Pre-Employment Testing of Computerized Telecommunication Skills

By Kilday, Kevin | Law & Order, February 2003 | Go to article overview

Pre-Employment Testing of Computerized Telecommunication Skills


Kilday, Kevin, Law & Order


Public safety agencies are having great difficulty attracting, hiring and retaining qualified telecommunicators. Even those agencies that can afford to pay extremely competitive wages are facing challenges in hiring and retaining qualified persons. There appears to be several reasons why this is occurring.

First, many public safety agencies allow too much time to pass between an employment application being submitted and a selection decision being made. Otherwise qualified applicants find attractive employment elsewhere while waiting. Much of the delay is due to infrequent pre-employment selection testing, which results in applicants having to wait many months before they can even take a qualifying test.

Second, the pre-employment selection tests commonly used by agencies often have not been updated to identify those applicants who possess the modern abilities needed to perform the complex telecommunicator job as it exists today. While the telecommunicator's job has changed drastically with the introduction of technology such as computer-aided dispatching (CAD), multi-channel radio systems and mobile data terminals, many agencies have not changed the tests they are using to select their employees.

The California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) reported that approximately 80% of trainees who leave a telecommunicator's position prior to completing their probationary period (typically one year) left because they did not possess the job-related knowledge, skills and ability necessary to perform the job properly.

A national job analysis of telecommunicator positions in 2000 revealed that today's computer-aided telecommunicator must be able to use a computer in a routine, automatic manner so that he has sufficient cognitive resources remaining available to focus on other, more pressing tasks. Scientific research reveals that developing skills to the point where they become unconscious and routine typically requires hundreds of hours of practice.

Most applicants have neither the time nor the energy to practice enough to develop the ability to routinely perform computer-related skills after they have been hired. It is apparent that applicants should possess the ability to routinely perform these tasks prior to being hired.

Finally, it has been noted that many applicants have an unrealistic view of the type of tasks that telecommunicators perform and quickly become disillusioned after beginning the job.

In the 1990s the San Diego County Sheriff's Department was faced with a severe shortage of qualified telecommunicators. It embarked on a program to improve its overall selection and training process so it would be able to test, hire and retain the most qualified people possible. The program it developed includes a preemployment selection test that is administered on an on-going basis to shorten the time between an application being submitted and testing taking place.

This test measures the ability to routinely perform computer-related tasks needed for today's complex telecommunication environment in addition to the other basic abilities needed, while providing the applicant with a realistic preview of the types of tasks that telecommunicators frequently perform.

In the past 20 years, public safety call-taking and dispatching has heartily embraced computer and computer-related technology. Jobs that formerly required mostly a sharp ear and pencil now require a sharp ear and keyboard skills. Telecommunicators must have the ability to enter data into a computer via a keyboard while listening to a caller and navigating through a maze of computer screens, maps and multi-channel telephones/radios, while simultaneously making life and death decisions. Dispatch centers now look more like NASA space control centers than the telephone answering services they once resembled.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department was having difficulty selecting and retaining the most qualified employees for this highly technical profession.

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