Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety telecommunicators, answer emergency and nonemergency calls.
Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers typically do the following:
- Answer 9-1-1 emergency telephone and alarm system calls
- Determine the type of emergency and its location and decide the appropriate response on the basis of agency procedures
- Relay information to the appropriate first-responder agency
- Coordinate the dispatch of emergency response personnel to accident scenes
- Give basic over-the-phone medical instructions before emergency personnel arrive
- Provide advice to callers about how they may best stay safe while waiting for assistance
- Monitor and track the status of police, fire, and ambulance units
- Synchronize responses with other area communication centers
- Keep detailed records of calls
Dispatchers answer calls from people who need help from police, firefighters, emergency services, or a combination of the three. They take emergency, nonemergency, and alarm system calls.
Dispatchers must stay calm while collecting vital information from callers to determine the severity of a situation and the location of those who need help. They then communicate this information to the appropriate first-responder agencies.
Dispatchers keep detailed records of the calls that they answer. They use computers to log important facts, such as the nature of the incident and the caller’s name and location. Most computer systems detect the location of cell phones and landline phones automatically.
Some dispatchers also use crime databases, maps, and weather reports to best prepare first responders for the situations they will encounter. Other dispatchers monitor alarm systems, alerting law enforcement or fire personnel when a crime or fire occurs. In some situations, dispatchers must work with people in other jurisdictions to share information and transfer calls.
Dispatchers often must instruct callers on what to do before responders arrive. Many dispatchers are trained to offer medical help over the phone. For example, they might help the caller to provide first aid at the scene until emergency medical services arrive.
Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma. Many states require dispatchers to have training and certification.
In addition, candidates must pass a written exam and a typing test. In some instances, applicants may need to pass a background check, lie detector and drug tests, and tests for hearing and vision.
Most states require dispatchers to be U.S. citizens, and some jobs require a driver’s license. Experience using computers and in customer service can be helpful. The ability to speak Spanish is also desirable in this occupation.
Most dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma.
Training requirements vary by state. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International) provides a list of states requiring training and certification.
Some states require 40 or more hours of initial training, and some require continuing education every 2 to 3 years. Other states do not mandate any specific training, leaving individual localities and agencies to structure their own requirements and conduct their own courses.
Some agencies have their own programs for certifying dispatchers; others use training from a professional association. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) have established a number of recommended standards and best practices that agencies often use as a guideline for their own training programs.
Training is usually conducted in a classroom and on the job, and is often followed by a probationary period of about 1 year. However, the period may vary by agency, as there is no national standard governing training or probation.
Training covers a wide variety of topics, such as local geography, agency protocols, and standard procedures. Dispatchers are also taught how to use specialized equipment, such as two-way radios and computer-aided dispatch software. Computer systems that dispatchers use consist of several monitors that display call information, maps, relevant criminal history, and video, depending on the location of the incident. Dispatchers often receive specialized training to prepare for high-risk incidents, such as child abductions and suicidal callers.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Many states require dispatchers to be certified. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) provides a list of states requiring training and certification. One certification is the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) certification, which enables dispatchers to give medical assistance over the phone.
Dispatchers may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as the National Emergency Number Association’s Emergency Number Professional (ENP) certification or APCO’s Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) certification, which demonstrate their leadership skills and knowledge of the profession.
Dispatchers can become senior dispatchers or supervisors before advancing to administrative positions, in which they may focus on a specific area, such as training, or on policy and procedures.
Training and certifications, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) training, can aide those looking to advance. Additional education and related work experience may be helpful in advancing to management-level positions.
Ability to multitask. Dispatchers must stay calm in order to simultaneously answer calls, collect vital information, coordinate responders, use mapping software and camera feeds, and assist callers.
Communication skills. Dispatchers work with law enforcement, emergency response teams, and civilians. They must be able to communicate the nature of an emergency effectively and coordinate the appropriate response.
Decisionmaking skills. Dispatchers must be able to choose between tasks that are competing for their attention. They must be able to quickly determine the appropriate action when people call for help.
Empathy. Dispatchers must be willing and able to help callers who have a wide range of needs. They must be calm, polite, and sympathetic, while also collecting relevant information quickly.
Listening skills. Dispatchers must listen carefully to collect relevant details, even though some callers might have trouble speaking because of anxiety or stress.