So You Want To Be A Dispatcher: 1) What is it?

So you’ve decided you want to become a dispatcher, but do you really know what goes into the profession? Let’s take a look at what it means to be a “dispatcher”.

There are many different job titles in this industry: dispatcher, telecommunicator, 9-1-1 operator, communications officer, fire alarm operator, call-taker. No matter what label is on the job description and no matter what the organization is the job is fundamentally the same. Dispatchers are responsible for receiving, triaging, assigning, and tracking incident of an emergency nature. Depending on where you work you may be involved in part of that process or even be responsible for the entire thing by yourself. You will are expected to work quickly and accurately, think critically, be organized, and manage stressful situations. Sometimes those situations will involve people or places you are personally connected to and you will still be expected to perform your job despite how unpleasant or upsetting it may be.

More after the break…

Every emergency service agency in the world structures their communications systems differently, however we can break most down into two major components.

  • Call Takers – Call takers are the public’s first interaction with the emergency services. You are responsible for answering 9-1-1 calls, and often non-emergency business or informational lines. Call takers gather important information like addresses, phone numbers, nature of the emergency, names, and details of the event and will provide the caller with instructions on how to help themselves or others until first responders arrive on scene. As a call taker your exposed to the raw, unadulterated emotions of the public you serve. They are calling you on the worst day of their lives and they expect help immediately. Despite the demeanor of the person on the other end of your line you must remain professional, express empathy, and provide as much support as possible until help arrives.
  • Radio Dispatchers – Radio dispatchers are the link between the public and our field personnel. When a call for service is received the radio dispatcher reviews it, assigns appropriate resources, and tracks the progress and out come of the call. Often times there will be more calls coming in than there are resources available to respond so the radio dispatcher has the added responsibility of prioritizing, or deciding which calls will be responded to first and which will have to wait, the pending calls and assigning resources. Radio dispatchers are also responsible for maintaining awareness of all of their resources’ status, well being, and availability at all times, communicating and receiving vital information during chaotic events, and performing computer inquires for field units.

In some agencies you will be expected to perform just one of these functions at a time. In other agencies you may be expect to do both. You may only be responsible for police, fire, or medical units, or you may be responsible for all three. Each organization is unique, but no matter where you work you will be expected to perform your job 100% accurately during the most stressful times in your community.

You can also expect to work nights, weekends, and holidays. It’s also not uncommon for dispatchers to work 10, 12, or 16 hour shifts and to work more than a regular 40 hour work week. You’ll be inside a building, usually with few to no windows, sitting down for hours on end. Breaks are usually short and are often interrupted. Stress and exposure to chaos is normal, and the chances of being thanked are slim. People will swear at you, insult you, question your judgement, beg for their lives, beg for their loved ones lives, and even threaten you.

There is a bright side though. Despite the negatives you have the opportunity every day to make a difference in the lives of people in your community. You’ll use your talents of compassion, critical thinking, and management to protect and assist the citizens and responders you serve. You will make a difference. This job is truly a front row seat to the best show on earth. It’s not for everyone, but if your one of the special few who can make the cut you’ll never want to have another job.


Editors Note:

This is the first installment of a series titled “So You Want to be a Dispatcher?” that we will be publishing tin the coming weeks. The series will focus on important topics and advise for starting out in the emergency communications field.