How many times you turned to your partner/beat buddy/or crew member at the station and bad mouthed ‘those stupid dispatchers’? I don’t expect a response, because when I worked in the field I did it myself - frequently. Who doesn’t get upset when they are pushed by Dispatch (add in the name of your radio dispatchers official designated call sign) to clear an event faster? So what if calls are piled up? You’ve taken three cold reports to the TAC unit’s one. Isn’t it time she helps out? And sure, there are medical calls stacked, but you know that the runs are all code two transfers. A few more minutes won’t matter. And dammit, that’s the third time the fire alarm has gone off in that warehouse in the middle of the night this week. The air conditioner vent is triggering the alarm – the alarm company knows it, why doesn’t dispatch get a clue?
Come on folks, do you really think that we’re that dumb? Give us a little credit here. Why anyone would want to be a dispatcher, or as many of my co-workers are calling themselves now: Public Safety Telecommunicators, is beyond the comprehension to most first responders.
Alright, stop scratching your heads. Many of us behind the radio are former EMTS, Paramedics, Law Enforcement Officers and Firefighters. I have talked to hundreds of dispatchers over the years and can say with confidence, most of us stumbled in to the job by circumstance. Injuries preventing field work (know a few folks who had to transfer because of this), a need for better pay & benefits and steadier less dangerous work (yours truly, when a sick child came along), a lack of field unit positions (easier to transfer within a department), and have that degree but can't use it, so might as well get paid decently doing something else (know a lot of these). In other words: life smacked us down.
SO, back to those lucky ones still out in the fresh (or, not so fresh in the inner cities)...
Getting a lunch break is difficult when it’s busy. I know you pretend to have an extensive clean-up of the ambulance and lot’s of paperwork ro completes when you’re really grabbing your food. After a few bites, you ask for a lunch break. I don’t blame you – hell, I played that game myself. Static on the radio? Crumpled up newspapers worked great, oh, but wait – most of you out there now use internet for your news. Kinda hard to smash tablets in your hands in place of newspapers these days. Radio dead zones? Yep, I used that one (Super wasn’t happy with us, but we proved it was true). Ah, you can still receive calls on the MDT’s & cell phones - look's like technology kills that excuse for you folks. Didn’t hear the radio because I was out of the bus (didn’t have portables issued to us back then)? Well, once again, suck it up and answer me on the phone.
How many times have you called dispatch and asked one of us to go along with one of your practical jokes? I bet most of the time we were willing. Hell, I bet we’ve even gotten one in on you on occasion. We certainly pull the wool over each other’s eyes every now and then. I know I had my hand slapped a few times for jokes I pulled, but I managed to get away with more than I got caught. Don’t worry, I can take a joke as well as I pull it. Too bad there’s not more humor in the workplace, we all need humor these days…
Damn, thinking about it, I’m glad I don’t work in the field anymore. There’s no freedom, no fun. No ambulance races at 0400 hours, midnight sing-alongs on the county med-channel, chasing cats on full moon nights (those suckers could run fast on the sidewalks). What about the gathering of cops & ems personnel gathered around a small portable TV in a rig, because it’s 0500 and time for a women’s aerobics show masquerading as soft-corn porn? Yeah, it’s pathetic, but worth a laugh when you think about it. No midnight BBQ's at a mid-way standby point. Hell, I bet you've never organized an impromptu roadtrip in a spare unit to an amusement park (just make sure you get the Supervisor's permission first).
Let me shed a little light on the subject of the hiring process. We go through a lot of hoops to say '10-4' to you. How does a person become a dispatcher? Thinking back, my high school guidance counselor didn’t know what to do with me. I told him I wanted to be a paramedic and he just scratched his head. A para-what? I’m sure nowadays that job description is listed but back then, no job counselor had a clue. I bet if I had told him a wanted to be a dispatcher I’d have had him running in circles! Even today, how does one prepare for the job?
Let's start with my journey as an example…
I started out as an EMT, many, many years ago when Suburbans, low-top vans, and Cadillacs were still commonly used for patient transport. Mom & Pop ambulance companies were the normal. There was no National Registry. In fact, in Los Angeles County, the City of Los Angeles and the City of Carson required business licenses for EMS personnel to run calls in their jurisdictions. I suppose larger companies bought licenses to cover all employees, but the smaller ones had the individual employees buy their own. I still have mine licenses saved. We were paid from 0800 to 1700 hours, after that only when we were actually on runs. Did we occasionally ‘come across a fire company waiting’ on an ambulance? Sure, we did (after hiding our scanner). Did we take the long route to a hospital? Hell yes, as long as patient care wasn’t compromised, but then the late 70’s early 80’s were a different time altogether. I remember carrying a CHP box in my rig full of supplies. The CHP box was never touched, just in case the Highway Patrol pulled us over for a surprise inspection. Yes – they did that back then and actually counted the number of Kling and gauze pads.
It was those days of scrounging for overtime that I was given the opportunity to learn dispatch as a back-up in case the regular dispatcher called off sick or wanted a day off. That led to further work at other companies as a dispatcher while waiting for an EMT slot to open up, or later while on maternity leave. Eventually, I signed up and was hired by an agency as a 9-1-1 dispatcher.
So, let’s start with the basic hiring process just to get hired. How does one become a Public Safety Dispatcher (PSD)? First, fill out an application with an agency that is accepting them. I filled out multiple appliactions with different agencies (one never knows who will paper screen a person out). Once I passed the initial paper screening process, I was invited to take a written test. Passing that, I went to a practical test. No problem. The next step was an oral board – a little intimidating, but I passed that, too. Some agencies do polygraphs. Then they schedule psychological exams, medicals, and drug screens. An intense background is done, and if you pass (I did), an offer is made. Now comes the HARD part: training.
When I first started with Berkeley Police, everything was done by hand. Our Communications Center was in a room without any windows, with a false wall separating the two radios from the call-takers. A long belt with two forward moving and one backwards moving conveyer belts. The belts moved data cards with call information back & forth. All phones were PBX push-buttons. Our maps were paper, with the beats drawn out for call-takers, and enclosed in glass for police & fire radio dispatch in the radio area. There were slots in the radio areas, with corresponding lights – flip a toggle switch on. The light was green without a card in it, red with a card (green for available, red for busy status). The police dispatcher could write on the glass, noting suspect description, block covers, pursuits, etc. The fire person had a card file with the response districts and due companies all the way from single engine to a third alarm and mutual aid listed.
We could run license plates or vehicle identification numbers (VINs), but the Records Bureau handled the frequency in which patrol ran persons/plates/vehicles, etc for wants & info. A few years into my tenure dispatcher took over that channel as full entry operators.
Training consisted of three phases: phones, fire dispatching, and police dispatching. After we upgraded to the warrant channel, we added that as the third phase and made police dispatching the fourth. When we changed from paper to Computed-Aided Dispatching (CAD) that, too, became part of the call-taking training. Between classroom and the one-on-one with a Civilian Training Officer (the equivalent of a field training officer), plus some time to evaluate the rookie dispatcher on their own, our training program soon stretched out to almost a year. The probationary period went from six months when I was initially hired to a year. I tried to get it changed to two years, as the patrol officers had, with no luck.
Fast forward a few years…I received training POST (Peace Officers Standards and Training)certified (Calif) in Basic Dispatching, Civilian Training Officer, Civilian Supervisor, and Tactical Dispatcher. I became a training officer, then The Communications Center training coordinator, Supervising Public Safety Dispatcher, and a member of the Barricaded Subject/Hostage Negotiation Team (remember – it’s Berkeley, BSHNT is a PC name for SWAT Team).
As any 9-1-1 Dispatcher can attest, the public doesn’t just call 9-1-1 for real emergencies. I lost count of the nuisance calls years ago. What time is it? Questions on cooking, directions, which store has the latest greatest gadget for sale, did we have (insert natural disaster in any region but yours here), had nightmare, 4-1-1 info, or just bored and want someone to talk to. Yep, I even had a tomato call 9-1-1 – not kidding on that one. Don’t forget the real disasters: Loma Prieta, Oakland-Berkeley Hills Fire, a dozen demonstrations & riots. As for abuses, the mother of them all was a frequent flier who called 9-1-1 in the triple digit numbers one weekend. We convinced the District Attorney to press charges, and the person was convicted. Unfortunately, you just can’t fix stupid.
As a dispatcher, I’ve had to deal with heartbreak. Thanks to TV shows like Rescue 911, ER, and Trauma, the public thinks we all are able to give pre-arrival medical instructions. Not true. I let my EMT certification expire two years in to my time with Berkeley after an incident involving a baby who was found pulseless & non-breathing by its parents from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). A coworker attempted to provide instructions on CPR, then handed the phone to me without any warning. I saw the writing on the wall, and fearing liability let the certification lapse.
Over the years, I’ve dealt with people dying on the phone while I’ve waited for the help to arrive. I’ve calmed down panicked field units, figuring out where they were until helped arrived. I’ve had to deal with ‘missing’ field personnel who disappeared during the night (read between the lines – aka fell asleep). I’ve talked guys out of suicide – before I had the Tac Disp training. Who prepares you for that? Nothing makes a dispatcher’s heart stop like the sound of shots fired over the radio, or the barely discernable voice of a firefighter who’d almost out of air and trapped in a building on fire.
Knowing one of MY (yes, all field units are MINE when I work the radio channel) units is hurt, or even worse – dead – is unbelievably painful. Unlike you, I only know the information broadcast via the radio or from phone calls. Nothing is worse than waiting to hear who is down. Seconds really do take forever. Depending on the staffing size of the Communications Center, I may not have the liberty to take a break. I may have to keep answering that next 9-1-1 call, the next radio traffic until another dispatcher has the chance to take over for me. I don’t have the luxury of walking away from the scene, going out of service to clear my head. That goes for any bad phone call or radio incident. Sometimes I am stuck with following Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), whether I agree with them or not. Yes, I do think many of the calls I have dispatched to over the years are stupid. However, when push comes to shove and a Fire Chief calls me to say send an engine company to “so-and-so’s” address to get their cat out of a tree (yes, that really happened), then dammit I’m toning down your ass and sending you on the call.
Of course, each agency is different. Sheriff or State police may contract out to handle more than one agency. Ambulance companies may be contracted (as the different ones I worked for) to handle 9-1-1 calls AND runs. The dispatchers may need to be Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) certified. Fire Departments can be consolidated and handle multiple fire departments at one center. The Cmmunications Center I'm with now is a statewide Communications Center for our department, plus we contract out to handle dispatching duties for a few other departments.
So, there you have it. Next time you want to gripe about dispatchers, go ahead. I can say with 99% accuracy that on the OTHER end of the radio, those men and women are doing the same thing about you. Don’t worry, it’s nothing personal. We call it venting. We have to do it, to let off steam. Believe me, especially in a profession where many of us are often subject to frequent mandatory overtime with little or no breaks and working lunches, we go with flow (so to speak). Most of us enjoy what we do and wouldn't do any other job.
I invite you to spend a day in dispatch, a 'sit-along', to see what our job is like. Just because the radio is quiet, doesn't mean we're sitting back with our feet on the console. I've been assigned tasks to accomplish when it's 'quiet'. WHo do you think enters those citations, Field Interview cards, warrants, stolen cars, boats, missing persons, etc? Half of the phone calls never get to the field. You'll see that when you sit with one of us.
Once again, my biggest pet peeve? LOCATION LOCATION LOCATION. I can't send help if I don't know where you are.
Stay safe put there.
That’s okay, I knew the job was dangerous when I signed up for it. You can count on me NOT to be asleep when you call for help. As long as you keep your location updated, I’ll get you the help you need. That’s a promise.