“What’s it like?” I field this question over and over as friends, relatives and people I’ve just met hear about my background as a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher. It’s a fascinating occupation. We’re always just on the periphery of police work. Just look at cop shows from old to new. In the mix, there is a police telecommunications operator doing his or her job just on the outskirts of the main event. Talking to and reading works about answering 9-1-1 lines and dispatching shows there is a common experience. When I asked people what they wish officers and citizens knew about what we do (along with reading the snarky, but fun cartoons that float around Facebook), I came up with some common themes.
1. I can do 10 things at once. I’m a master at multi-tasking but that doesn’t mean I can drop what I am doing to assist you right this second. It also doesn’t mean that if you hear me talking to someone else (on the floor, on the phone) that I am not hearing and comprehending what you are saying as well. I will help you as soon as I am able. I will probably do this while helping 2 of your fellow officers, a citizen and my supervisor.
2. I do have a sense of humor. Just not when the joke is aimed at me. I live and thrive in the same dark, cynical world that officers dwell in. My coping mechanisms are much the same and I often crack jokes about things that most people do not think are funny. On the other hand, when I overhear your partner tell me to, “Get the penis out of my ear,” I suddenly lose my funny bone. And, when this happens a strange ailment occurs that requires me to send you every boring paper call for the next month. It’s uncanny how that happens.
3. I’m not a dating service. Historically, dispatch has had a bad name in the hook-up department. Most of which was founded. Regardless, we are professionals and many of us attempt to act as such. Therefore, please do not ask me if so and so is single when you visit the floor and definitely do not call me to ask if the new girl with the soft voice is as hot as she sounds. As for my citizens, no you cannot call and ask me for the personal information of the super cute officer that just came out to take your criminal damage call (I call dibs. See the beginning of this paragraph. JK).
4. I am not a secretary. Please do not ask me to call your girlfriend and tell her you are stuck on a call and will be late for dinner nor will I tell your wife that you are stuck on a call when you are having dinner with your girlfriend. I may be able to do 10 things at once (see #1) but that does not mean that I am free to make personal phone calls for you. I am a public safety professional. I have a very specific job that includes some customer service, but not that kind of customer service. Typing Tele-types, yes. Memos, no.
5. I’m a control freak. Of course, I say this in the nicest possible way. I like to know where my officers are at all moments. I like phone calls to go in the most structured way possible. It is because I am a control freak that I can do my job well. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t have the neurotic ability to read calls, dispatch, talk on the phone, look up a number and still notice within seconds that you made yourself available and assign you the theft from vehicle that’s been holding for five hours (especially if I’m without a funny bone at that moment. See #2).
6. I am not a switchboard operator. I cannot connect you to another person even if that person works at the police department in another jurisdiction. And, no I cannot transfer you to the non-emergency line when you call 9-1-1. On the other hand, having that giant board and all those plug in lines could be kind of fun. (Not to mention, the eavesdropping which helps me with #5).
7. I ask the questions I ask in the order that I ask in the way that I ask for a reason. Not only am I following policy and procedures (which can change at any moment at the whims of management which seriously disturbs my #5), but I have learned that finding out certain information in a certain order works to keep both my officers safe and gives citizens the best possible service.
8. When the computer is down, the computer is down. I do not have a magic network which allows me to make you a card, dispo a call or run someone when your computer is not able to. I cannot do it either. I am not being difficult or lazy. I simply cannot create technological miracles at this time (I am trying. Again, see #5).
9. I probably do not know your friend. Although for some small agencies this might not be true, for me, my agency has over 300 officers. New York PD has some 10,000. So, just because I do not know your neighbor’s brother who works somewhere in my department on some unit or another does not mean that I don’t have awareness. It just means I don’t know every single person that I work with. I attempt to (see #5) but haven’t managed it yet.
10. I do care. I may not sound like it. I am trained to maintain my composure to help you. This often comes across as a dry, inflectionless monotone. After all, would you really like it if I broke down into tears or hysterics right alongside you? I began this profession because I wanted to help people, both citizens and officers. The hours of boredom, or tedious crazy dispatching of call after call after call, alongside the calls where I listen to screaming, crying, shouting, violence, hysterics and dying and essentially cannot do a thing except for wait for officers to get there, has created who I am. I love my job and the people I do it for.
I hope this is helpful for anyone who wanted to know a bit more about what I and the thousands of other 9-1-1 operator/dispatchers do all day and night sitting at our little computer stations…controlling the world.