Understanding the Role of the 911 Dispatcher

ESO Staff

In more than 6,000 public safety answering points (PSAPs) around the nation, an unsung hero plays a key role. They help save lives and property, are masters of multitasking, and serve as a vital link between first responders and the community. This unsung hero is the 911 dispatcher.

Medical dispatch

The 911 dispatcher may be sitting alone in a dark, windowless building – perhaps even underground – intently studying at a complicated computer interface and city map, answering calls for a long 12- or 16-hour shift, and shifting communication between distressed members of the public and hardworking firefighters and EMTs.

The Role of a 911 Dispatcher

He or she may be handling multiple calls, activating crews from multiple agencies, or providing initial medical advice to a caller. A dispatcher must balance workloads and resources in the slowest and busiest hours. They ascertain from only a phone conversation the seriousness of an incident, the required resources to respond, and the actual location of the event. Additionally, a dispatcher is tasked with:

  • Keeping the caller calm enough to relay helpful and pertinent information regarding the emergency. These details can affect not only how many responders are needed, but the type of equipment that should be prepared or taken.
  • Providing pre-arrival emergency intervention to callers. If the dispatcher is a certified Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD), he or she may also be offering the caller “dispatch life support,” while also conducting an interview of predetermined questions, pre-arrival telephone instructions, and pre-assigned response levels and modes that will help first responders on arrival.
  • Deploying, managing, and redirecting crews as needed. Dispatchers may be handling calls from a range of locations and agencies; it is their job to quickly prioritize and deploy the right teams to the right locations, and even redirect as needed. That means being aware of current locations and status of all crews, as well as fielding emergency calls from both the public and from fire departments, police departments, and other municipal agencies that may arrive on the scene of an incident and call it in.
  • Mastering a range of communication tools – from phone to radio to computer-based alerts – simultaneously to keep all teams informed and prepared upon arrival. While today’s dispatchers can benefit from dispatch-specific software tools to make their jobs more efficient, a dispatcher must still effectively manage numerous sources of input and constantly loop all responders back into the communication cycle.

The vital role of the 911 dispatcher is arguably often under-appreciated and misunderstood. This is perhaps most likely because of a lack of visibility into what they do on any given shift. Dispatchers are often just a voice on the other end of the radio. They may be the bearer of unwelcome news – like having to redirect your crew to a new location after driving miles to a first call, or taking an additional call near the end of a shift – and may often receive the brunt of a tired first responder’s frustration. Oftentimes the responding crews don’t have the full picture of what is causing a call to change, whether it is a more urgent need arising or a call being resolved unexpectedly. A dispatcher must soldier on and try to balance the needs and status of the crews with a wide range of incoming calls.

How to Improve Teamwork with Dispatchers

As an article in Fire Rescue magazine suggests, if fire departments and other first responders had a chance to better understand the role and responsibilities of 911 dispatchers, their perspective might change. In fact, there are a few simple steps agencies can take to improve communication and teamwork with their emergency dispatchers.

  • Take a tour of the call center. Reach out to your dispatcher and schedule a time when you can stop by for a visit. In slow times, a dispatcher is often happy to give a quick tour and explain how the comm center works. Seeing their environment, the number of communication avenues they are juggling, and their view of the dispatch area may offer a new perspective on the scope and stress of the job. Additionally, consider bringing a small sign of your appreciation, like a box of bagels or donuts. The simple gesture can go a long way in building a positive and mutually supportive professional relationship.
  • Widen the lines of communication in non-emergency times. Consider ways that you can increase your communication with the call center and your dispatchers, whether it is setting up regular check-ins or visits, bringing newbies to the call center as part of their training, or even including dispatchers in some of your own drills or training exercises. Helping the dispatcher better understand what your team encounters and considers will definitely help them not only dispatch the right resources, but possibly help get you more helpful pre-arrival information from callers.
  • Encourage an environment of respect within your team for the role of the 911 dispatcher. While it is easy to get frustrated when responding to an incident or during a radio interaction, treating your dispatchers with respect not only promotes professional courtesy but can help remove a layer of stress from their already challenging job.

Increasing an understanding of how and why dispatchers make their decisions can help all members of your team trust them more and possibly even find ways to make the working relationship more efficient.


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