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A Dispatcher's Point of View
by:  Diana Sprain
Stay safe out there!
April 1, 2014

National Public Safety Telecommunicator Week

The annual Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is almost here: April 13-19. It’s time to let your dispatchers know how much you appreciate them.


Spend a full day (or evening) shadowing a Public Safety Telecommunicator (also known as a dispatcher) and see what their job is really like. But before I get in to the in’s and out’s of a dispatcher’s job, how did the National Week come to pass?

Dispatcher Patricia Anderson of the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Department came up with the idea back in 1981. She rallied co-workers and fellow dispatchers from other local agencies to support her dream. Back then, Patricia called the celebration National Dispatcher Week. The idea gathered ground and other agencies joined the bandwagon. Soon, the Associated Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO), an organization dedication to advancing the cause of all aspects of Public Safety communications added their lobbying power.

Virginia and North Carolina APCO chapters pushed to get the idea formalized as a National resolution in Congress. Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey (D) agreed that the National Dispatcher Week was a good idea. He introduced H.J. Resolution 284, supporting what was renamed National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week to Congress.

Alas, all good things take time. It took a few years to get the document through the red tape process. This delay didn’t stop agencies from having their own celebrations, regardless of a formal federal declaration. In Alameda County (CA) departments rotated the location of the annual dispatcher banquet, gave door prizes, and handed out awards from each agency for meritorious service to their Public Safety Telecommunicators. In some departments, field personnel manned the communications center in order to allow every dispatcher to the attend annual award dinner. In other parts of the country, agencies acknowledged dispatch personnel with special challenge coins, meals, certificates, or awards. Congress finally passed the Resolution and it was signed by President Bush in 1992. President Clinton re-signed the proclamation again in 1994 and 1996.

The National Public Safety Dispatchers Week honors the men and women of the law enforement, fire, and emergency medical services every year. Dispatchers answer emergency and non-emergency phone lines gathering information while reacting appropriately according to the type of incident; handle radios; track field personnel; dispatch calls for service; coordinate emergency response; keep callers calm while providing guidance; in some agancies provide emergency medical instructions until fire or emergency medical services arrive; coordinate flights; are part of field emergency communications response teams for SWAT and fire departments; are part of disaster relief for Telecommunication Emergency Response Teams (TERT); train new dispatchers; supervise dispatchers; are memebrs of loca, state, and national organizations & committees; and, they do ALL of this on amoment’s notice keeping calm while chaos reigns around them.

A dispatcher is not supposed to get upset on the phone while a caller is screaming obscenities at them. A dispatcher is expected to stay calm while officers are yelling in their radios while they are chasing a suspect and the adrenalin is running high. A dispatcher must remain cool and collected when the mayday is called by a firefighter trapped in that burning building. A dispatcher can’t fall apart on the radio when the paramedic radios in that he’s being shot at and needs help now. A dispatcher has to be sympathetic, empathetic, and professional when that suicidal caller threatens to pull the trigger RIGHT NOW while on the phone.

Often, there’s not even time to take a break between the bad calls. You just muddle on and swallow the angst. Tears can come later, after your shift – or not.

Why would anyone want to be a Public Safety Telecommunicator?

There are the great days. Saving a life with CPR over the phone or getting the description which helps to catch the burglar. Being a part of a tactical unit which resolves a hostage situation without anyone getting hurt or dying. Working a large wildland fire and knowing your expertise helped make the Incident Commander’s job easier. Responding to a major disaster for a TERT call-out so some local dispatchers can take care of their own family with a clear conscience knowing you are taking care of the Public Safety ones for them.

You may never need to all 9-1-1, but if you do, remember the men and women of dispatch are truly there to help you.

Stay safe out there!

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March 25, 2014

Training new Dispatchers

One of our dispatchers is getting ready to go on family medical leave (she's having a baby). We are happy for her. At the same time, we've been down a position after a co-worker resigned last fall. Needless to ay, this will put us in a staff crunch when Momma-to-be says 'Hasta la vista' at the end of the month. The new trainee doesn't start for a couple of weeks, and she won't be ready to work by herself for some time.

I see long shifts and overtime in my future. There will be shifts where I'm by myself. It's tough teaching a new person while working short-handed. I hope the new gal is sharp. Codes, geography, procedures, computer systems, and data entry will be taught between doing the job.

It's not easy.

Not exactly the best circumstances for a radio dispatcher to find herself in. But as always, we adapt and muddle onward. The radios get priority over the phones at our department as we aren't a 9-1-1 answering point. My (that's right MY) law enforcement officers get my fullest attention. I'll return the phone calls when I can. Why do I say MY guys? When I'm on the job, I consider the field nits MINE. I'm responsible for them. We basically answer to each other. I can't leave until everyone has made it home safe, so yes, tey are mine.

It's going to be a long SPRING, for certain. I'm hoping for quiet mornings at least. Maybe I can work on the edits to "For Queen and Country". I'm starting the formatting to "In the King's Shadow". It is the second book in the Greycliff's Chronicles, my medieval fantasy series. I have my test readers going over the non-fiction history of dispatching book.

Stay safe out there!

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October 4, 2012

I'm Still Here (With Apologies to Shirley McLaine)

Over the years I've seen many co-workers come and go. I could post a laundry list of reasons, but the big four are work-related injuries, a lack of respect from other public safety personnel, burn-out, and a lack of advancement.

The first reason, work injuries, came about when the new technologies was introduced. Before computers found their way inside the realm of Public Safety, disaptchers had a varied amount of tasks to perform. Calls for service had to be tracked in some form. Depending on the size of the agency involved, the system used may have been date cards, a peg board, or hand written log sheets. Information on the major incidents was collected and typed up on an ongoing basis, to a bulletin for both police and fire usage. Messages were taken and distributed. Phones weer the old fashioned selected a line witha handset, as wherde the radios.

Computers changed this. Take a tour of a Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) - otherwise known as a 9-1-1 dispatch center, and chances are every dispatcher will be surrounded by computer monitors. There won't be any phones left,nor any radios. Typing and mousing are to be blamed for repetitive injuries. How many dispatchers retire with 30+ years of service? Not very many compared to firefighters and law enforcement personnel.

The second issue, a lack of respect, is a universal feeling shared by Public Safety Telecommunicators (another name for dispatchers) throughout the land. Often, the public's first and only contact with the emergency system is the 9-1-1 dispatcher. When the caller dials those three digits with what they perceive is an emergency, and in fact is nothing which requires a response. Mr. or Mrs. john Q. Citizen will forever look upon the emergency system according to how they were treated by that dispatcher. If they do have an emergency, the disaptcher is a key person and is responsible for obtaining critical data while the field personnel are responding. After the fact, who gets the credit for being the 'hero' in the incident? More often than not, the cop, firefighter, or paramedic does. Never mind the disaptcher kept the frightened caller calm while the burgler ransacked the house, gave the family CPR instructions, or stayed on the phone and was able to guide the firefighters to the resident trapped in that burning building.

I can't tell you how many times I had an officer see a subject who looked suspecious, or who had a warrnt. The cop would slam his car toa stop, jump out of his car and chase after the guy. Once he caught the bad guy, the fight was on - usually in a back yard somewhere. It was up to me to figure out where the officer was, since he didn't know. The officer takes the subject to jail with accolades fora good job, the dispatcher keeps on doing the job.

Respect? We're still waiting to be considered one of the first responders.

Burnout happens to disaptchers, too. After years of hearing people doing the worst to one another, without hearing the outcome, it gets to you. The difference between burnout of field personnel and dispatchers is a big one. Those handling calls at least get to do something. Medica can start an IV or give a medication, firefighters can rescue a patient or put out a fire, and cops can make an arrest. Disaptchers can only send field personnel to a location. Even when the worst imaginable happens, and one of our people is killed in the line of duty, we can't a;ways step away from the radio & phones. In a small agency, we may be required to keep sending out the cops and answering 911 until another person can arrive to take over.

After so many years of hearing distraught parents scream when they discover little Johnny dead from SIDS, or find a suicidal spouse dead when they come home from work, or hear a lady take her last breath over the phone while she's waiting for the medics to arrive, a part of you starts to die inside.

The nightmares of hearing telephones contantly ring and units calling on a radio while you're standing in the middle of dispatch, frozen tot he floor and there isn't anyone else there.

Yeah, we have out Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) too. A handful of us can push it aside and keep working, but a good portion can't and get out of the profession.

Finally, a lack of advancement. The recruiters don't come around looking for dispatchers, at least they didn't when I entered the profession. What would they have said to entice me to the job? You can be a trainer, maybe an acting supervisor? If you're lucky, you can work for a department that has civilian supervisors. If you go to college and earn a degree, you can maybe find a job as a manager. That's it. Sure, I became a trainer - which was a lot of extra work for 5% bonus when I actively trained. I did become a civilian supervisor (which was four times as much work). I didn't get any extra compensation for being a Tactical Dispatcher - in fact, the motto was 'the best equipment your money could buy' when we asked about supplies and special unforms.

So why am I still in the business after all these years?

I ask myself that question on the bad days. It's certainly NOT the pay (which, thanks to the the Governor, I took a pay cut last year).

I still love what I do. I still enjoy being part of a team that catches a criminal. My heart pumps fast and the adrenalin speeds trhough my veins when I get a pursuit. I love the 'detective' part of my job when find someone who is supposedly not in the grid.

Yes, I'm still here.

Stay safe out there.

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A B O U T   T H E   A U T H O R

I am a Public Safety Dispatcher with over 24 years of dispatching experience in law enforcement and ems. I started out as an EMT running calls in Los Angeles County in 1980. After getting married, my husband and I moved to the San Francisco-Bay area, where he worked as a paramedic and I worked first as an EMT. I later joined Berkeley Police as a Public Safety Dispatcher. During my time as a dispatcher, I've been a Training Coordinator, a Tactical Dispatcher on a SWAT team, served on State and National committees, and authored multiple articles on dispatching. I spend my free time, rading, gardening, and writing.

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