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: 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 the industry for over a year, 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:
- We’re just glorified telephone operators who all work together in a universal call-center somewhere in Nebraska.
Let’s get one thing straight, we are highly trained public-safety professionals who are the first first-responders. Your worst day is our best day. So no, we are NOT just telephone operators. And contrary to popular belief, we 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), unless otherwise consolidated, so each city has its own.
- We know EVERYTHING about EVERYTHING occurring ANYWHERE at ANYTIME.
Now that you know 9-1-1 call centers are local according to city/county jurisdiction, you now understand when you call a dispatcher working at Small Town, USA, he 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.
- We have the answer to EVERYTHING, like why the power is out at your house and when it will come back on.
We are dispatchers who work for police, fire, or emergency medical service agencies. Calling and asking us questions completely unrelated to these fields is like calling McDonalds and asking about the status of the delivery boy bringing you the pizza you ordered. Oh wait, McDonalds doesn’t even make pizza. If it’s not public-safety related, then try calling the respective department that would handle such problem, for example in this case, the power company.
- We have a crystal ball and can see the future.
No, we do not have a crystal ball that mysteriously bends the time-space continuum allowing us to see the future.
- We ask too many questions, way too many questions, for no reason at all.
We call this “Line of Questioning”. There is a very specific order we ask you detailed questions about the problem you are reporting, and many times your answers determine what questions we ask you next. This questioning protocol allows us 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.
- We’re physically the ones who will respond to provide help.
Dispatchers, by our very definition, gather information to send the appropriate help. We are not the ones driving to your house to help. So because we 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 our questions, and we are updating those responding units with your answers so they have as much information as is available when they arrive to help.
- We 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 us. Cell phones are mobile and go wherever you go, so they are not connected to a specific address, which means we have to rely on you to provide us with your location because we can only narrow it down so far. And no, we cannot reposition satellites and reconfigure their programming to track your every move.
- The calls we handle don’t affect us, thus we 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 us in a single shift. Imagine the strong feelings of helplessness and guilt we experience when we answer calls and listen to people screaming for help. We feel helpless because we can’t reach through the phone and provide immediate assistance; we feel guilty because we second-guess the way we handled some calls wondering if we would’ve said/done something different it might’ve changed the outcome. The stress accumulates with every call, with every shift, until it is overwhelmingly unbearable. Many of us silently suffer from compassion fatigue, career burnout, acute stress disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder. However, we are afraid to reach out for professional help for fear of being stigmatized as “weak” and found unfit for duty in psychological evaluations.
- Police/fire/paramedics could easily do their job without us.
We are the Thin Gold Line that provides communication support between you and responding police officers, firefighters, or paramedics. They could no more do their job without us than we could do our job without them. We see our police officers and firefighters try to work an overtime shift with us in our dispatch centers. Many of them struggle, to say the least, because the multi-tasking pace at which we do our work is at light speed. We speed up the information flow from callers to responding units, so that our personnel can stay safe, help keep the general public safe, and provide assistance in the best way possible. Without us, they would be responding blind with no information, which could delay resolution.
- We make too much money for the work we do.
According to Indeed, a popular job-search website, the median annual salary for a police dispatcher in Los Angeles, CA, is $43,000. Think about that for a moment… Los Angeles, one of the largest cities in the United States, generates several hundred thousands of police and fire calls for service every year. We rarely have a moment’s rest while handling hundreds of calls during our 12-hour shift. We are trusted to give live-and-death instructions to callers before police officers and firefighters arrive on-scene. And yet, even we dispatchers who work in a metropolitan area like L.A. only make $43,000 a year on average.
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, we are only human, which means we have good days and bad days, and we feel the same wide range of emotions as you do. Nevertheless, we work hard to be the best at what we do to help you. We are emergency dispatchers.