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Officer Safety and Survival for Dispatchers?

I make my living training law enforcement personnel.  The topics include officer safety, leadership, resiliency, career enhancement, organizational communication and more.  In nearly every class there are always a few public safety dispatchers.  Often they are there because they’re a supervisor, a police spouse, or they want to make the transition to the street, but there are always a few highly motivated dispatchers who want to learn what cops are learning so that they can better serve them.  These are some of my favorite students.

I was a dispatcher before I was a cop, and in 2008 I was asked to teach at a large California-based dispatcher conference.  I chose to teach them officer safety concepts.  The response was overwhelming! I now spend a significant part of my time helping dispatchers understand what cops are facing on the street, and making sure the officers learn to appreciate how essential a good dispatcher is to their own ability to win.  Here are just a few things we need to share with our brothers and sisters in the comm. center:

Conflicting Missions:

Let’s acknowledge that our missions on the street may seem different than the mission in the communications center.  Dispatchers have to take the call, sort out what they can, and get it out to the officers as quickly as possible. Time is a dispatcher’s enemy, and they battle it constantly.  On the other hand, we teach officers to find out as much information as possible given the situation, we caution them not to rush in, so as a dispatcher is trying to push information out, the cops keep asking more questions.  No wonder we get frustrated with each other!  An understanding of each other’s basic procedures, goals, and mindset are essential.

We need to acknowledge that dispatch is a “support function” of the organization, but that does not make them any less important.  The cops are trying to control what’s happening on the street, the dispatchers are trying to control the chaos in the comm. center, and we’re all trying to “service and protect” our communities while keeping the officers and the innocents safe.  We need to keep that collective mission in mind at all times.

Officer Safety v. Officer Survival:

“Officer Survival” is the central focus of most police training programs, but “survival” is so minimalistic.  We don’t want cops to just survive, we want them to win! And this philosophy must be shared with our dispatch personnel as well.  Dispatchers must be taught true “officer safety” principles, including considerations on various calls, “The Ten Deadly Errors for Law Enforcement,” how to fight the effects of “routine,” and so much more.  The more dispatchers know, the safer their cops are.

The communications center also needs to share the same “Warrior Ethos” as the officers on the street.  Values such as loyalty, duty, strength, courage, selflessness; protecting the young, the weak, the victimized. That’s what warriors do; and we protect each other as well as ourselves.  Dispatchers are part of the warrior culture that is law enforcement.  Teach it to them, and they will embrace it.


Dispatchers communicate for a living, so why is this an issue?  Cops and dispatchers often don’t communicate well with each other because we seem to be speaking two different languages.  The culture on the street is very different that the culture of the communications center and police organizations are sometimes hesitant to bring the two together.  How many “911” centers are off limits to the line personnel.  Many are in different buildings; cops can go for years and never see the face of that person on the other end of the microphone.  We also have gender issues (police work is male dominated, dispatch is female dominated) and generational issues that can lead to misunderstandings.  Addressing all of this in training your dispatchers is key.  Provide the groundwork for good communication skills, and then bring the cops and dispatchers together on each other’s turf.  Dispatcher ridealongs with patrol are somewhat common, and should be mandatory on an annual basis.  But yearly officer “sit alongs” in the comm. center should also be mandatory, starting with patrol sergeants.

Dispatchers must also be involved in the aftermath of most incidents.  Dispatchers and call takers often lack a sense of closure.  They may spend critical minutes on the phone with a hysterical domestic violence victim or on the radio with an officer screaming for back up, but they may never learn the entire outcome of the situation.  Supervisors need to take the lead in providing a brief synopsis to the communications personnel involved in any “hot” situation.  If the incident is a critical one, such as an injured officer, a child homicide, an officer-involved shooting, we must make sure that dispatcher are brought into the de-briefings that follow.  Dispatch training must include “emotional survival” as well as officer safety.

Training Beyond the Classroom:

Scenario-based training is essential to modern law enforcement.  In this age of active shooters, officer ambushes and more, the more realistic our training is the better prepared we will be, and this includes our dispatch personnel.  During scenario training, don’t have another officer “play” a dispatcher on a portable radio.  Clear a channel and use real dispatchers.  Even during firearms training, whether on the range or on a simulator, use dispatchers to add a realistic element to the training.  This will help them understand what officers are experiencing during a gunfight or other critical situation.

Officers and dispatchers aren’t really that far apart in their goals, their mission or their mindset, they just need a little help in breaking down those organizational silos that sometimes separate them.  Using the grassroots “Not Today!” concept can help bring everyone together.  If every day, regardless of assignment, we teach our personnel to say “Not Today, Not on My Shift, Not on My Watch, Not on This Call. I Will Not Allow Routine to De-Train Me, I Will Not Be Caught Unaware.”  We all need to be part of a culture of safety, not just survival, and that includes those warriors in the communications center. 

Training for Dispatchers:


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