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Fire and Police Dispatch: Career Guide

Police and fire dispatchers, also known as 911 operators and dispatchers, play an important role in emergency and non-emergency response in cities across the US. Police and fire dispatchers provide customer service answering calls to 911 and arranging for appropriate responses from city services. In some jurisdictions, police and fire dispatchers may also be responsible for answering and dispatching non-emergency service calls, such as animal control and city utilities. In large cities, the duties of police and fire dispatchers and 911 operators may be separate; a 911 operator will take the call and enter notes into the system to be routed to an emergency dispatcher, and then the dispatcher will coordinate the appropriate response with available police, fire, and ambulance personnel. Police and fire dispatch jobs can be stressful, but can also be highly rewarding.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

Police dispatchers answer calls to 911 and collect as much information as possible regarding the emergency or issue before dispatching the appropriate response personnel. Police dispatchers must be able to remain calm and issue directions to callers who may be injured or experiencing psychological trauma, while collecting enough information from these callers to ensure that responding personnel are prepared to address the reason for the call without putting additional lives at risk. For less serious calls, dispatchers may write basic police reports or make routine referrals to other city agencies.

In cities where police dispatchers are also 911 operators, workers must be able to take calls while simultaneously coordinating the appropriate response units. Emergency dispatchers can typically see where police, fire, and ambulance units are located at any given time, and must assign a priority from highest to lowest to each call while ensuring that the closest and most available vehicle(s) answers the call. Communication with first responders may occur over the radio, by using electronic messaging, or a combination of both. While communicating with responders, police dispatchers will typically still be on the phone with the original caller and may also be simultaneously communicating with other police dispatchers.

In cities where police dispatch is a separate job function from 911 operators, a 911 operator will take the initial call and then communicate the service needs of that call to police dispatch. A police dispatcher will then be responsible for coordinating the appropriate emergency response while the 911 operator remains on the line with the caller. Senior police dispatchers may also responsible for providing radio support, which can include research such as address history, caller warrants, and other critical information, to patrol units. Whether receiving calls or dispatching, during every step of any call, operators must log radio traffic, call status and information, and other important events into the emergency systems being used; those who work in this field must therefore have high-level multitasking abilities.

Steps for Becoming a Fire and Police Dispatcher

Applicants for fire and police dispatch jobs should be US citizens or have the appropriate work authorization and be at least 18 years of age. Note that to be eligible for hire in some emergency call centers, US citizenship is required. The minimum education required for a police dispatcher is a high school diploma or GED, though some communications centers may prefer applicants who have college credit. According to O*NET OnLine, 75% of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma or its equivalent, while 10% hold an associate’s degree.1

Many hiring agencies place a premium on customer service experience, especially experience in fast-paced call centers. Earning experience in telecommunications and customer service also serves prospective dispatchers well by providing skills development in multitasking and communication. Those who have these skills and are hired as emergency dispatchers will be trained on the use of emergency response databases and applications during 911 operator training. The typical steps to become a police dispatcher are similar to the following:

  1. Complete the level of education required by the hiring agency.
  2. Earn experience working in a customer service role.
  3. Take and pass a civil service test.
  4. Apply for an open dispatch position.
  5. Complete an interview with the hiring agency.
  6. Complete a background check.
  7. Take and pass a drug test.
  8. Complete a psychological evaluation.
  9. Be hired as a police dispatcher.
  10. Complete police and fire dispatch training.

Fire and Police Dispatch Job Training

Many emergency call centers hire 911 operators with a high school diploma or GED. Some agencies may prefer that candidates have college experience; though it may not be required, earning college credit can prepare prospective dispatchers to work with the various databases and software suites used in emergency response. However, nearly all police dispatcher positions require candidates to have at least one or two years of customer service experience, preferably in a fast-paced telecommunications environment. Those who wish to pursue police dispatcher jobs should also have above-average typing speeds without compromising accuracy.

Once hired, 911 dispatchers should expect to be in training for up to 18 months as they learn how to use their agency’s emergency communications systems to respond to calls quickly and effectively. As part of this training, new operators will learn the basics of first responders’ capabilities in order to understand how to prioritize and route personnel. Police dispatchers will learn basic first aid with a focus on being able to walk callers through performing CPR and similar life-saving measures when necessary. Training for fire and police dispatch jobs will also include learning how to operate a teletype machine (TDD/TTY) in order to be able to take calls from the hearing impaired.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

Prospective police dispatchers should have strong multitasking abilities, since being a 911 dispatcher involves simultaneously taking calls, typing notes, and interacting with other emergency personnel. Police dispatchers should also have a calm demeanor and be able to cope with high stress levels, as the job routinely involves intense mental pressure. 911 operators should be prepared to work first, second, or third shift; especially in larger cities, there is commonly higher demand for second and third shift dispatchers as more emergencies tend to occur during these hours. It is not uncommon for police dispatchers to work rotating shifts, including holidays and weekends. The ability to speak a second language fluently, especially Spanish, may give operators an edge in the hiring process. Finally, earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree may increase an emergency dispatcher’s opportunities for promotion.

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • 911 Call Taker
  • 911 Communications Specialist
  • 911 Dispatcher
  • 911 Operator
  • 911 Telecommunicator
  • Emergency Dispatcher
  • Police and Fire Dispatcher

Fire and Police Dispatch Salary and Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers earned an average annual salary of $38,870 as of May 2016.1 Earning potential for emergency dispatchers varies widely according to the employer; dispatchers working in state government earned the highest annual average, at $44,240, while dispatchers working in hospitals earned the lowest annual average, at $35,370.1 In addition to a competitive salary, 911 dispatchers working for state and local governments receive typical government benefits, including retirement contributions, health and life insurance, and generous paid time off. Job growth for emergency dispatchers is expected to be as fast as the average for all occupations, at 8% through 2026.1 This equates to 8,200 jobs added between 2016 and 2026, which is in addition to job openings created as current emergency dispatchers retire or move to other positions.1

Related Careers

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Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What type of work availability is required for police dispatcher jobs?

Answer: To be competitive for police dispatcher jobs, candidates should have availability during first, second, and third shifts. Most emergency operations centers are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and many require dispatchers to work rotating shifts – including holidays and weekends. Especially in larger cities, dispatch jobs may require on-call or recall availability – meaning that even on days off, operators can be called back to work as needed. Overtime is frequently mandatory. However, in exchange for these time demands, shift differentials, overtime pay, and increased holiday pay are common incentives.

Question: What certifications do police dispatchers need to have?

Answer: Generally, any certifications required are earned during 911 operator training. Once hired, dispatchers will likely earn basic first aid certification through the hiring agency. Some jurisdictions, such as the states of Arizona and Washington, require operators to earn certification in operating state emergency terminals within six months to a year of hire. Some states, such as Georgia, train operators to earn state-level communications officer certification. Operators may also be trained to earn certification in using the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC).

Question: Are 911 operators sworn police officers?

Answer: Generally, 911 operators are civilian personnel providing support services to sworn first responders. However, as this is a sensitive position that includes access to police systems, prospective police dispatchers should expect to complete a background check through the local police department, which typically includes polygraph and psychological exams.

Additional Resources

  • NENA, The 9-1-1 Association – NENA is a membership-driven organization that provides education and professional development opportunities for police dispatchers and 911 operators nationwide and internationally.
  • International Academies of Emergency Dispatch – This organization offers certification opportunities for emergency dispatchers in all focus areas, accredits emergency dispatch centers and public safety organizations that meet its voluntary standards, and provides up-to-date news and advice on issues impacting the emergency response industry.
  • National 911 Coordination – The National 911 Program is a federally-funded effort to coordinate state, local, federal, and tribal emergency response providers for the purposes of information sharing and capabilities improvement.

References:
1. O*NET OnLine, Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/43-5031.00
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/police-fire-and-ambulance-dispatchers.htm