The "love/hate" relationship between cops and their dispatchers
Having spent time on both sides of the dispatch center, I’d like to make just a few suggestions for making life easier – and safer – for each other
National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is April 12-18, 2020. Public safety telecommunicators play a crucial role in serving as the lifeline between citizens and public safety agencies. We honor their dedication, courage and commitment to keeping officers and our communities safe.
Let’s be honest, there is no better example of a “love-hate relationship” than the daily interaction between street cops and their dispatchers.
When things are going well, we love each other; when they’re not, tempers flare, attitudes take a nosedive and we temporarily hate each other.
Having spent time on both sides of the dispatch center, I’d like to make just a few suggestions for making life easier – and safer – for each other.
Police officers: Mind your manners
When you key up that microphone, be mindful of your tone of voice; if you wouldn’t talk to your mother, your spouse, or your neighbor in that rude, sarcastic, exasperated tone, then why would you talk that way to your dispatcher?
This is where the “Golden Rule” becomes especially important. That call-taker is going to be your lifeline at some point, so talk to her in the same manner that you’d like her to talk back to you when you’re under stress.
Most “911” centers are chaotic at best, and there are going to be times when you’ll have to ask for information to be repeated, or you have to repeat your own transmission; after all, no system nor human is perfect. Take a deep breath and think before you speak.
Police officers: Try to provide some closure
Dispatchers spend their shift responding to crisis after crisis, but they rarely get to hear or see the outcome of their actions. This is especially important in critical incidents.
A friend of mine, a veteran 911 operator, once took a call from a handicapped woman whose apartment was on fire. The dispatcher heroically talked to the victim, keeping her calm and eventually helping her make peace with what would turn out to be her last moments on Earth. Neither the police nor the fire department was able to save this woman, and the incident was traumatic for all involved, especially when we discovered that the fire victim was a relative of a police employee.
A crisis intervention team was activated, and all involved employees except for the dispatcher were invited to participate. No one even told the dispatcher that the woman had died; she had to read about it the next day in the paper. This was a simple oversight on the agency’s part, but it was devastating to that dispatcher.
Make sure that after the conclusion of each “hot” call (and even some of the funny ones) someone calls dispatch and lets them know the outcome. This gives the operators some much-needed closure and helps make everyone feel a part of the same team.
Police officers: Recognize the stressful nature of a dispatcher’s job
As cops, we think our job is stressful, which it is, but we often fail to recognize the consistently high level of stress inside that com-center. Remember, no one calls “911” when things are going well, so every single communication coming in and going out of dispatch is some sort of crisis.
A good dispatcher is highly aware that they are responsible for the clear, safe communication between you and the unknown, but 8, 10 or 12 hours of that atmosphere can get to even the most Zen-like personality. A kind word, a “thank you,” and the recognition that things can get pretty crazy, both on and off the street, can go a long way toward easing the stress in dispatch and improving dispatcher/cop relations.
Dispatchers: Be vigilant and informed about officer safety and survival
Since dispatchers are often the key to an officer’s safe and successful outcome on calls, traffic stops, and other incidents, police dispatchers should study officer safety and survival tactics with all the enthusiasm of your average rookie cop.
Attend outside training courses, read law enforcement publications, and stay abreast of officer survival news and information.
Call-takers should be allowed to ride along with FTOs and supervisors who are willing and able to provide the dispatcher with an appropriate overview of officer safety from a cop’s eye view.
Get in the habit of seeking additional information for the officers before they ask for it, such as the previous incidents at the location you’re sending them to, the criminal history of the person they currently have stopped, and any other special knowledge you may have that will help the officers stay safe.
Dispatchers: Know your dispatch area
In the age of computer-aided dispatch, in-car computers, GPS and other technology, operators tend to rely too heavily on the screen in front of them, not in their knowledge of the officers’ coverage area. Get out in the car, go on ride-alongs, read the local crime bulletins, and spend time getting to know the streets, businesses and hot spots of your jurisdiction.
Don’t rely solely on the computer screen to recommend who should go where. Get in the habit of picturing the area where you’re sending the officers, and then do what you can to make their response safer and more productive.
Dispatchers: Recognize that you’re here to support the cops
As a sergeant, one of the biggest complaints I hear from officers is “the dispatchers act like we’re there to support them, not the other way around.” This is an age-old workplace dilemma: “Whose job is more important.” Dispatchers, we’re going to ask you to do things, call people and answer questions that may seem absolutely frivolous or absurd to you, but they are important to us.
I once had a dispatcher who seemed aggravated every time I asked her to call inside and have a bank employee step outside during our usual rash of morning false alarms. Rather than complain to her supervisor or start a verbal “war” over the radio, I contacted her and asked if she knew why we had the employees come out to us rather than the officers going into the bank.
As I suspected, it turned out that she had never been informed about the officer safety procedures in a false alarm response. Once she understood, she became absolutely vigilant in her response to these and other potentially dangerous calls, and she turned out to be a great dispatcher.
Dispatchers need to recognize that their role is to support the officer on the street, to inform them, keep track of them and help them stay safe. And, remember, the “Golden Rule” I talked about works both ways.
Dispatchers: Supervisors and managers
Supervisors and managers on both sides need to be willing to step in and provide opportunities for learning, team building – and yes, even some constructive “venting.”
Like many workplace disagreements, the “us versus them” mentality often stems from simple misunderstandings. A veteran dispatcher can be one of a rookie officer’s best trainers if she is allowed to provide real-time feedback, and a veteran street cop can be invaluable to a new dispatcher who is trying to learn proper officer safety.
Constantly remind yourself and each other – that we truly are all on the same team – and then get in the habit of treating all of your teammates with the same courtesy and respect that you expect them to bestow upon you.
This article, originally published 06/12/2007, has been updated.