It’s National Telecommunicator’s Week, and I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank the dedicated members of Sumner County Emergency Communications for the jobs they do. National Telecommunicators Week is held the second week of April of each year, and is set aside to recognize and thank the men and women nationwide who “answer the call”.
The duties and responsibilities of a public safety dispatcher are, most commonly, misunderstood. They are misunderstood because there are few words that can fully and adequately describe what being a dispatcher entails. Without having actually sat in the chair, it is impossible to fathom what it is like.
Dispatchers have an overwhelming responsibility to the citizens and public safety partners they serve. The job is technically advanced to the point that their “desk” is actually a complex console with a minimum of five computer screens staring at them, complete with software for processing a multi-line telephone system, a multi-channel computerized radio system, and a national law enforcement telecommunications system. At any given minute, they have to be mentally and physically prepared to answer everything from a loose dog in the trash or a controlled burn of agricultural land, to an active-shooter incident, commercial building fire, or heart attack. One minute they may be dispatching law enforcement to a parking complaint, while the next minute calming a grieving caller and giving them CPR instructions over the telephone.
They are often described as having to be great “multi-taskers”, but in reality, that term doesn’t adequately describe their duties. Dispatchers have to be “multi-thinkers”, concentrating, comprehending, and processing multiple sources of information at once. Not only are dispatchers required to talk on the telephone, while typing information into a computer keyboard and monitoring or talking on a radio at the same time, they have to be able to actively listen and process information from multiple sources simultaneously. They may have a caller providing critical information in one ear, while a responder on the radio is providing information in the other ear, while reading computer information received on a wanted person, at the same time a co-worker or supervisor is feeding information to them from across the room.
Compounding this environment is the fact that most tasks are critical. They aren’t dispatching taxi-cabs, they’re dispatching police cars, fire trucks, and ambulances, and the instantaneous decisions they make are life-and-death decisions. Each action determines whether or not the police, fire, and EMS arrive in a timely manner, or a minute too late; whether a police officer, firefighter, or medical technician arrives prepared to enter the emergency scene safely, or are unnecessarily sent into harm’s way. The ability to receive, process, and quickly act on these multiple sources of information is mentally demanding and stressful.
The “basics” of becoming a dispatcher takes six months, and I’ve often described this as cramming a two-year college education into a six month period. The amount of information they are required to learn and retain is daunting. Their education doesn’t end there…they train, and retrain, to keep their skills honed. They watch videos, read manuals, take tests, attend workshops and conferences, and take on-line training classes just to name a few. They have to train, and be willing to be trained, for the rest of their careers, to advance beyond “the basics” and to keep up with changes in technology and methods. In the end, they will be certified as Public Safety Telecommunicator I, Emergency Medical Dispatcher/CPR, and NCIC Terminal Operators.
To say they work in a stressful environment is an understatement. They are often criticized for the slightest errors, while heroic actions go unnoticed. They know they are under pressure when the phone rings or the radio blares, and it takes its toll. Job burnout is so prevalent that the average career of a dispatcher nationwide is just seven years. Hearing about a “retirement reception” for a dispatcher is extremely rare.
They work all hours, staying alert all night while we sleep safely in our warm beds. They work weekends while we are at the movies, or go shopping, or take a day trip. They man the telephones eating warmed up left-overs while we open Christmas gifts with our families and wait for Christmas dinner to come out of the hot oven. They miss birthday parties, little league games, and July 4th cookouts.
They are confined for 8 to 12 hours each day to a small room with artificial lighting and, aside from the telephone and radio, have little interaction with the outside world. They have two windows to look out of during their shift, but seldom get the opportunity to. They know whether it’s sunny, rainy, or snowing by looking at a computer radar rather than looking out of a window. They don’t get to go home for lunch, or have a lunch date with friends. Their meal consists of whatever they bring, whatever they can take-out, or whatever can be delivered.
Last year, Sumner County emergency dispatchers processed an average of 83,000 events, from 911 calls, to radio calls, to administrative non-emergency calls for information. Data isn’t available for the extra duties they perform in their spare time such as entering warrants and stolen properly into the NCIC database, running criminal background checks for law enforcement or court services agencies, or sending and receiving teletypes across counties and even states regarding the public’s safety. They have other duties and responsibilities as well, too numerous to mention in this short narrative.
They work with a minimum of two on duty because we, as well as other dispatch centers across the nation, have frequent vacancies and are chronically short-staffed. It is difficult to find people who have the aptitude for the job, who are dedicated to working under the required conditions, for the pay they receive.
But in Sumner County, we are fortunate to have men and women who do serve. They are gifted enough to fulfill the duties and responsibilities, dedicated enough to work the hours, days, and nights that are demanded of them, tough enough to weather the criticism, and do so knowing they won’t get rich, but that they are serving a valuable purpose; helping their fellow man.
They are heard, but not seen, therefore they are often forgotten. Always remember, when you see a police car, fire truck, ambulance, or emergency management professional heading to or operating at the scene of an emergency, there is a dispatcher behind the scenes who cared for the caller, tried to calm the chaos, guided the responders there, and attempted to keep everyone safe until the emergency could be abated.
I am thankful for them, but I can’t begin to adequately thank them for the job they do. They need to be recognized, not just during National Telecommunicator’s Week, but every week of the year.
So, to Marcie, Sandy, Ashley, Cara, Michael, Rachelle, Jon, Ailee, Alison, Ashley, Brad, Alyssa, Elise, Erin, Stefny, Brent, and Kirstie, I appreciate each and every one of you, for your dedication and abilities. I am proud to have had the opportunity to serve with you, and give a heart-felt thank you for the job you do.
And if you see someone you know is a dispatcher, you might thank them as well. The smallest act of recognition goes a long way.
John Tracy, 911 Director