top of page

Communication skills for control room operators are vital but not everybody gets it right


Team of control room operators in a control room

Remember that time that you were involved in an emergency. You witnessed a car accident, or your neighbour’s house was on fire, or an intruder was attempting to break into your house. Hands shaking, you reached for your phone and dialed a number. A concerned control room operator took your call and dispatched help to you. In all these emergencies time is critical. The operator needs to establish where you are, find out what the nature of the emergency is, and accurately communicate this to an emergency responder waiting on the ground. The chain of events is linked together by one critical skill – good communication.


Communication skills for control room operators is the vital link, in this blog we will discuss some simple steps to improve these skills.


Control operators in South Africa


Emergency responders running with stretcher

Control room operators play a vital role in private emergency services. Security companies and ambulance providers run 24-hour control rooms staffed by teams of operators. They are responsible for monitoring and responding to critical events, and their ability to communicate clearly and effectively is essential.


The majority of control room operators in South Africa are expected to communicate to clients and responders in English. However, most controllers come to the control room with English as their second language. On top of this, they need to deal with a complicated and stressful communication chain. They receive calls from panicked or angry clients, sometimes on unclear phonelines. Then they need to relay information and instructions to responders via a two-way radio or cell phone. The controller must listen, interpret, and communicate. Controllers who have poor elocution add a critical snag into these tense and high energy discussions – what if the person on the other end of the line just can’t understand the controller? This can lead to misunderstandings and delays, which can have serious consequences during the emergency.


The importance of clear communication skills for control room operators


Person pressing panic button linked to a control room

Picture this. A farmer calls his security company’s control room. There is a problem with his power, and he has heard strange sounds in his field. He wants his security company to go and check his solar panel installation. The controller on duty listens to the call and tells the farmer not to worry, help is on the way! Then he dispatches the reaction officer to the farmer’s house because this is the address is displayed on the controller’s computer screen. But the problem is not at the house and by the time the reaction officer is redirected to the field, the farmer’s solar panels have been stolen. The controller’s poor listening skills have resulted in a slow response time and a loss to the farmer.


Clear communication is essential in control rooms for a number of reasons. First, control room operators need to be able to clearly assess the crisis and understand the needs of the caller. This requires critical thinking skills and the ability to listen carefully. If the controller gets this wrong, then everything that follows becomes a sequence of errors.

Secondly, control room operators need to be able to communicate clearly with first responders such as paramedics, fire fighters or the police. These people routinely put their lives in harm’s way, so it is fundamental for placing boots on the ground at the right location in the shortest amount of time. Imagine a hit and run accidents in an informal settlement on a Saturday evening. The control room operator needs to be able to carefully describe the location of the accident victim to help the ambulance negotiate through unnamed streets.


Finally, control room operators need to be able to document the incident clearly and accurately. This is important for investigations, complaints, and insurance claims. Remember our farmer? He is not going to be a happy camper.


How to improve communication in control rooms


Are you a frustrated control room manager? The combination of staff operating in their second language, operational stress, long shifts, and a communication chain that is made of multiple steps has created a perfect storm. Despite their best efforts there are times when your controllers get it wrong. The consequences can be as minor as a grumpy client who just tells your team to do better next time, or as major as an ambulance arriving at the wrong location while the client is in the middle of cardiac arrest.


Steps to improve better communication in control rooms


Control room operators communicating with clients on the phone

There are a few steps that you can take to improve communication in your control room:


Step 1: Establish where the communication problem is


You may find that communication errors occur throughout the operation, or there might be individual staff members in the control room that need help to do a better job on the telephone. The way to do this is via an assessment conducted by yourself or an independent person. Assessments can be done in the various ways:


  • Remember those irritating messages that say ‘’calls are recorded for quality purposes’’? This is the time to use those recordings. Make a habit of recording calls where clients have complained, or the operation has failed. A bank of these calls is a gold mine for a skilled facilitator who can use these calls to orientate a training process.


  • Spend some time in the control room listening to controllers talking on the phone. Note employees who are struggling, do not sound confident, or appear indifferent to the calls they are taking.


  • Conduct a client service survey. Customers love to be listened too and they will quickly point to your operational shortfalls.

Step 2: Plan a training intervention for your control room operators


Training is often regarded as a cure-all for problems in an organisation. It is a process which can be costly and could bear no results. However, by taking the results of your assessment and applying a training intervention, it is possible to develop a process that will create meaningful change in your operation. Consider the following when you plan your training intervention:


  • General issues can be addressed through group training in the workplace. Individual staff members who have elocution, vocabulary and confidence issues may require some one-on-one coaching sessions.


  • Check that the training process is orientated towards second language speakers. You need a facilitator who can adapt his or her language level to that of your team.


  • Training might include topics such as listening skills, critical thinking skills, report writing skills, English elocution, grammar, and vocabulary.


Step 3: Create a culture of communication in your control room


This means encouraging staff to ask questions and to clarify instructions. Getting staff to take notes on paper or on the computer can assist in this process. It also means creating an environment where staff feel comfortable making mistakes.


Step 4: Give your controllers resources that encourage good communication

Ergonomic design and planning can go a long way to improving the working process. Here are a few items and steps that assist:


  • Rather than traditional telephonic handsets, equip your controllers with a headset. A headset can free up hands for typing and eliminates common occupational health issues such as neck aches and stiff shoulders.


  • Get your controllers onto a speed-typing programme. Quick typing saves precious time and eliminates the mental strain of the unconfident two-fingered typist.


  • If your operators are lacking computer skills, equip them with a notepad and pen for every call. By noting down critical issues such as the client’s name and address, we have a tool to verify information and eliminate incorrect dispatches.

A workplace facilitator can help your control room staff


A confident and well-spoken control room operator can save the day. Education Matters has created a network of tutors that can walk alongside your staff. A skilled tutor can provide specialised training in message-taking and information processing. Control room operators learn to ask the right questions, listen actively, and record information accurately. These skills help prevent critical errors, such as dispatching resources to the wrong location, and ultimately, ensure a smoother and more efficient operation.

Facilitator training control room operators