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Multi-Agency Communication Committees: Fostering Improved Inter-Agency Relations

Written by Jody Kasper

A significant number of police calls involve personnel from other emergency service agencies. For example, motor vehicle collisions are likely to involve dispatchers, police officers, firefighters and paramedics. Secondary responders could include personnel from utility companies, tow companies or employees with the local Department of Public Works. It is typical that personnel from these agencies work at the same scenes, yet atypical that they communicate with each other about how best to accomplish each individual agency’s primary mission.

While all emergency responders share the professional goal of citizen safety, how that goal is accomplished is likely to vary among agencies. Some agencies are most invested in the short-term health of the individual, while other departments may face the additional challenge of the long-term health and safety of that individual and other members of the community.

For instance, a police officer on the scene of a stabbing should be extremely focused on both the medical treatment of the victim and the protection of forensic evidence such as blood, fingerprints or weapons. The officer, like the medics, is concerned with the immediate health of the victim. However, he or she has the additional responsibility of protecting other possible victims in the future by building a case that is strong enough to ensure any potential offenders are prosecuted and possibly incarcerated.

The demanding court process has stringent evidentiary requirements in which a paramedic or firefighter may not be trained. First responders who are not well-versed in scene preservation may trample over critical pieces of physical evidence to access and treat a patient. This can be frustrating for officers and detectives who are left to piece together compromised bits of physical evidence that weaken a criminal case.

Likewise, paramedics may become frustrated when police officers attempt to interview victims during medical treatment in order to gather information for an investigation. The medics may feel this interrupts the treatment process and delays transport to a hospital. These conflicts can result in irritation and resentment among all parties. While patient treatment trumps all else, attention to evidence protection and critical statement gathering during medical aid will improve the likelihood that police can build a strong criminal case.

The Solution

If members of each agency were willing to take the time to better understand the goals of all involved and to collaborate on best response practices, the services provided to members of the public would be greatly improved. The best method to work toward interagency collaboration is through the development of a Multi-agency Communication Committee (MACC).

A MACC is typically comprised of a group of street-level emergency responders who are tasked with resolving identified problems related to policy and procedure. The goals of this committee are numerous: Participate in a formal process of responding to interagency procedural conflict; Improve the quality of emergency services provided to citizens; Foster better working relationships among multi-agency personnel; Give emergency responders a method to resolve workplace issues; Alleviate resentment and frustration between agencies; Be responsive to evolving issues and challenges faced by responders in the field.

While many new programs often have associated disadvantages and risks, there is little downside to the development of these joint committees. It takes a modest amount of time and money to develop and maintain a successful MACC.

Step by Step Process

For those administrators who are interested in developing a MACC in their own communities, there is a simple step-by-step process that should serve as a guide to assist with the implementation of such a program.

A police chief should first communicate with other agency heads (such as the Fire Chief and Ambulance Director) to ascertain whether or not they are willing and able to work toward the development of a MACC. It is imperative that all agency heads are supportive of a multi-agency committee and are willing to develop it and support it once it is implemented.

Once there is agreement that a joint committee should be developed, administrators should seek out written policies from other agencies that have similar teams. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. There are already well-written policies that are being used by police departments nationwide.

These progressive agencies should have written policies that detail the goals of the MACC, identify the desired characteristics of representative personnel, and detail the communication process that allows information to move from line personnel to the joint committee members. Each agency will have a unique written directive that is specific to that department.

Administrators who are creating a new policy would be wise to extract specific elements that best fit the needs of their respective agencies. Agency characteristics such as size, internal hierarchical structure, and services provided will likely shape the new policy.

A Unique Policy

After reviewing other policies and carefully considering the needs of the agency, selected department members should collaborate to develop a thoughtful policy specific to their needs. It should be brief and include the need for the development of a MACC, the committee’s goals, and the process by which all agency personnel can request a committee review of an identified problem.

In most cases the best method of managing employee concerns is by using a written form that was specifically created for this purpose. The form will be used by each participating department and will be made available to all personnel. It is recommended that the policy includes a master copy of this form.

The MACC process is intended to inspire improvement and the title of the form should be reflective of this goal. Examples include “MACC Discussion Form” or “MACC Recommendation for Change Form.” A title such as “MACC Complaint Form” is inflammatory and negative, and should be avoided.

The next step is for administrators to select agency representatives who will attend regularly scheduled committee meetings. Ideally, each agency will have two to three representatives so one to two will likely be available to participate in each meeting. In professions with 24-hour schedules and unpredictable work demands, conflicts are likely to occur. To maintain the consistency and integrity of the group, committed members from each agency are necessary.

The selection of proper personnel also is critical. Representatives must be solution-oriented problem solvers. They must have exceptional communication, listening and social skills so they can best participate in committee meetings. Characteristics such as defensiveness, negativity and feelings of superiority have no place in these working groups.

It is imperative agency representatives be street-level responders who observe and participate in calls for service on a consistent basis. These personnel will have the most realistic understanding of the application of written procedures to the street. Also, they will be the most likely to witnesses and identify interagency issues.

No MACC personnel should be administrators. Administrators are typically too far removed from the street to effectively participate in these discussions. Further, an administrative presence may hamper the ability of other personnel to speak openly and freely about areas of concern.

One member of the established representatives should be selected as the committee chair. This person will be responsible for maintaining a file of the submitted discussion forms, presenting the new concerns identified on the discussion forms to the MACC, and maintaining meeting notes. He or she is also tasked with leading the meetings and keeping discussions focused on the identified problems and facilitating conversations that lead to solutions.

Communicate Changes

Finally, administrators need to communicate the development of the new multi-agency committee to all personnel. The purpose of the committee and the process for submitting discussion forms should be relayed to all employees. Forms should be made readily available to all and instructions detailing how to submit them should be clearly communicated.

Typically, there is a reception box designated for submitted forms. The agency representatives who attend meetings should check the box on a consistent basis and should then forward all forms to the committee chairperson. The chairperson will then ensure the issue is addressed at the next meeting.

Once the MACC has been established and the policy has been implemented, the MACC is ready to function on its own. Representatives should attend weekly, monthly or bi-monthly meetings. The frequency of the meetings is typically based on the number of issues the committee is tasked to discuss.

Often when these types of committees are first developed, there are likely to be more issues to discuss shortly after implementation. This occurs because areas of concern that have been festering over years of poor communication will finally have an appropriate outlet. Gradually, as these issues are addressed and resolved, the number of reported conflicts will decline.

When meetings do occur, the chair of the committee is responsible to ensure the group maintains a focus on solutions. Discussions of identified problems can sometimes transition to blame, and members of a certain agency may become defensive. This will ultimately result in conflict and resentment and will inhibit the committee’s ability to best troubleshoot the problem.

Further, the meetings are not a forum for complaining about policies, agency administrators or individual personnel. Once again, this type of communication is not useful and does not contribute to the overall goal of solving the identified problems. It is the responsibility of the chairperson and committee members to maintain a focus on practical solutions.

When issues are introduced each member of the committee should be granted the opportunity to contribute to the discussion. Members from all departments are likely to have valuable knowledge that could lead to a potential solution. The key to having successful MACC meetings is to allow open and honest communication and collaboration between all agency representatives. Once a solution is identified, the committee chairperson should record the solution.

This recommended solution should then be relayed to the appropriate administrative leader who will have the opportunity to review the committee’s opinion. If the agency head supports the recommendation, the appropriate policies and / or procedures should be modified, and all personnel must be made aware of the change. If the administrator chooses not to support the committee’s recommendation, the reason for rejecting the solution should be detailed, and the issue should be returned to the MACC for further review.

When employees take the time to submit discussion forms, they should have the opportunity to submit them with or without their names included. For those who do include their name, the agency representative should make an effort to communicate the findings of the MACC to that employee and to thank him or her for the contribution to bettering the work environment. This sort of communication is empowering for employees and should inspire further contributions of recommendation for change.

Jody Kasper has been a police officer since 1998 and is currently a lieutenant with the Northampton (Mass.) PD. She is an adjunct professor at Elms College and teaches courses for the Municipal Police Training Council. She has written a book titled, Progressive Police Supervision: A simple and effective approach for managing a police agency. She can be reached at jkasper@northamptonma.gov.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2011

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