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Answering the Call…Becoming a 911 Dispatcher

   At the Ready Staff -
      with Kristin, from
Diary of a Mad Dispatcher
EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

   Most people call 911 only a few times in their lives. The crisis initiating the phone call - whether fire, medical emergency, crime, or natural disaster - is real and terrifying. Most callers do not have first responder training, and a limited knowledge about what to expect. TV shows may provide a glimpse into the world of the police or fire service, but few opportunities exist to expose the public to what really goes on "behind the call." Dispatch professionals are the first person in the chain of responders in an emergency. First, they must assess the problem, and send the right type of assistance needed. Then, they must keep the frantic caller on the line calm enough to get relevant information to the dispatched units en route, as well as give directions to the caller, such as how to do CPR, or to "stay put" until help arrives.

   So, how does one become a dispatcher? Kristin Kitchen, a county dispatcher in southeastern North Carolina, receives three to four calls a week asking just that. At The Ready Magazine asked Kristin, blogger of Diary of a Mad Dispatcher, to tell us, too.

   The challenges in learning the skills to be a dispatcher are many, and some natural talent is required. This profession is not for everyone. Dispatchers must be able to memorize a large volume of information to answer the phone competently in the first place. Your dispatcher must know the "protocols, codes, signals, and standard operations" not just for your agency, but for all the agencies they dispatch for. Multi-tasking is an absolute pre-requisite. Once you have memorized the volume of information above, then you may be required to execute ten things - all at once. Sit behind banks of screens with multiple keyboards and a mouse? Yup. They do that in some centers.

   For such a vital profession, dispatcher standards and responsibilities vary widely. Not all states require dispatcher certifications. Dispatcher agencies may be public or private. Some may serve a single responder unit, others multiple types of agencies. Dispatcher agencies’ areas of coverage can range from a few square miles to an entire county. Training largely depends on the type of agency the dispatcher will be working with. Some agencies hold "New Hire" in-house training for dispatchers; some still hand the trainee a headset and have them learn it on the job. As Kristin reminds us, "This is not a profession where you can head down to the local trade school or community college and sign up for telecommunicator classes."

   Dispatchers are the link between the emergency and the responders. If you are dispatched to a code, and the bystander is doing CPR, chances are the dispatcher is telling them what to do. "In the last 13 years I have watched CPR change from 30 compressions and 2 breaths to 600 compressions no breaths. We are always evolving in this field," Kristin says. In her own agency, dispatchers are required to obtain 36 hours of EMS/Fire training every 2 years.

   Without uniform certification standards in every state, the training a dispatcher needs is highly dependent on the size and type of responder they are dispatching for. Because some centers dispatch for only one type of responder, others for many different agencies, the type and number of hours to receive and maintain certification is hard to pin down. Some certifications, even state-mandated ones, cannot be obtained unless you already are working as a telecommunicator.

   So, what is a day in a life of a dispatcher? Kristin let us know. "My average day is 12 hours long. I am a day shifter, so we start at 7am and get off at 7pm. In these 12 hours we have 3, count 'em 3, 10-minute breaks. No lunch breaks, we eat at our consoles. We dispatch for the City police department, the Sheriff's Department, 3 beach police depts., the University police dept., all fire agencies and all EMS agencies for the entire county. We have 11 dispatch consoles that must be manned at all times. Every dispatcher in my center is cross-trained on every radio console and call take. We rotate on the consoles to keep up the skills required to work each one."

For more information, or to read some great tales of the dispatch world, please contact Kristin by her Facebook page: Diary of a Mad Dispatcher.

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