Updated: Jul 19
Ryan Dedmon, MA
911 Training Institute
9-1-1… the phone number dialed in North America for emergency police, fire, or medical services. Everyone knows the phone number, but not everyone knows what happens when you call it. Even less is known about the people who answer those calls: public-safety emergency dispatchers.
As a result, society has fabricated dramatic misconceptions about the job of emergency dispatchers in an attempt to explain what they do not understand. These misconceptions range from comical to outrageously absurd. Nevertheless, the general public has come to actually believe some of these falsities. As a former 9-1-1 police communications operator, I remember answering calls and talking to people who wholeheartedly believed some of these misconceptions about the job I was doing to help them. It was frustrating.
After being out of law enforcement for seven years now, I wondered if the misconceptions had changed at all. And so, I informally surveyed a group of 1,232 emergency dispatchers and asked them about the most common misconceptions they feel the general public has about them and the job they do. Here is what they had to say:
1. They’re just glorified telephone operators who all work together in a universal call-center somewhere in Nebraska.
Let’s get one thing straight, emergency dispatchers are highly trained public-safety professionals who are the first first-responders. Your worst day is their best day. So no, they are NOT just telephone operators. And contrary to popular belief, they do not all work together in a ginormous call-center. 9-1-1 is not like calling customer service for your credit card; 9-1-1 call centers are locally based per city municipality or county governments according to jurisdiction (i.e. your local police/sheriff’s department), so each city has its own (unless otherwise consolidated).
2. They know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING occurring ANYWHERE at ANYTIME.
Now that you know 9-1-1 call centers are locally based according to city/county jurisdiction, you now understand when you call a dispatcher working in Small Town, USA, she has no information on the events happening in Big City, USA. 9-1-1 call centers rarely have information on activity occurring outside of their respective jurisdiction, which explains why one city may not know about the police/fire activity occurring in a neighboring city even though you just watched all about it on the 6-o’clock news.
3. They have the answer to EVERYTHING, like why the power is out at your house and when it will come back on.
They are dispatchers who work for police, fire, or emergency medical service agencies. Calling and asking them questions completely unrelated to these fields is like calling McDonald's and asking about the status of the "Check Engine" light that came on in your car. Oh wait, McDonald's doesn’t work on cars. If it’s not public-safety related, then try calling the respective agency that would handle such problem, for example in this case, the power company.
4. They have a crystal ball and can see the future.
No, they do not have a crystal ball that mysteriously bends the space-time continuum allowing them to see the future. That's why they usually don't attempt to answer "What If" questions you ask.
5. They ask too many questions, way too many questions, for no reason at all.
Dispatchers call this “Line of Questioning”. There is a very specific order they ask you detailed questions about the problem you are reporting, and many times your answers determine what questions they will ask you next. This questioning protocol allows them to gather the necessary information to send you the appropriate resources in a timely manner. So instead of getting upset, just listen carefully and answer truthfully.
6. They’re physically the ones who will respond to provide help.
Dispatchers gather information to send you the appropriate help. They are not the ones driving to your house to help. So because they ask too many questions, you get upset because you think somehow that is delaying help from responding. Little do you know that help has already been dispatched and is already driving to you while you are still on the phone answering their questions, and they are updating those responding units with your answers so police officers/firefighters/EMTs have as much information as is available when they arrive to help.
7. They can reposition satellites to find the exact location you’re calling from on your cell phone.
Cell phones are both a blessing and a curse to dispatchers. Cell phones are mobile and go wherever you go, so they are not connected to a specific address, which means dispatchers have to rely on you to provide them with your location. Although technological advances have significantly improved giving dispatchers software tools to help, they can still only narrow it down so far. And no, they cannot reposition satellites and reconfigure their programming to find you.
8. The calls they handle don’t affect them, thus they can’t suffer from stress-related disorders.
Shootings, stabbings, suicides, rapes, robberies, assaults, domestic violence, house fires, fatal traffic collisions, drownings, and very interesting combinations of all of the above are routine for dispatchers, sometimes even in a single shift. Imagine the strong feelings of helplessness and guilt they can sometimes experience when they answer calls and listen to people screaming for help. They can feel helpless because they can’t reach through the phone and provide immediate assistance; they can feel guilty because they can second-guess the way they handled some calls wondering if they would’ve said/done something different it might’ve changed the outcome. The stress accumulates with every call, with every shift, until it is sometimes overwhelmingly unbearable. Some dispatchers silently suffer from compassion fatigue, career burnout, acute stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, they can be afraid to reach out for professional help for fear of being stigmatized as “weak”.
9. Police/fire/paramedics could easily do their job without dispatchers.
Dispatchers are the Thin Gold Line that provides communication support between you and responding police officers, firefighters, and paramedics. Field-responders could no more do their job without dispatchers than dispatchers could do their job without field-responders. Dispatchers see their police officers and firefighters try to work an overtime shift with them in their dispatch centers. God bless them for trying, but many of them struggle, to say the least, because the multi-tasking pace at which dispatchers do their work is at light speed. Dispatchers speed up the information flow from callers to responding units, so that field-responders can stay safe, help keep the general public safe, and provide assistance in the best way possible. Without dispatchers, those field-responders would be responding blind with no information, which could delay assistance and resolution.
10. They make too much money for the work they do because they're just telephone operators.
First, see #1 above. Dispatchers are trained and then trusted to give life-saving measures and de-escalate incidents over the phone prior to field-responders arriving on-scene. Secondly, dispatchers did not choose their line of work based on salary. If that was the only thing they cared about, then they would've chosen a different career. However, they certainly deserve every penny of a respectable amount for the skills they have and service they provide to the public as first-responders.
If you ever have to call 9-1-1, think about the person who answers your call on the other end of the line… the calm, cool, collected voice only heard and never seen. And remember, public-safety emergency dispatchers are only human, which means they have good days and bad days, and they feel the same wide range of emotions as you do. Nevertheless, they work hard to be the best at what we do to help you. They are emergency dispatchers.