Recently, a fellow writer here at Officer.com (John Wills) sent me a request. He is putting together a book of stories called Women Warriors: Stories from the Thin Blue Line. This compilation highlights the experience of women who are on the front line of public safety. Police officers, of course, but also the stories of dispatchers will be included. I was honored to be asked to contribute, but the request also made me stop and contemplate a dispatcher's role.
During my time behind the console, people expected many things of me. I was expected to know rules and regulations, policies and procedures, police code and common practices. Even with all those things floating around my head, the things that mattered most to me personally was what my officers expected from me; and I did consider them MY officers. When I took over a frequency, every single person working on the other end of the radio was my responsibility. I felt like the mother hen and it was my purpose in life at that moment to keep them safe and send them home at the end of their shift. It was my duty; my calling. I found several common themes in what they needed from me.
(Respond promptly to calm my fears)
One of the complaints I heard most from my officers sounded something like this, "I can't stand it when I clear on the radio and wait for a response. And wait and wait. I clear again and finally the radio clicks on and the dispatcher responds still laughing from whatever conversation she had previously been having. You can even hear the other dispatcher laughing in the background. It's ridiculous. Do your job."
Although I feel many officers underestimate the incredible ability dispatchers have to multi-task, I understand there is decorum on the radio that necessitates quick verbal response and illustration of full attention. Most dispatchers are hyper-sensitive to the sounds on the radio and are very present and paying attention, but their tone over the radio may not relay this and can cause loss of confidence from the officers. Even though the request might be of a non-emergency nature, it can illicit the thought, "Are you going to be paying attention when I really need you?"
(You don't have to always know why)
"Can you tell me what time the sun set?" After receiving this request on our information channel one night, I remember thinking, "What the...?" Where in the world was I going to find that? And how was I going to find the time in between all my requests to do so? What I wanted to ask the officer was, "Seriously? Why?"
This situation shows how rigid I could be even when I was working on a channel which had the sole purpose of giving officers whatever information they might need. I ended up grabbing the newspaper and looked at the official time of the sunset. Later that night, the officer called and I asked what was up with the request. He explained he had given a traffic ticket to a young man after pulling him over for not having his headlights on. The gentleman had argued probable cause and stated he only had to have his lights on after dusk. Hence, the need for confirmation of when the weather service said the sun had set.
Avoid power struggles
(It's not all about you)
One evening I sent a low-priority burglary call to one of my officers. It didn't need to be announced over the air, nor did he need to respond verbally accepting the call. It was his beat area and he had been available. A minute later, I looked over at his status and he had put himself 10-6 (busy) at a nearby location. Not a big deal, I took back the call and continued with my work. The next time I looked, he was available again, so I sent him the call. Again, within minutes he made himself 10-6. I took back the call. By this time, I was grumbling and telling the dispatcher next to me how lazy this officer must be and how annoying it was to me that he wasn't taking the call. 30 minutes later he was available. A few keystrokes and he was the proud owner of a burglary report. A few more and he was 10-6 again. Now, I was livid.
I took back the call and told everyone who would listen that officers never do their jobs and that's why citizens are always pissed and just whatever came to mind. Looking back, I realize what upset me most was that I expected things to run a certain way and when he continued to do something not to my expectation (and liking), I felt like it was a personal affront to my role and responsibility (or in my mind my authority). I never did find out why this officer kept going busy. Maybe he was avoiding the call or maybe he was on a detail I didn't need to know about. Regardless, I'm ashamed to admit, I sent him every paper call I could for a good month after that night. Not the most professional thing I could have done, but it highlights why it's important to avoid power struggles especially imaginary ones.
Keep it fun
(Don't bore me to death)
On third shift, we had a dispatcher who read out calls like she was a talk show host. She wasn't unprofessional. Her voice was full of excitement and often was just what the officers needed to stay awake on some slow nights. Some officers loathed her way of dispatching, but most thought it was fun. One of the hardest things to teach and maintain when working the radio is your sense of humor. Things are often not what they seem. Policy changes occur mid-shift. Calm can go to chaos in a matter of seconds and vice versa. Keeping a sense of fun around your job translates out into the field. Keep from having a bored, monotone voice. Who wants to listen to that for 10 hours? A pleasant voice and demeanor goes a long way in making officers like and respect you and your position.
Be their lifeline
(Be there to help me)
All this said, you can be the most cantankerous, inflexible, grouchy, boring dispatcher every night of the week, as long as your officers know you know where they are, who they are with and will get them help effectively, efficiently and immediately when they need it. Especially in areas where old radio systems do not allow officers to hear each other, their dispatcher could be key to their survival. Talk to any officer and they might not be able to tell you the name, but they recognize the voice of that dispatcher they feel safest with. Be that person.
A colleague recently sent me a quote she had heard. I think this sums up the relationship between dispatcher and officer beautifully:
You may know where you are.
And God may know where you are.
But if dispatch doesn't know where you are,
You and God better be on very good terms.