Zetron is honored to work with mission critical communications professionals across a wide array of applications and industries. Our daily interactions with these extraordinary individuals inspired us to launch our Zetron Presents: Day in the Life blog series. The series gives us a chance to talk with some amazing people and share Q&As, stories, anecdotes and whatever else they’re willing to share to give us and our blog subscribers an inside look at the many roles and facets of critical communications. Our objective is simply to share different perspectives, proliferate learning, inspire collaboration and to celebrate exceptional, often unsung, people, teams and organizations who are making a big difference in their day-to-day.
In this edition of Day in the Life, we feature Melissa Alterio, Director of Cobb County 911. In a recent blog post, we shared Melissa’s paper, entitled Peer Support Programs – Mitigating the Emotional Effects of Vicarious Trauma Experienced by 911 Dispatchers. While discussing her published work with us, we quickly determined we wanted to learn more about the person and mind behind the very informative and detailed piece on a very important topic. Her enthusiasm for her industry and compassion for Dispatchers and their work is evident and infectious.
Melissa radiated confidence and kindness throughout our interview. Her well-spoken and thoughtful responses to our questions more than paid off the perceptions of intelligence and passion one quickly gets from reading her paper. So, it’s our pleasure to highlight Melissa and her incredible team at Cobb County 911 in this edition of Day in the Life.
Director, Cobb County 911
Tell us a bit about your organization.
We are the Cobb County Department of Emergency Communications 911 center. We are the 3rd largest 9-1-1 center in the state of Georgia, located in Metro Atlanta, home of the Braves stadium and the Braves, world series champions!
Our center currently has 147 authorized positions, soon to be 190. We are a large 911 center, answering anywhere between 800,000 – 900,000 calls a year. We serve all of Cobb County. A few cities within our county have their own dispatch, but most calls do come through us.
How long have you been in your current role?
I’ve just got here in Cobb County in June of 2021, so I’m still fairly new. Before that, I was the Director for Roswell 911, a mid-size agency. Roswell 911 is also here in metro Atlanta and neighbor to Cobb County. Prior to that, I was in Orange County, New York, for most of my career.
How long have you been in the industry?
31 years…I started when I was 9 ½! A little joke [she laughs]. I worked my way up from front-line telecommunicator to training officer to supervisor to now, Director.
What made you get into this line of work?
Initially…back when I was 10 years old [she laughs again], I wanted to be a law enforcement officer. But I was too young at the time, so I started in 911. After a couple of years, when I was eligible to go to the police academy, I opted out because I loved 911 so much. I loved being that behind-the-scenes person that helps our responders solve crimes and helps them go home at the end of their shift. There were a lot for reasons why 911 was a better fit for me. I thought we did a lot more than a law enforcement officer does, with all respect to their profession.
Can you describe your role for us?
I am the Director, which means I oversee all operations, administration, and functions of the Cobb County Department of Emergency Communications. I like to tell my team that I’m just here for decoration because they are the ones that do the work. That’s really what I do feel like; I am a glorified team leader because we do our best to project a team environment. They know what they’re doing, so I certainly don’t need to micromanage anybody. I pride myself on being a people-driven leader.
It’s a huge responsibility and a great privilege to be able to lead a team of 911 professionals, knowing that they are the behind-the-scenes heroes. They are assisting our community and our responders in preserving and protecting the safety of the public. I feel like that was such a canned answer, and I promise I did not rehearse it; it’s the truth! The team is what matters, and I am just here for decoration!
Describe a “typical” day in the life of your role.
There is no typical day. There truly isn’t. I come in here and its different every single day. As a department head in such a large county, leading an independent PSAP, it can be pretty overwhelming at times. Our leadership team is comprised of 3 Deputy Directors, 7 operation manager positions, and 20 supervisors.
I came in for the day; this just happened to me yesterday – I had a full day planned and my schedule set. Then the county manager called for something, and I had to completely scrap the entire day and cancel two meetings. Department head duties take priority over some other things that I can delegate to my command staff. There really is no description of a day in the life for me. I try to remain a people-driven leader and keep engaged with the staff, but there are a lot of duties from a couple of different levels competing for my attention.
What do you like or enjoy most about your role?
The team. I have such a passion and desire to lead, coach, mentor and inspire the next generation of 911 leaders, and that’s really our goal here – succession planning. I want to create a legacy for others to be able to seamlessly transition into a leadership role, taking over this department. I love mentoring and assisting my team in career coaching and professional development and that’s the best part of my job, honestly.
How do you define success in your role?
Success for me is defined by my team. If they are happy and meeting their professional and personal needs, then that makes me happy, and that’s how I define success.
What are the biggest and most typical challenges to being successful?
The challenges for a large center, or really for any center, are communication and perception.
There are never enough hours in the day, and I wish that I could see everybody all the time and just be here 24/7. There is always this perception that the night shift is forgotten. I hate that because there are so many duties that need to be accomplished during the day so it’s true that the night shift from a leadership perspective is not always seen. That does not mean they are forgotten. Quite the opposite, in fact.
One of my mottos that I always tell my team is that I’m always present – just because I’m not present! I stay connected with them over email or text. There is a running joke that I never sleep, but that’s ok – sleep is overrated, right? Seriously, though, I do sleep!
I like to constantly stay involved mostly because I am not there on shift with them, and that doesn’t mean they should feel like leadership doesn’t care about them. The challenge is getting them to understand perception from a leadership standpoint. I have launched these director townhalls that occur every couple of months. It gives them an opportunity to come and engage with me for a constructive chat and ask me questions that they need clarification on that maybe weren’t quite clear from the supervisors. We have an open and honest conversation. I call it my “Director Real Talk Town Hall.”
And I’m getting ready to start a new initiative called A Day with The Director, where they can sign up to shadow with me for the day. That could involve coming with me for a meeting with the county manager or going to a board of commissioners meeting, and they get to truly see what little emergencies happen throughout the day. The challenge is bridging that gap between leadership and front-line personnel. This lends to improved organizational culture, and that’s what we are striving for, every day.
What motivates you most either about your job or to do your job?
The motivation comes with making sure my team has what they need. I don’t mean just the tools they need to do the job every day because they have that, and I know they have that; I’m talking about the stuff you can’t really measure. That’s motivating them to improve their performance, motivating them to take the next level in their professional development.
Honestly, it’s the people that motivate me.
Any job-related pet peeves or specific things about your job that sometimes make you crazy?
…I don’t know that I should say [laughs]!
One of my pet peeves that I don’t like is assumptions and when people assume things. We’re all adults, and I’d rather that people be open and honest or ask a question if they don’t know something. I’m a big fan of Brene Brown; she says, “to be clear is kind and to be unclear is unkind,” so truly, my pet peeve is don’t make assumptions, be clear, and just be kind.
What is the most inspirational, interesting, or surprising situation you’ve handled on the job?
There are so many, so instead, I’m going to take it a step outside the job and tell you one of the biggest things that have inspired me in this job – the #IAM911 movement. Ricardo Martinez runs the Within the Trenches Podcast and started this incredible program several years ago – it has taken off like wildfire in our industry, showcasing what we do, the trauma we feel, the purpose that calls to us, and the many lives we have affected. It is truly awe-inspiring.
Growing up in this business for 31 years, I have seen the industry change, and I think a huge part of it is because of him launching that movement. It motivated me to write my paper. He had no idea when he first started it that it would turn into a giant peer support session, and that’s essentially what it turned into at conferences and on social media. It connected people from across the country. It educated civilians; it educated the federal government. It was so impactful that it just gives me goosebumps just thinking about it. Ricardo is a very humbled individual, but I can tell you that his vision, the objectives he has achieved, has probably been one of the most impactful and inspiring things that has ever touched my career. We can talk about calls and leadership mentors along the way; there has been plenty of inspiration there, but if I were to talk about something that impacted the industry the most and impacted me the most, it would have to be that #IAM911 movement.
What advice would you give someone new to or considering entering a similar role?
Starting out in 911, the advice I would give that person is to be patient and be flexible and understand what your purpose is. That is to serve your community, to serve others and to protect your responders. We have a large responsibility in that, but it’s not just responsibility; it’s also a great privilege. Take pride in that. This is truly the best-kept career secret out there. I believe I am a testament to that since I worked my way up from Telecommunicator to Director.
For a new Director, I’d say make sure you are driven by your people and not be self-centered or selfish because the people are what matters.
What do you do to help manage and deal with the daily stress of your role?
I have a dog; his name is Joey! For anybody who knows me who reads this or connects with me on social media, that’s all I need to say. Joey.
I have a great support system; I have quite a few colleagues that are inside my circle but outside of this organization that we talk with and bounce things off each other all the time. I have a great network and support system.
What do you think makes your team special or unique?
The family atmosphere among them. I think they really realize that they are a family.
Do you have any passions or ambitions outside of work?
How to get through the next day [laughs].
Personally, and professionally for development purposes, I always wanted to be a John Maxwell coach and instructor. That is a huge passion of mine, and I am hoping to accomplish it by the end of this year. That’s a big goal for me, and I will get there one day.
And who is John Maxwell?
John Maxwell is an author, an inspirational leader, and a motivational speaker. He has a network of coaches and instructors. His premise is servant leadership. He has an extremely valuable program that he’s implemented for years that I’m looking to be a part of.
Is there anything specific you’d like the general public to know about your role or industry?
I would like to let them know that, and I know we hear this a lot, and it’s said a lot, but I don’t think the public hears it enough; we are the first of the first responders. We are the ones that drive the rest of public safety in their service and protection of the public, and I think we are still often overlooked, unfortunately. But I do see the industry changing quite a bit, and I would just ask the public to keep in mind that 911 professionals are truly that; we are a professional career. We have a lot of responsibilities, and it’s no longer just answering that phone and saying somebody is on the way. There is a lot more to what we do. Pre-arrival, medical instructions, safety instructions, real-time crime center involvement, there is a lot more to the term 911 professional than just being a dispatcher and sending units to help you.
What do you think, or hope will be different for someone in your role 10 years from now?
The technology. It will definitely be different. A dear friend of mine coined the term incident-related imagery and that’s going to be huge for the industry as far as change in the next 10 years.
If you had to describe your job in one word, what would it be?
Anything else you’d like to share?
I’m a big supporter and proponent of mental health and resiliency in 911 professionals, and I think that speaking to the 911 professional themselves – they need to remember to take care of themselves; they need to remember to take care of each other. Give people the benefit of the doubt and, not just our callers but our peers, our supervisors, our trainees. And just remember that you have a purpose, and you are living that purpose, and that needs to be respected and understood and cared for.
We had a wonderful time getting to know Melissa! If you enjoyed this piece and are interested in reading more Day in the Life blog entries, make sure you follow Z-wire.
If you are a 9-1-1 Dispatcher who is struggling or in crisis, you deserve help:
– National Alliance on Mental Health: https://nami.org/
– NENA Wellness Continuum: https://www.nena.org/general/custom.asp?page=WellnessContinuum
– APCO International – Health and Wellness: https://www.apcointl.org/community/human-resources-toolbox/health-and-wellness/
– National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 988, https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
Follow Cobb County: https://www.facebook.com/joincobb911
Did you miss the first edition of Day in the Life? Catch up here.