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STAFF DEVELOPMENT

WINTER | 2024

Single Points of Failure

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Staff Development

WINTER | 2024

Single Points of Failure

Single Points of Failure within Police Organizations

Single points of failure are perceived weaknesses in an organization that are caused by an overreliance on an individual person or piece of equipment. The individual’s unexpected absence or the equipment failure adversely affects the department’s operations. While single points of failure are more likely to occur in smaller organizations, no agency is immune to the possibility of these events impacting their operations. While these events typically surround personnel, they may also be linked to failures of operational processes, equipment, or uncontrollable events (i.e. fires, floods, inclement weather).

 

During a recent GACP Administrative Assistants Conference, attendees were divided into groups to identify single points of failure that existed within their departments.  Table 1 lists the potential points of failure that were identified.

Table 1
Potential Signs of Failure

NIBRS Reporting

State Certification/CALEA

Evidence Room

GCIC Terminal Agency Coordinator (TAC)

Training

Updating IT

Computer Backups

Budget

Payroll/Time Keeping

Ordering Supplies/Purchase Orders

Invoices

Travel/Expense Reports

Medical Billing

Extra Duty Jobs

Crime/Data Analysis

Asset Forfeiture Filings and Reporting

Public Information Officer (PIO)

Fleet Management

Quartermaster

Answering Phones

Computer Aided Dispatch Backups

Background Investigations

Crime Scene Technicians

Community Outreach

Personnel Records

Body Camera Audits

Court Services

Fatality Accident Investigators

Conditions Creating Single Points of Failure

A variety of factors contribute to the creation and continued existence of single points of failure. Currently, agencies across the state are experiencing on-going staffing shortages. The problem is compounded for smaller and rural communities as well as those with limited financial resources. This situation forces leaders to rely upon dedicated, reliable employees who always ‘get things done’. In some cases, these key individuals continue to be given more responsibilities to the point they cannot fulfill all of these assignments.

 

In the simplest of cases, single points of failure occur when individuals perform essential tasks for years. Over time, leaders assume tasks will be handled and no one else in the organization is aware of the critical task(s) the individual performs. When the person resigns or retires, their departure creates a loss of knowledge, often referred to as “brain drain”. An excellent example of this occurred in an agency where a supervisor scheduled the annual calibration of the department’s speed detection devices. A few months after the supervisor retired, an open records request was filed by a defendant who was cited for speeding. Only then was it determined the calibrations for all of department’s speed detection devices were out of date, because no one knew to schedule the calibrations. In the end, the court had to reimburse fines for citations that had been issued over several months.

 

In other instances, employees are hesitant to share ‘information’ of how to perform their job because of fear they will lose control of their perceived ‘power’ or influence in the organization. Without this sense of control, they fear not being viewed as essential and thus being replaceable. The issue is magnified when the individual has responsibility or control of multiple single points of failure.

 

Passive and alienated followers are disengaged from operations. Their behaviors can fall on a continuum of engagement that ranges from only doing what they are told to actively sabotaging operations. In some cases, employees ‘quietly quit’ by slowing the pace of their work or entirely stopping. As a result of this disengagement, essential tasks are not performed. Under the best circumstances, the immediate supervisor is engaged and addresses the poor performance.  Unfortunately, in many instances the issue is identified only when the agency fails a formal inspection such as Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC) or state certification audits. Several departments have experienced situations where staff, who were responsible for maintaining these records, abruptly resigned prior to the inspection. When auditors arrived, it quickly became obvious mandated inspections, verifications, and record keeping had not been maintained.

 

In other cases, dedicated key personnel experience a serious illness (i.e. cancer), injury (i.e. car accident), or family emergency (i.e. child hospitalized) and are not able to work for months. No one in the department is aware of the individual’s responsibilities. This often results in requisite tasks not being performed to standard, or in worst instances, no other staff were assigned to perform their job.

Potential Solutions

The first step to addressing this issue is to conduct an assessment to identify the threat of single points of failure within the organization. One approach is to identify any task or function in which only one person is responsible for or knows how to perform.  Another technique is to identify negative events that occurred in other departments. Using that information, leaders should ask ‘Can (describe the issue) happen in our agency or community’. The response will almost certainly be, ‘Yes’.

 

Many of these issues can be addressed through strategic planning, teamwork, and operational procedures. It is important for leaders to recognize every employee is a valued contributor to the organization. The employees closest to the problem typically know the contributing causes and the best solutions to address the issue. Once these have been identified, there are a variety of strategies agencies should consider:

 

Job Shadowing – This training technique is used to show staff how to perform simple tasks related to office activities and support functions. Individuals may engage a variety of techniques ranging from observing individuals performing tasks to conducting interviews. Shadows may also participate in regular briefings, projects, and hands-on activities.

 

Cross Training – This practice enables agencies to train an individual to perform another employee’s responsibilities.  In other instances, agencies may consider having employees trained to perform each other’s job. This approach provides an opportunity to build individuals’ skills and abilities and become more ‘well-rounded’ as well as ensure the department can better maintain continuity of operations during the absence or loss of an employee.

 

Job Sharing – In recent years, employers have found employees value a better life-work balance. Job sharing allows two or more part-time employees to perform the functions of a full-time employee. This approach ensures multiple individuals can perform the necessary tasks and reduces the costs associated with overtime and benefits. Another benefit of job sharing is that it serves as a realistic job preview for individuals who may seek a full-time job and enables the department to assess individuals’ skills and abilities.

 

Technology – The use of technology is improving police operations at an exponential rate. Not only are employees becoming more effective, but they can also function faster than any time in history. The growth of technology is occurring so fast, agency leaders must first identify their needs and then search for evolving trends in those areas.

 

Outsourcing – Agencies across the State are already employing outsourcing techniques. For example, agencies have merged 911 dispatch functions, contracted for jail services, and participated in task forces. Others are utilizing private firms to schedule off-duty jobs, perform traffic enforcement with camera systems, manage parking control functions, manage technology systems, and create websites. When considering this option, it is important to recognize some efforts to outsource activities have faced push back from the community. 

 

Notes/Directions/SOPs – With simple tasks, the steps required to complete a task can be recorded; however, with more complex, as well as potentially litigious or dangerous functions, standard operating procedures must be developed. For example, it is common for agencies to have copies of operational procedures as well as illustrated guides to remind staff how to properly secure and store evidence.

 

Regular Inspections/Audits – Leaders demonstrate the importance of activities by where they focus their attention. What gets inspected is what gets done! Agencies must periodically review their operations to ensure adequate staff are assigned and performing to established standards.  As part of these reviews, assessors should look to determine redundancies in staff who can assume responsibility for performing additional tasks.

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Often Overlooked Risks

While the focus of this article is on personnel, there are other areas that could become single points of failure. Large scale accidents or natural disasters can have a serious and sometimes a long-term impact on an organization. Inclement weather such as tornadoes, hurricanes, and ice storms can overwhelm public safety operations.

The “Flood of 1994” literally devasted southwest Georgia within 24 hours. This event impacted law enforcement agencies’ abilities and facilities for months. In 2022, one Georgia police station, along with most of its records and operational equipment, was destroyed by fire. Also, train derailments or tractor trailer crashes involving hazardous materials can cause evacuations of entire communities.

A failure of the 911 communications center can interrupt or cease all public safety operations. Agencies must have processes in place to quickly restore operations, or if needed, maintain continuity of operations through redundant facilities.

In recent years, law enforcement agencies across the nation have experienced viruses being imported into their computer systems that encrypts information and disrupts access to the network. The agency is held hostage until they pay a ransom for the ‘key’ to deactivate the virus. In addition to blocking access to the systems, attackers have been able to interrupt operations by shutting down detention security cameras, as well as accessing police officer personnel files, arrest records, court system information, dash-camera recording, and intelligence files.

Planning to mitigate and address these situations requires community leaders to coordinate with emergency management experts. As part of the process, all threats that could “possibly” occur are identified. Once this is complete, the “probability” of each possible threat occurring is estimated. Using these findings as a baseline, community leaders can work together to establish priorities and create the appropriate level of response for each.

The impact of a single point of failure can vary from slowing law enforcement operations to impacting critical infrastructure for an extended period. While every agency is exposed to some degree, it is critical for police leaders to recognize the potential ways it may occur and develop a strategy to prevent or mitigate the impact. Local leaders and citizens expect and assume public safety officials are taking action to maintain continuity of operations. Failure to engage in these processes could adversely affect the community leaders’ and citizens’ respect and confidence in the department and its management.

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