Officer safety is the most important thing in law enforcement. Everyone gains when an officer makes it through incidents and goes home after shift. We, as emergency communications operators, play an important role in increasing and maintaining officer safety. We do this in different ways starting from the beginning of our careers and ending when we give our last transmission.
In the Beginning
I remember the excitement and the anticipation that filled me when I walked into the classroom my first day as a 9-1-1 operator. I knew the training would be grueling but what really stood out for me was a heavy sense of importance. Not in a narcissistic way although I’ll admit that as I got better at what I did it evolved more into this. It was more of my head swimming with my officer husband’s comments about how dispatchers had the power to really mess things up for them. I sat down at that table determined to be a dispatcher that focused on officer safety and my role in it.
Every agency has a unique training program. Some larger agencies have a whole training section with dedicated people who put together curriculum based on best-practices. Some agencies just have those on the floor teaching the newbies based on their experience. Either way, listen closely to your trainer and keep an open mind. Often, emergency communications operators have strong personalities even from the beginning and this can lead us to feel things should be done a certain way all the time. Try not to be rigid and don’t take it personally when you make a mistake. It’s part of the journey to becoming a great dispatcher.
Listen more than you talk
Self-initiate learning. Look around and see who you admire. Who has the respect of the officers and other dispatchers? Ask them for advice. Ask your officers what dispatchers do that increase and decrease their safety. Learn from their experience. Although learning from other dispatchers is a great way to increase your ability, our perception of what officers need may not always be accurate. Be willing to open your ears and shut your mouth.
In the Moment
When an emergency call comes in and you have officers en-route or an officer comes on screaming, this is our time to shine. This is when it is most important for us to lean on our training and keep control of the situation while focusing on officer safety.
Don’t lose your cool
Working emergency traffic is crazy. Adrenaline shoots through our bodies and hypervigilance sets in. Unfortunately, we can not physically fight or flight. We have to sit in our chair, typing and pushing buttons while internally we want to explode out of our skins. Due to this, it is easy to get flustered, start making mistakes and stop thinking clearly. Take a deep breath, try to relax and plan to go for a very long run when you get off shift.
On the other spectrum of the fight/flight response is freeze. Recently, a dispatcher friend of mine was telling me about a critical incident they had. Afterwards, she listened to the tape and was appalled. The relatively new dispatcher had an officer down and other officers were trying to get information from her. “She said absolutely nothing for at least three whole minutes,” my friend lamented the disgust heavy in her voice. As an emergency communications operator, the life-line for your officers, there is nothing worse than doing nothing. You may not know exactly what to do right right then, but do something or get someone who can.
Do ask for assistance
If you are feeling overwhelmed or unsure about what to do, ask for help. There is often a relief operator or another operator available to help you if you need it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness or inability to do your job, it’s a sign that you’re looking out for the best interest of your officers and that is definitely not a weakness or inability. If you are with a small agency or don’t have another operator available to help you utilize those in the supervisor’s pod. Whatever you do ask for the help you need instead of doing a half-baked job or doing nothing.
Don’t dominate the air
There is no feeling worse than putting your foot down and hearing the tell-tale sound of covering a unit who is trying to clear at the same time, unless of course this happens when you are working emergency traffic. Realistically though, this is going to happen. Focus on keeping your end of the air as open as possible so that those who may need to get help can. Keep your comments brief but understandable. We have a tendency to want to control the situation from our end and often this exhibits itself as too much domination of air time.
Do give the officers all the information
As operators, we aren’t privy to exactly what is going on on-scene. Due to this, we don’t really know what information is important to pass on. Often it feels we have too many details and we hesitate to take up airtime with superfluous information. What we need to remember is although we can make an educated guess about what needs to be said over the air and what doesn’t, we shouldn’t hold on to any information. If it’s too much to read, alert the patrol supervisor and let him or her know there is a lot of information typed into the call and to be aware of it. Let them make the choice to sort through it and relay what’s important. In the same vein, make sure you continue to read the incoming information on call. A suspect description, direction of travel or the appearance of weapons might be hidden twenty-five lines down.
Throughout your Career
Even after our initial training days are long in the past and when nothing much is going on, we can be cognizant of how we influence officer safety and focus on ways to be valuable people and employees. There are things that we can do for ourselves throughout our careers that make us better operators.
Take care of yourself
Mental, physical and emotional well-being is super important if you want to be at your very best every moment you are on shift. Get enough exercise. Eat well. Practice stress-reduction techniques such as meditation. Use alcohol and caffeine in moderation. Get enough sleep. Take time off. Have interests outside the agency. All those things that help maintain our balance will help us increase officer safety.
Training doesn’t end once you get that certificate saying you are a full-fledged emergency communications operator. Continuing to learn good dispatching techniques, increase knowledge of the technology you use as well as continuing to learn good wellness techniques can make your trek through your career an easier, more satisfying, less physical and mentally disintegrating one. Join associations such as National Emergency Number Association (NENA) and the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and utilize their offerings.
When I was completing my fire training, my instructor told me a motto I should hold close to my heart when it came to prioritizing during a critical incident, “You go home. Your partner goes home. The citizen goes home.” As dispatchers, this applies to us as well. We need to take care of ourselves and continue learning so that we can make sure our co-workers, our officers, go home as well. Finally, these skills will trickle down to our citizens because making the streets a safer place for our law enforcement makes the streets safer for them as well. We don’t control the world, although many of us feel like we should and could. What we can control is how we view our role in officer safety and our continuation to make that a priority with our actions.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.