Best Practices in Managing the Central Station: Part 2

July 11, 2006
CSAA award winners share more tips on effective central station management

Two weeks ago, we published the first part of this series "Best Practices in Managing the Central Station: Part 1", which sought input from two companies that were recognized by the CSAA as top central station companies. Vector Security was named Central Station of the Year, and Rick Raper from Alarm Detection Systems was named Central Station Manager of the Year. sought the input from both of these companies to talk about issues like employee retention, customer service, business accuracy and more.

The first part of this series addressed how the companies developed hiring practices to ensure they get the right employees, and then touched on incentive programs designed to keep motivation and satisfaction levels high among employees. The one thing that all our respondents shared was that good central station service comes from satisfied employees. Now, in our second part, we look at how these companies get beyond simple incentive programs to create real community among operators, and then we close with a look at how "soft skills" of central station managers shape monitoring best practices.

Beyond Incentives

While incentive programs and other forms of recognition like those mentioned in Part 1 can keep your central station monitoring employees sharp, Vector Security's Pam Petrow, the company's executive vice president, says that keeping satisfied employees means creating a positive work environment and creating a sense of community among central station operators.

First off, says Petrow, the company's central stations aren't designed to be sleek impersonal facilities just for show to potential clients. At Vector's central stations (they have four), you can expect to see collages of employees, murals, recognition of community services projects.

"We've taken a very different approach, at least different from most of the central stations that I've visited," says Petrow. "Vector central stations are different from what I call one of the "showpiece" central stations where a lot of times those central stations are designed for the customer to see. What we found is that although our central stations are always open for our customers, the people that are living there are our operators, so we try to spend more time making the environment more friendly for our operators than making it cosmetically appealing to our customers. It's not that we don't care about what our customers see, but that's not as important as the environment we're trying to create for our employees."

Creating a sense of community, of course, extends well beyond photos of employees on the walls.

Petrow and Ted Stoler, the assistant vice president and manager in charge of Vector's East Central Station in Plymouth Meeting, Penn., say that good central station managers can create a continuing calendar of events to keep employees looking forward to work.

"We are a huge believer that you've got to create an environment that's a fun place to work, that people want to come to," says Petrow. "Each of our central stations has multiple events each month. We have minor events and major events. If it's summer, we might have a barbecue outside where we'll supply the meat and the grill, and the operators bring in the sides they want. Or we've had some very elaborate programs; we've had Oscar ceremonies that we've even been able to use for team building. Each of the teams picks a movie they want to do, and they dress for the day, and they may even decorate the central station. It can be very elaborate, or it can be quite simple. For the Kentucky Derby, everybody picks a horse and we have a derby day. We try to do days and events continually so people have something to look forward to and something to get excited about."

Vector Security's operators also become involved in community service projects. One station is responsible for a highway clean-up. Their Pittsburgh station is heavily involved in Project Bundle-Up, a Salvation Army-coordinated project that provides needy and disabled citizens with warm clothes. Food drives are also a staple of Vector's stations community service projects.

Petrow notes that the projects aren't delivered as a corporate-mandated program. "Our central stations get to pick what they want to do and where they want to work at for these community service projects," she says -- and it's an element that encourages not only team building, but also active participation.

Ed Bonifas and Rick Raper at Alarm Detection Systems say they likewise hold a variety of company events to create community and enjoyment for central station workers. Raper says that one thing he's learned is that central stations face the challenge that while some employees are enjoying an event like a company barbecue or movie day, there's another team that has to man the central station during that time. With that in mind, Raper and Bonifas say they make sure to reward that team as well, perhaps at a different time, but in a way that all employees can enjoy the camaraderie and fun that they try to offer.

The Soft Skills

Beyond the calendar of events, and beyond recognition programs that recognize those operators who handled the "actuals", everyone we interviewed agreed that there has to be an underlying set of soft skills that each manager has. From issues of fairness to settling employee disputes, things occur in the close quarters of a central station that have to be reacted to swiftly before employee morale and togetherness can collapse.

"Remember, the operators are seeing people at their worst," says Alarm Detection Systems' Ed Bonifas. "Imagine that if you're on the night shift, the only people that you get to talk to outside of the room you're with are customers that you're calling up in the middle of the night, waking them up, and then telling them that they've got to get out of bed, and go out in the cold and drive down to their building to meet the police on what could be another false alarm. That's a daily occurrence for central station operators. So the ability to handle that kind of pressure is important but also the people skills and being able to coach people through that is some of what we rely on Rick for."

And what goes into being a good coach? And what goes into being a good manager, since it's the daily actions of central station managers that are the best practices we have to look toward?

"I make it very clear to them that I am available 24 hours a day, seven days a week and that there is no stupid question," says Raper. "I never want them to be afraid to give me a call for any reason. I'd rather have them give me a call about something small and unimportant than to not give me a call when it is something that's needed."

"A central station manager has to have the ability to hire and train," explains Vector's Petrow. "It's the people part of the job that is the most difficult. When you talk about technology and the hardware, that's not where the obstacles are. It's about the soft skills; it's about getting people that are working usually in a closed-in room, 24 hours a day, and it's not the easiest of conditions to work in and they are not the highest paid positions. So you have to be able to select the right kind of people, motivate them, and keep them focused to do a very important job in a fairly redundant set of tasks. So it is a real challenge."

Stoler agrees.

"People know they are treated fairly," he notes. "So you don't have an employee that is late all the time and they're still there, while some who is late a couple times and ends up getting dismissed. Everyone here knows exactly what the rules are and they're applied evenly.

"I think that consistency with employees is appreciated by the good workers. When you work a shift, you're dependent on that next person getting there, and treating other employees with respect and consideration is really big here. We have to count on you and know that you're going to be there when you say you're going to be there, and if you're not, I don't care whether you're the best operator in the world, how you treat your coworkers can be grounds for termination.

Over at Alarm Detection Systems, "fairness" is the law of the land.

According to Rick Raper, the central station manager for Alarm Detection Systems, employee retention begins with fairness and understanding.

"You've got to treat them fairly," says Raper. "I wouldn't expect them to do anything I wouldn't do." Raper adds that when it's time to settle employee disputes, he approaches those issues with a mindset of finding out "what's right, not who's right." He says that a good manager also has to address the issues right then, because ignored issues don't go away in the pressure cooker that is a central station. Unaddressed employee complaints or disputes will fester, not diffuse themselves..

Vector's Stoler says that a manager's soft skills also extend well beyond fairness in applying the rules and serving as the liaison to make sure personal disputes don't disrupt a central station environment. He notes that the most important skill a central station manager can do is to make an operator aware that people appreciate what they do.

"We say 'thank you' for people doing things right as often as we can, because in that perspective, our people are going to want to do those kinds of things more often."

Raper agrees. "When they do something good, we acknowledge that we noticed. It can't all be negative comments that go towards them. This is an family-run organization, and we try to make the employees feel as much a part of the family as we can."