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Dispatching by the Rules

Recently, I was able to sit in with my friend at the large metropolitan communications center I used to work for. She has been a police telecommunications operator with this department for over 17 years and has seen a lot of things change and evolve, for example, philosophy, policy and technology. I was excited about this opportunity to sit a whole swing shift with her and see what has changed since I sat in those seats over five years ago.

I marveled at the changes in technology first. Although it hadn’t been that long since I was there, the landscape of the radio/9-1-1 rooms had changed a lot. The biggest change was the department had split into two communications centers. One was in the original communication center in the basement of police headquarters, and the other was in the center I worked in several miles away. Along with splitting the centers, the precincts had split. Where there had once been six precincts, there were now eight. So, essentially the workload for each frequency had been quartered. Although I could see how that would change much of the excitement of dispatching, I also realize how much safer it is now. There were times when I was working on our west side frequency on a Saturday evening in the summer and I had over 100 officers. It would be non-stop traffic and if an officer-involved emergency happened, I was just hoping they would be able to get on the air to get the help they needed. At the end of the night, I was physically, mentally and emotionally drained from keeping up. I used to worry copiously about the dispatcher who couldn’t. So, sitting and listening on the quartered frequency with my friend, I felt a sense of relief. The other major change was the sheer amount of computer equipment each dispatcher had. There were five computer screens-two upright length-wise, two on the right stacked and one on the left. They were for the phone, a GPS map, two CAD screens with officers, calls and status and the radio board. It was crazy. It made my eyes hurt just glancing at them. I was told you get used to it. 

Know your Scope

During my time on shift, my friend and I talked a lot about communication, dispatching and the police department. I asked her questions about how things had changed and how everyone was taking the changes. One thing I remembered well about police telecommunications operators was changes did not come easy and sometime it was difficult to get old timers on board especially with new technology. When our department was switching to 800 MHz and I was training, I don’t know how many times I heard, “Well I remember when we used to do this on cards and we’d send the information into dispatch on a belt.” Of course, for me this conjured up images of Adam 12, but I guess that’s the way it really was. During our conversation, my friend mentioned she was drafting a training about the scope of a radio operations job duties and responsibilities. She wondered if I would edit it for her. Of course I agreed. Reading her opening paragraph, her words touched on one of the other issues I encountered while I was a dispatcher. She spoke about how she had taken a call and choose her response not based on her training, but on her own personal experience. This resulted in her not sending an officer to a scene. Apparently, the citizen, who happened to be a child welfare worker reported it. This caused my friend to be disciplined for her response, but also to help her realize how her own experience can hinder her ability to do her job. Hence, the training module she was creating.

We’re Human

In reading the rest of her document, including the practical steps in how to be a police telecommunications operator according to policy and procedure, I recognized how easy it is to let personal experience cloud the way a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator does his or her job. I took thousands of calls that I entered into the system or didn’t enter into the system, ones that I felt I just knew all the information about and the outcome and how the officer should respond, etc, etc. Operators are human with our own experiences, but the bottom line is, and what my friend’s training pointed out was we have to do our jobs according to the rules. We can’t let our personal experience color our responses. Sure, we believe we know what the outcome will be on certain issues or that we feel we know better than the citizen what they need. Sometimes we get upset when an officer doesn’t respond or disposition the call the way we feel they should. All these reactions are normal, but they are based on our own emotions. It’s tough but each call either 9-1-1 or in radio needs to be handled “by the book.” If a citizen asks for an officer, send one. If an officer doesn’t handle the call the way you’d like, oh well. My friend mentioned several times in her training, “Let it go.” Don’t keep tabs on your calls as if you own them. Do check with your supervisor and not a co-worker, especially a new one, if you have questions about how to handle a certain situation. Do not dispatch as if you are the end all and be all of the radio world. It’s hard to let things go and not allow personal experience to enter our actions in the communications room. This doesn’t mean everyone should act like a robot. Even if someone tried to do things rote, it wouldn’t work because again we are each human.

I believe my friend’s training module will be a good one. It’s nice to be reminded that as police telecommunications operators, we don’t really carry the weight of the world on our shoulders although it feels like it sometimes. The fate of humanity is not resting in our hands and our every action will not determine the destiny of our citizens and our officers. We have a job to do and the department has put in place guidelines, rules, policies and procedures to help us do it well. We’ve been given supervisors to help guide us through those gray areas that often come up. We’re not alone in choosing the “which path to take” of the emergency situations that crop up. If, as dispatchers, we can remember this, hopefully many of us will not have to be called into our supervisor’s office to explain a decision based on our experience and not on what we have been trained to do.


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About The Author:

Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for eight years. She has an M.S. in Criminology and CJ from Indiana State University and writes full-time from Eugene, Oregon. For more information, visit