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Who is that voice on the other side of the radio?

Though those voices on the other side of the radio are nearly ubiquitous, many officers don’t know a lot about their dispatchers

It’s common for officers to complain about their radio dispatchers while at the same time saying they’d never want the job. It’s equally true that even though those voices on the other side of the radio are nearly ubiquitous, a lot of officers don’t know a lot about their dispatchers. So, who are those individuals and what do they do?

After countless hours of classroom and hands-on training, an emergency communication operator, commonly called a “dispatcher,” is moved to the dispatch floor for their on-the-job training behind the console. Sitting in a dimly lit room, in front of at least of four to six monitors, plugged into both the radio and phone with a headset, the reality of the job settles in with the green dispatcher. The pressure to get it right because the whole world is listening is pretty intense in the first year.

It takes a long while for the new dispatcher to feel they have a good grip on the skills required of an emergency dispatcher. Familiarity with the community, the area demographics, agency policy, coworkers both on and off the street and all utilized equipment makes the foundation of a good dispatcher. As single-agency dispatch centers continue to consolidate into multi-agency emergency communication centers, this knowledge base becomes so vast that most dispatcher personnel can hardly keep up with the constant and unpredictable changes.

The Job, Good and Bad
Emergency communication dispatchers are a literal first responder the moment they pick up the line. People don’t dial 911 when times are good. People call when they are in crisis, and probably at the worst time in their life. The community has no true grasp of how the system functions, they only know when life or limb is at risk, the house is on fire or their kid is choking, it’s time to call.

The stress among dispatchers goes largely unrecognized by police, fire, or medical personnel and the psychological and emotional trauma of the dispatcher is generally disregarded. It is traumatizing work that can take a toll to the point of a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder diagnosis even though the sufferer is seated behind a console and not patrolling or on scene. Much like the police world, reaching out for help is discouraged and the bottled up stress after hours of repeated trauma goes unacknowledged and therefore untreated.

The logistics of the emergency dispatcher job are unnatural. Emergency dispatchers chose to work long 10-12 hour shifts under extreme amounts of stress. A dispatcher’s 12-hour shift may turn into a mandated extra four hours of overtime totaling a 16-hour shift. This is a commonly used staffing solution considered to be the norm in times of personnel shortages. Mandatory overtime is standard practice for most emergency communication centers on holidays, critical incidents and large scale events. Until you have established significant seniority from several years on the job, you expect to work your kids’ choir performance, birthdays, and anniversaries.

During their shift, a dispatcher is responsible for every 911 emergency, non-emergency, or transferred call. Every move the dispatcher makes is recorded whether it is a key stroke or voice communication. All recorded material can be subpoenaed by the court, requested, reviewed and scrutinized by supervisors, the public and the media. Exposure to horrific incidents continuously for several hours while maintaining composure and executing an absolutely perfect multitasking ability is the expectation of every emergency dispatcher on the job.

The personnel working environment can be nearly as challenging as the training, shiftwork and expectations of the dispatcher. The personalities of law enforcement personnel are unique, perplexing and often frustrating. The environment of type-A personality dispatch coworkers who have been locked into one room for 12 hours can be like a lit powder keg.

Add the type-A, field units and cranky civilian community members to the mix and chances of surviving an entire shift without an explosion are slim. Patrol units and civilians like to tell dispatchers how to do their jobs and need their requests handled instantly without the understanding that a dispatcher has multiple other tasks occurring simultaneously. Coworkers may seem intolerable at times with their inflexible demeanor, however, when the need arises they are still the first ones to get each other’s back and help out or care after the tragic call when the trigger has been pulled.

Dedicated Individuals
Dispatchers — like others in the law enforcement industry — are adrenaline junkies who live for the high of the job. The high consists of hearing a suspect has been caught and “one in custody” from a unit after a foot bail or a “code 4” after the radio silence while units serve a high-risk search warrant in the middle of nowhere with poor reception.

Dispatchers live vicariously through the radio via the units on the street. They take it to heart that their duty is the safety of “their” units when they sit down at their console to begin the shift. Success comes in the form of each unit logging out at the end of shift safely. Success is also measured through soothing a lost child on the line till she is found by patrol or providing instructions for CPR till medics arrive and the patient survives. Humor comes in the form of the caller who believes the FBI lives in her refrigerator or an open mic with sounds of a toilet flushing.

The job of a dispatcher is stressful, unique, thrilling, and rewarding. Dispatchers have the genuine desire to make a difference in the world by assisting those in need. Dispatchers are a group of individuals dedicated to their job, citizens, and law enforcement community who care almost to the point of fault.

That’s just who they are.

Melissa Mann is recently retired from the field of law enforcement. Her experience spanned 18 years which included assignments in Corrections, Community Policing, Dispatch Communications and Search and Rescue. Melissa holds a BS in Criminal Justice and MA in Psychology with an emphasis on studies on the psychological process of law enforcement officers. She holds a deep passion for researching and writing about the lifestyle of police and corrections work and the far-reaching psychological effects on the officer and their world.