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Understanding the Role of the 911 Dispatcher

ESO Staff

Understanding the Role of the 911 Dispatcher

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.

Dispatchers’ work environments are often dark, windowless buildings. However, as they intently study at a complicated computer interface and city map, dispatchers must keep calm during stressful situations and possess sound decision-making abilities to route police officers, firefighters, and EMTS to help callers during emergency situations.

Read on to better understand what 911 dispatchers do, the tools they use, and how to improve teamwork among dispatchers and emergency services.

What does a 911 dispatcher do?

In emergency situations, a 911 dispatcher fields multiple calls, activating crews and relaying information to multiple agencies including law enforcement, firefighters, and emergency services, along with other first responders who can provide initial medical advice to a caller. Dispatching requires effective communication skills and the ability to balance of workloads and resources. Dispatchers gauge the seriousness of an incident, the required resources for response, 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 computer-aided dispatch and dispatch 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.

Improve 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 for the role.

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.

How EMS Dispatch Software Makes the Job More Efficient

Just like numerous other job functions in emergency response, modern software tools can make the role of a 9-11 dispatcher more efficient. EMS dispatch software designed specifically for 9-11 communication centers simplifies the complexities of decision-making to help dispatchers get the right unit to the right place at the right time. Features like color-coded mapping and linked runs allow dispatchers to more accurately track and manage status and location, and have a better picture of unit availability. More powerful scheduling features help balance pre-schedule transport with incident response, making for a more efficient balance of resources, and quicker response to emergencies.

A better understanding of the role of the 9-11 dispatcher helps deliver better patient experiences and more positive outcomes. As the saying goes, care actually begins with the 9-11 call is received. Supporting dispatchers and improving handshakes along the entire spectrum of care ensures all teams work together more efficiently and make a better impact on the health of a community.

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