You Can’t Just Do My (Dispatcher) Job

Seven computer screens. Doing seven things at once. Controlling chaos with just your voice. These are all things that make 9-1-1 operators/dispatchers unique. These are skills and attributes that make who we are and what we do special. You can’t just...


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

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