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The forgotten first responders

We must recognize, and train for, the dispatcher’s critical role in officer survival and beyond

In June 2007, I wrote an article entitled The “love/hate” relationship between cops and their dispatchers. To this day, I think I’ve received more feedback about this topic than any other Police1 piece I’ve authored. In fact, I still receive at least five e-mails each month from people who’ve just discovered the article after all this time, and have something to say about it. I learned so much from everyone who wrote in and the enormous initial responses lead me to where I often go: the classroom. I started teaching a class based on the original article and it’s been a big hit at law enforcement and dispatcher conferences throughout the United States.

I then teamed up with fellow dispatcher-turned-cop Assistant Chief Barb Harris (ret.), currently of BowMac Educational Services, who shares my passion for improving relationships between the warriors on the street and the equally important warriors in the communications center. Together we present a course titled “Career and Officer Survival for Dispatchers” and it’s a day of training, information, and networking that we are really proud of. Public safety dispatchers and call takers often don’t get to attend much outside training and they often feel like “second class citizens” because of it, so they tend to be extremely motivated students.

There is so much that managers, supervisors, officers and even the dispatchers can do to improve the working environment, the communications center’s efficiency, and the relationships between first responders on each side of the radio transmission. Here are just a few suggestions to ponder.

Is It a Job or a Calling?
Dispatchers must view their job as more than just a way to earn a living. They’ve got to see it as a “mission” that is an important one for them as individuals as well as for the organization. When speaking to dispatchers, I like to start with a “career self assessment.”

I ask the students to answer these questions:

• What Do I Want?
• What Do I Believe In?
• Is This Career What I Expected it to Be?
• Do I Have Clear Goals?
• Do I Have a Plan to Reach Them?
• Have My Goals Changed Over Time?
• What Does “Success” Look Like to Me?

The self-assessment ends with this final question: “Are you ready and willing to do whatever it takes not just to survive, but to succeed?” This is often the first time that most police dispatchers have been asked to ponder the success and satisfaction of their own career. Many police organizations spend the majority of their time and resources on their cops, while the careers of the “support staff” are often forgotten or diminished. An employee who feels unimportant or ancillary probably isn’t going to be at the top of their game, and yet we expect our dispatchers to be there for us day after day, dealing with the mundane as well as the critical while we’re out there doing “real” police work. We need to make sure we are all on the same team and that we share the same mission.

Dispatchers Are a Wealth of Knowledge
The role a good dispatcher plays in officer survival goes far beyond answering up when the officer is screaming for back up. Very often, a dispatcher will have far more experience than the officer on the street. In Dave Smith’s new book In My Sights, he readily admits that some of the best “on the job” training he received as a rookie was from veteran dispatchers who cared enough and were given the authority to call an officer out when they exhibited poor tactics (like failing to wait for back up even though dispatch just advised that another unit was moments away).

Due to shift differences and days off, a dispatcher may also have more knowledge or history about a call an officer is going to, or about the people the officer is currently dealing with. Dispatchers need to have the training and the authority to be able to contact their officers directly and talk to them appropriately about survival and procedural issues.

We Need to Train Together
Any scenario-based training you do should involve your dispatchers. Police dispatchers need to be involved in active-shooter training, recruit officer training, special response team training, anything that may involve officers utilizing their radios, have a real dispatcher involved in the scenario. Dispatchers should also be allowed and encouraged to attend in-service and/or “outside” training like the Street Survival Seminar, usually reserved for sworn personnel only.

Your dispatchers can also help provide training, so consider teaming up with dispatch to conduct off-duty survival training for officers and their families. Do not forget to have your call-takers teach police family members how to call in an off-duty incident safely and properly.

Take Dispatcher Safety Seriously
As the “War on Cops” continues, police dispatchers need to understand that their safety is also a concern. Many small-town dispatchers are the first point of public contact in the station; make sure they know how to read pre-attack postures and diffuse or get away from an angry, potentially violent “walk in.”

If your dispatchers wear a uniform, they need to make sure that they are not wearing them openly to and from work. Potential attackers don’t know the difference between a cop’s uniform and a dispatcher’s uniform — they just see the badge, the patch, the uniform. Encourage your dispatchers to take responsibility for their own safety and survival as well as yours, and give them the knowledge to be able to do so.

In the months ahead, I’ll be writing several more articles on this topic and I’d love to have your feedback. Whether you’re a cop, a supervisor, a manager or a dispatcher, it’s important to make sure that we’re all on the same team, we share the same mission, and we all work hard to keep each other and our community safe.

My column is undergoing a bit of an identity crisis. I’ve been writing for the Street Survival “Newsline” and the P1 Newsletter for several years. As a Street Survival seminar instructor, I write about officer safety and survival, but I’m also a supervisor, a mom, a trainer, a cop’s wife, and dare I say, a woman, so I’ve got a lot to say about any number of topics (what woman doesn’t?!), and I’ve always received great feedback from our readers. So when Police One approached me and asked me to author a monthly column dealing with women’s issues, I enthusiastically agreed. “What a great opportunity” I naively thought “to bring issues to light that both women and men in law enforcement could all relate to, perhaps discuss at roll call, and ultimately learn something from each other.” Yeah, just call me Sergeant Pollyanna…I forgot that by calling it a “women’s” column, not only will most of our male readers skip over it, but so will at least half our female readers. What?! Why in the world wouldn’t women read a “women’s” column?! Because, there are a lot of female crimefighters out there like me who have spent a lot of years just trying to blend in, to be “one of the guys” if you will…to be perceived as and conduct ourselves as “warriors,” not “victims.” We don’t want special treatment; we just want to be cops.