Recently I finished an amazing novel, Baking Cakes in Kingali by Gaile Parkin. It tells the story of Angel Tungaraza who lives in Rwanda and runs her own cake bakery (as well as being the town’s voice of reason). My favorite thing about Parkin’s main character is that Angel feels deeply devoted to her craft and the tasks she must perform to produce the product and the service she feels is important. She refuses to devalue her work and constantly reminds herself as well as others that she is a “professional somebody.”
This is how I feel about being a 9-1-1 Operator/Dispatcher. Many of us believe it is a calling and it takes a special person to be able to handle the stresses of the job while at the same time being really, really good at it. I agree. The belief that those of us who work the phones and radio are professionals leads me to great annoyance when I hear people say that someone can just fill in. I’ve heard that understaffing can be solved by just putting some officers in there. I find this as ridiculous as saying that you could take a dispatcher and have him or her work in patrol because the beat officer took a vacation. Although there are numerous reasons why public safety telecommunications operators are uniquely trained and qualified (as well as having nuanced personalities), here are four main reasons I think it’s ridiculous that someone can just “step in”.
All those Computers and Software and Stuff
If you haven’t been to the 9-1-1/dispatch floor lately, I highly recommend you head down there. The days of writing and reading off of cards are over. Even the days of having one computer screen and a telephone are long gone. Now a telecommunications operators console looks like someone played Tetris with technology. At my former agency, 9-1-1 operators have three screens: Computer-Aided Dispatch (CAD), telephone and 9-1-1 Map. In radio, there are 7: phone, 9-1-1 map, Calls Holding/Available Units List, Working Screen (which shows call details, hits, messages from officers and 9-1-1), Status List, AVL map (GPS for units) and a radio board (all the talk groups you could imagine). All of this at our hot little fingertips.
Along with all the screens are all the programs that those screens allow you to access such as criminal history checks (both local and national), internet, MDTs, SMART911, ANI/ALI information, etc. etc. Not having a clue about the technology or where to look when would be a show stopper for most who think they could walk into 9-1-1 or dispatch, sit down and just start answering a phone or talking on the radio. Guess there’s a bit of training that has to happen first.
Octopus Queens (and Kings): Multi-Tasking
No one quite appreciates a dispatcher’s ability to do seven things at once until they really need him or her. During a pursuit or an officer-involved shooting the controlled chaos that occurs at the console is a sight to behold. The dispatcher is listening to all the units on the air, getting a supervisor or the fire department or another agency on the phone, patching in other frequencies, answering questions thrown at her by her own supervisor and the dispatchers around her with adjoining interests while at the same time typing everything everyone says and keeping an eye on the location of all her officers.
You have to be able to retain information in your head. You have to be able to decipher what someone is saying to you. You have to be able to talk and listen at the same time. All while craziness is occurring around you. You don’t have time to stop and say, “I need time to process.” You have to just keep plugging away and this is a true talent. Watching a really good multi-tasking dispatcher at work is an amazing thing. He or she will look like it’s the easiest thing in the world. They won’t even break a sweat. I don’t think we could say that about someone stepping in from the outside.
Keep your Butt in the Seat
This is a tough one even for those who have worked the floor for a long time but we continue to do it. We are solution driven. We want to figure out what the problem is quickly and find an answer for it. Ultimately, most of the time our answer is to send an officer out to sort through the mess. But, we must remain attached to our desks. We have to be able to find solutions while being physically removed from the action. We cannot get up and walk away. We can’t go get a soda or take a bathroom break without someone relieving us. We can’t make ourselves busy or stay on a traffic stop just a little bit longer after the driver has left so we can take a breather or even finish our paperwork.
You become completely immersed in your 9-1-1/radio world. Often hours will pass and you won’t even notice especially on a busy night or during an emergency. You have to be able to stay in a fixed position while providing essential services. Most officers would run from the room heading straight to the scene. We have to protect in place.
Controlling the Scene-With Just your Voice
This one is a lot like keeping your butt in the seat but it speaks to what a dispatcher/9-1-1 operator does while in the seat. A public safety telecommunications operator must control a scene with just his or her voice. We cannot use our physical presence or handcuff one party and make them sit on the curb. We cannot separate people physically. What we can do is control the tone of our voice, the way we talk to both 9-1-1 callers and officers and what we say. Like that look that all mothers seem to have down perfectly (you know that one that still makes you cringe and feel like you want to hide under a rock even now as an adult), public safety telecommunicators can control most scenes with just a tone. We know when to be hard, when to be soft and when to have someone else get on the phone. This part of the job is both nature and nurture. It’s an instinct that is groomed with experience and training.
I’m not saying that some of the tasks of being a 9-1-1 operator/dispatcher couldn’t be handled by others. I’m sure some people (especially officers who know how things work and understand how to give customer service) could come and do an adequate job with portions of our job. What I am saying is that public safety telecommunicators have unique qualities, training and abilities. We are definitely professional somebodies.