By Special Guest Writer
Joan Gregg, JD
Former Public-Safety Dispatcher
If I were to tell you the trajectory of my life leading up to law school, I think you would—as you should—be slightly perplexed and wonder if I purposely lived as if I decided my next steps by drawing random options from a hat. But because I often have to answer such follow-up questions, I have had many opportunities to step back and see how seemingly irrelevant skills and experiences transferred seamlessly into my career in law. When I look back, I know there are many ways that dispatch prepared me to endure those three years. Soft skills such as growing from mistakes, coordinating in various types of teams, and understanding the importance of self-care are just a few that come to mind that helped me survive the intense atmosphere of the first year of law school. But two particular experiences stand out as concrete foundations to how I approached everything: multitasking and empathy.
I remember training on the fire channel years ago and wondering if I’d ever develop what we called a “split ear.” I had finally passed the call-take phase and had entered the world of taking emergency calls and dispatching units simultaneously. Not only did I have to learn how to decode garbled voices over the radio but also how to do that while a panicked caller screamed in my other ear. Not only did I have to stay calm as I provided assurances to callers and firefighters, I had to maneuver through several screen monitors to find locations, gather and distribute information, and alert units. In sum, I had to learn how to juggle tasks thrown at me through rapid mental organization and prioritization and efficiently communicate information to different audiences.
It turned out that law school demanded very similar skills. Case law and fact patterns were really just volumes of information that needed to be organized, prioritized, and communicated. Analyzing the strengths and weaknesses of legal arguments passed through a series of questions that are generally second nature to dispatchers, such as: What are the guidelines for reacting to this type of situation? Are there any gaps of information? What kind of tone should I be using? What is the other side of the story? Having the habit of asking that last question proved incredibly useful; the ability to see multiple sides of a situation brought depth to my thought processes and answers in law school.
But what was more valuable to me than the technical skills were the experiences I had with callers. Law often requires strict logic but I believed that being a lawyer did not mean I had to be void of empathy. The voices of callers—a grieving parent, a domestic violence victim, a scared child—have a unique way of burrowing themselves into a dispatcher’s memory. I carried these faithfully and consciously to my classes because studying law had a dangerous tendency to diminish or remove the human element of cases. I never wanted to complete an assignment without realizing its actual impact and non-legal consequences on a person’s life.
I never thought I would attend law school until I began dispatching, and for many reasons, I am happy and grateful it happened in that order. Dispatching forced me to mature a little more, showed me the mortality and preciousness of life, and gave me a unique lens to view the world around me. Dispatching taught me what it means to be human and that was an invaluable lesson no test could ever measure.
About the Author:
Joan Gregg graduated from the University of North Texas in 2012 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in International Studies. She taught high school math in Texas for a few years and then transitioned to dispatching in 2016. At Southwest Regional Communications Center (TX), Joan was cross-trained in call-take, fire, services, and police. She graduated from SMU Dedman School of Law in May 2022 and plans to start working in the federal government this fall.