stimulation through aggressive training. Meeting demands of the job head-on by presenting professional growth challenges seems to work. Rapid Response conducts interviews, tests for personality types, drug use and background checks. The interviews follow paper, reference and test screening. The company looks for stamina and speed. Applicants get tested for intelligence and typing. After Day One, there’s a month in a highly structured classrooms with a professional trainer.

"If they make it through our rigorous training, they are tethered to a trainer on the floor for two or three more weeks," Hertel said. "For 90 days they are Q- and-A'd to death. ... There's constant learning."

Crist of ADS struck a similar tone as he spoke about the need to address pressure that can affect rookies and veterans in different ways.

“From a training perspective, we put them in a laboratory environment,” Crist said of inexperienced operators. Although ADS considers it on-the-job training, “We make sure they are not thrown to the wolves.”

Novices will witness a trained operator who is in a live environment—“It’s the only way to prepare for the real thing,” said Crist, noting that the newbie may begin by operating software while the trainer talks to a customer on the line. “Then they switch. Then they’ll do both,” he said.

“We’ll allow customer support specialists [ADS’ preferred term for operators] to receive alarms at a lower [safety risk] level. … Alarms can range from a communications failure with an alarm panel to a silent panic alarm at a financial institution.” In the latter example, the operator does not first make contact with the financial institution—they must first dispatch authorities and wait. “There are action patterns that are important to adhere to. You could be jumping off script. There’s a danger with someone with even five or six years of experience to go off script. You can get someone hurt that way.”

Newhook is emphatic about the importance of keeping veteran operators on their toes by challenging them to diversify their skill set, both technologically and in terms of interpersonal communication. “Sometimes it looks like busy work,” he said of the role-hopping within the company. “But sometimes busy work is not bad. It can be an opportunity to use another side of the brain. Like anything else, you’re seeking a balance. This is an agile environment.”

Training time with new and veteran operators merges technical trouble shooting with verbal/communications skills and assessments of the employee’s level of empathy and fast decision-making. Adapting and learning is embedded into American Alarm’s DNA, according to Newhook. “I’ve never been averse to change,” Newhook said. “Fortunately, my team eats it up.”

“The training can be intimidating at first,” said COPS’ Smith. “The terms and the industry as a whole are unfamiliar to new employees. So, they’re not only learning new processes, they’re also learning a new language and a new way of thinking.”

As for established operators, said Crist, “The best thing we do [to manage pressure] is that we are purposeful about helping our folks be successful in other roles in the organization. We seed talents.”

Crist’s career has included work in contact centers and leadership. “My responsibility to our employees is to help build careers, and to the organization it’s to seed talent for elsewhere in the organization.”

Some ADS operators are on the job for 15 years or more, according to Crist. “Some do it for 17 years with no sign of fatigue,” he said. “For others, they may do it for three months and decide this is not for them. It’s our job to help some folks realize this may not be right for them. Otherwise we are not doing them or our customers any favors.”