By Linda Currey Post
Southern barbeque, the mighty Mississippi, and the Delta blues are just three reasons residents of Memphis, Tennessee, love their city. Now they can add a strong public safety program to that list.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland and his human resources team have implemented new technology and increased the city’s social media presence to attract and hire more firefighters, police officers, and 911 operators. And the City of Memphis now offers an attractive package of benefits and relocation bonuses to retain its first responders. Today the Memphis public safety team members are regularly recognized for their courage, quick thinking during emergencies, and devotion to protecting the 652,000 residents in the 315 square miles within the city borders.
But that wasn’t always the case.
When Strickland took office in 2016, he inherited a constituency unhappy with the city’s emergency services and frustrated with long wait times for emergency help. Among the first responders themselves, a long austerity program had left morale low and attrition high. That belt-tightening effort, the result of a state law requiring all municipalities to fund their employees’ pension plans at 100%, had led to hiring freezes and stagnant salaries.
Public safety is the number one responsibility of any government.”– Jim Strickland, Mayor, City of Memphis
“Public safety is the number one responsibility for any government,” says Strickland, “and my guess is that’s why governments were created in the first place: to maintain public safety. Our first responders put their lives on the line every day. And our 911 operators have to be on their game every minute they’re working; it’s a tough job. That’s why we’ve worked so hard to improve their pay, their benefits, and the technology that supports them.”
To rebuild the public safety program—and to encourage an honest exchange of ideas with Memphis citizens—the mayor and his team met in person with citizens and city council members during town hall meetings across the city. Memphis residents asked for a bigger and more visible police force to keep crime down. The mayor was receptive to boosting the number of officers and had, in fact, campaigned on promises of a revitalized police force.
650,000Number of citizens that Memphis city police and firefighters protect and serve
Citizens also asked for faster response to their 911 emergency calls; the average wait time had stretched to an unacceptable 59.7 seconds, which can seem like a lifetime when a caller needs help, the mayor says.
“One thing that hit us almost immediately during the meetings was that people were upset with how long it took to answer those calls,” says Strickland. “It was very apparent that we had to fix our 911 system.”
The public feedback helped Strickland and his team devise a plan to improve the performance of the city’s public safety operation through a combination of new technologies, new recruiting techniques, and new incentives.
For leadership, Strickland hired Alexandria Smith as human resources chief, leveraging her extensive experience in the public sector at companies such as eSecuritel, Brightstar Corporation, Target, and Microsoft. Smith has considerable expertise with the latest HR technologies—as well as knowledge of best practices for competitive salaries, bonuses, and benefits packages.
That experience was first focused on citizens’ request for improved emergency services. “My team is in the business of helping the people who help others,” Smith says.
But because police and firefighter recruits have to pass a battery of rigorous physical tests and psychological evaluations to make sure they’re fit to serve, the process for hiring public safety workers has many more steps than for other city jobs. That’s why one of Smith’s first decisions was to replace the city’s hiring, benefits management, and other on-premises HR applications with a modern, cloud-based application suite, Oracle Human Capital Management Cloud (Oracle HCM Cloud). The city worked with Oracle Consulting Services on the implementation. The new platform, which includes Oracle Talent Acquisition Cloud, positions the HR team to hire and onboard emergency workers more efficiently through workflows that accommodate the city’s several- step process.
Using the capabilities of Oracle HCM Cloud, the city’s HR leaders introduced paperless processes for reviewing job applications, explains City of Memphis HR project coordinator Tyler Stegall. City recruiters not only have to keep track of applicants’ test results but they also have to compile a mountain of supporting résumés, certificates, and licenses.
“Public safety hiring has many, many more steps than regular hiring,” Stegall explains. “So the process takes more time and it’s more difficult to quickly make offers.”
My team is in the business of helping the people who help others.”– Alexandria Smith, CHRO, City of Memphis
Now, to speed the process, instead of tracking the candidates’ progress with pen and paper, recruiters simply fill out the fields in the Oracle recruiting program online and upload the supporting documents. Memphis recruiters travel to other major US cities to interview applicants. Now they are keeping track of interviews on their laptops and leaving the paper behind.
Stegall says the fact that the city’s new recruiting system is delivered in the cloud holds many advantages. Chief among them is the fact that upgrades are easy and are delivered automatically by Oracle, saving the Memphis HR team time and trouble.
Stegall recalls that when the city used on-premises software, the team was always more than a dozen or so updates behind—so its processes didn’t improve and stayed manual. “Now, as Oracle develops the software, we can develop our processes,” Stegall continues. “We’ll be able to streamline them and make them better. Staying abreast of the technology will keep us hiring quickly and more efficiently.”
In addition, because Oracle—rather than city IT staffers or contractors—handles all system maintenance and upgrades, it frees the city’s IT team to work on more-critical projects. A cloud-based platform also consolidates all employee data into one system, making it easier for HR team members to analyze and report on employee activities and trends. And because the platform is self-service, employees can change their addresses and phone numbers, sign up for training, and work on performance reviews—among other tasks—without approval from a manager.
Previously, every time employees wanted to update their personnel files with something as simple as a new phone number, an HR staffer would have to fill out a form, put it in an easy-to-identify neon-yellow folder, and carry it to the pile of other yellow folders on Smith’s desk for her signature.
Smith used to spend the first hour of every workday signing requests to update employee addresses and phone numbers. No longer. “Getting rid of the paper processes, so we could be more efficient and agile as an organization and spend our time on things that matter most, was very, very important.”
Besides reducing the time current employees have to spend on menial tasks, the interactive system will soon enable job applicants to use it to schedule the required testing and interviews. The system will tell them what documents to bring with them and where and when to report, saving many phone calls and emails back and forth with recruiters.
Getting rid of the paper processes, so we could be more efficient and agile as an organization and spend our time on things that matter most, was very, very important.”– Alexandria Smith, CHRO, City of Memphis
“We want to make this whole recruiting process, as complicated as it is, seamless for our candidates,” Stegall says.
Additionally, the “social sourcing” capability of Oracle HCM Cloud helps the HR team easily post information about job openings on targeted online job boards and social media. The city now posts information about its openings on career sites of local colleges and universities, including the University of Memphis, affinity groups such as the National Black MBA association, and fire and police professional groups. These postings also appear on social media sites such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram and are publicized on Twitter.
The Memphis Police Training Academy produces recruiting videos, such as “Join the Best in Blue,” to post on YouTube. They show interested candidates what the physical aptitude tests and life as a Memphis police officer are like.
The goal of using social media, says Stegall, is to help viewers easily share the news of job openings. The clear message of these communications, he says: “This is no ordinary job. You’re here to help the people who live in Memphis.”
Through the combination of new recruiting outreach and supporting technology, the mayor has kept his campaign promise to strengthen the police force. The City of Memphis has hired 419 new police recruits since 2016 and reduced attrition among police personnel by 25% in the same time period, through a combination of improved compensation and benefits, training opportunities, retention bonuses, and employee appreciation events. Last year the city enjoyed a net gain in the number of police officers for the first time in seven years.
The city has also recruited 363 new firefighters, further strengthening a department that has always been popular with Memphis citizens. The 911 operators who support the city’s firefighters will soon be relocated from a basement call center that Gina Sweat, the city’s first female fire chief, calls “the most dreary working conditions you can imagine” to a new dispatch center Sweat says is “one of the best, brightest, and technologically advanced that they can get into.”
Chief Sweat asked the 911 operators themselves to make suggestions about the design of their new call center, which should be ready by July. Their redesigned space will feature new workstations, adjustable desks, a nicer break room, and cutting-edge call center technology.
The fire chief says she likes to empower her employees to identify—and resolve—issues standing in the way of their success. “When you give them that kind of ownership, they come up with some pretty good solutions on their own,” Sweat says.
The Memphis 911 team has cut that frustrating one-minute wait time to a brisk eight seconds. The most motivating change, according to Sweat, is the new practice of regularly posting the team’s average response time in the call center area for all to see and then relying on the competitive spirit of the operators to best their own results.
315Area, in square miles, covered by Memphis city services
“We set an expectation for them,” Sweat says, “and then they started beating it.”
The changes in the city’s public safety operations have significantly boosted morale among employees: Their “engagement,” as measured by an independent survey of employee opinions about city leadership, culture, and resources, is up by 14 percentage points.
The Memphis mayor and his team intend to continue their technology-driven recruitment of skilled emergency workers and to sweeten the offers with relocation allowances and retention bonuses.
“We feel a sense of pride in our work,” says Smith, “because we know that the police officers, firefighters, and 911 operators we’re hiring could one day help us or one of our loved ones in an emergency.”
Photography by Paul S. Howell