How to support dispatchers: From reclassification to advocacy and beyond
Amid a nationwide staffing shortage, learn how you can support the lifesaving role of public safety dispatchers – the FIRST first responders
By Sara Shover and Diane Culverhouse
Can you imagine a day when no one is available to answer a 911 call?
Maintaining public safety is not the job of one, but rather the job of many, from the initial dispatcher taking the call, to the police, fire and EMS clinicians on the scene and in hospitals. But the nationwide dispatcher shortage is leaving emergency dispatch centers with significant staff vacancies, with more than half the 911 centers in the U.S. facing a “genuine staffing emergency,” according to an April 2023 survey.
Reclassifying dispatchers as first responders
One major factor affecting the staffing challenge is that dispatchers are federally classified as administrative call-takers, simply allocating resources to necessary locations. However, this distinction diminishes the critical lifesaving work dispatchers provide every day and may equate to inadequacies in dispatchers’ wages, working environments, training and benefits.
Dispatchers should be recognized and reclassified as first responders. Dispatchers are like oil in an engine; without it, the engine wouldn’t be able to function properly. Dispatchers are the first to respond to an incident – taking the call, creating computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems records and sending critical resources to the scene. But without the first responder classification, dispatchers are often the last role in the metaphorical engine that gets addressed.
Despite proposed federal legislation with the 911 Saves Act, there has been little to no movement to make this happen except at the local level as cities, counties and states work to move legislation forward in their areas. There are 19 states and five counties that have made strides in reclassifying 911 dispatchers, but there is much more work to be done.
Advancing technology and evolving the dispatcher role
While the role of emergency services dispatchers has existed since 911 was first established as the emergency response telephone number in the 1960s, the expectations and requirements of the job have evolved dramatically, especially as technology advances.
For example, the evolution of 911 calls from landlines to cellphones required accurate location and GPS tracking to pinpoint a caller’s location, not only on the x- and y-axis, but also the z-axis, which relates to the height of a building. Additionally, 911 telecommunications centers are adopting next-generation 911 systems, including setting up text-to-911 and video capabilities to provide more avenues of communication for individuals in need and more data for dispatchers to gain better insight into emergency situations.
As a result, the dispatcher role is much more dynamic. It requires multi-tasking to manage between four and six screens and asking the appropriate questions to get the correct information to responding agencies in less than 45 seconds – all while providing lifesaving instructions to the caller in the meantime.
Training, skills and job requirements of dispatchers
Taking 911 calls cannot be equated to an administrative job. Dispatching is a highly trained profession that requires critical listening skills, the ability to multi-task, data entry, memory recall, map reading and people skills. In addition, it requires baseline knowledge of each first responder department – fire, law enforcement and emergency medical services. Additionally, each dispatch center has specific certifications and trainings that are required on operating guidelines, procedures and policies, as well as training regarding the specific localities, districts and units.
Dispatchers must be prepared to respond to over 180 different types of calls, including burglary, cardiac arrest, shots fired, childbirth and more. They must adequately assess situations and utilize CAD-to-CAD systems to collaborate across jurisdictions, in order to share information with regional responders and locate the closest available unit and enable the most efficient and coordinated response.
Dispatchers are “always on,” working 10, 12, or even 14-hour shifts without the option to “clock out” or debrief. Regardless of the realities of staffing size, a dispatcher must always be available to answer a 911 call, meaning shifts can easily extend to 18-hour days if other dispatchers are out sick or on leave.
How you can support emergency dispatchers
Dispatchers deal with intense, life-and-death emergencies that go far beyond acting as a switchboard or telephone operator. For dispatchers working in the industry, the potential for reclassification is the first step in ensuring qualified people are on the front lines of an emergency.
But what can we do now to support these critical personnel?
What public safety communications centers can do
Dispatchers are resilient, but an individual who is exhausted, sick or spread too thin cannot adequately provide advice and verbal support for someone in cardiac arrest or other critical incidents. The culmination of many difficult calls can be taxing on mental health and this impact can extend beyond the job to dispatchers’ home lives and families.
Telecommunications centers can take the following actions:
- Use technology to create policies for regular check-ins with staff. Be proactive in checking on dispatchers’ well-being. Technology can help managers understand the different call types a dispatcher may have taken in a given amount of time and standardize a system that requires dispatchers to take breaks, speak to a counselor or get mental health support based on this policy.
- Provide resources. Ensure dispatchers have access to a strong wellness center, peer support groups and mental health clinicians.
- Create a culture of support. Prioritize quality time with staff. Consider what you are doing to provide that extra support and appreciation for dispatchers – getting coffees, cooking meals and other day-to-day support tasks to create a sense of community and togetherness.
What EMS providers, firefighters and police officers can do
Public safety is the responsibility of all who manage the incident. Before any law enforcement officer, firefighter or EMS provider arrives on scene, dispatchers are the first to respond to what could be the worst moment of someone’s life.
Think about the person behind the headset monitoring the radio and answering the phone. How are you supporting the dispatchers you work with and recognizing them for the work they do?
- Provide incident closure, when possible. Often, dispatchers do not get closure on incidents once they hand off to the in-person response team. This can lead to prolonged stress and trauma that dispatchers carry with them. As you can, call your dispatch team and let them know what happened to help provide more peace of mind, show appreciation and build a strong level of trust and partnership with them. Dispatchers are just as critical of a role as any in the emergency response industry.
- Be an advocate. Agencies have the responsibility to advocate for their staff on the front lines. Although dispatchers are not out in the field, they are still the first point of contact for every 911 call that is placed throughout the country. Every emergency response begins with a dispatcher, and every communications center operates with one goal in mind: responder and citizen safety.
Remember, we all have the same mission to maintain public safety and we all need to support each other to reach these goals.
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About the authors
Sara Shover works as a 911 emergency services dispatcher for the South Metro (Colorado) Fire Rescue Communications Center.
Diane Culverhouse is a former Public Safety Communications Manager for Aurora, Colorado, and currently serves as the account director at CentralSquare Technologies.