April 10–16 is National Public Safety Telecommunications Week, a week where we celebrate 9-1-1 dispatchers for all their hard work, their dedication to public safety, and their willingness to do it all in the shadows.
If you’re reading this, I’ve got to thank you for your awareness. More often than not, people don’t think about 9-1-1 unless they’re calling. Even then, most don’t ever think about who we are, where we work, or much else. And who can blame them? People don’t (or aren’t supposed to) call 9-1-1 unless they’re having an emergency, and they’ve got more important things to worry about in that moment.
There are a lot of expressions and sayings that try and sum up 9-1-1 dispatchers: “the calm voice in your storm,” “the thin gold line that ties public safety together,” and people who can confidently say that “your worst day is my everyday.”
Without question, it takes a special kind of person to be a 9-1-1 dispatcher. I hear from people all the time that “I could never do what you do.”
But idioms and platitudes aside, what’s the kind of special that we’re looking for?
Dispatchers are good listeners, oftentimes to several things at once.
Dispatchers work hard, and are generally self-motivated. And more than working hard, they work fast, and they do so almost flawlessly. Mistakes can cost lives, after all.
With that in mind, dispatchers perform well under pressure. And not just “I have a deadline coming up” pressure. More like screaming for help because someone isn’t breathing pressure. It might also be screaming because the neighbor’s cat is trespassing in their yard pressure. You’d be surprised how hard it can be to differentiate one scream from the other sometimes.
Nerves of steel are a must for a dispatcher, because one never knows what’s waiting on the other end of that ringing phone. Maybe it’s a heart attack, a car accident, or a barking dog. Dispatchers have to maintain their professionalism, even when someone calls to complain that the convenience store is out of nacho cheese.
Keep those nerves polished, because dispatchers get blamed for everything. Callers often yell because they just want to yell at someone, whoever will listen, and dispatch answered the phone, and dispatch has to listen.
Other times, that phone doesn’t ring at all. But no matter. The dispatcher is ready, always ready to render aid on your worst day, at your lowest point, when you don’t know who else to call.
All that anticipation can weigh on a person just as bad as the stress of the emergencies, and maybe even worse. Being a rural center, we don’t lack for downtime (especially overnight), so dispatch is ready a lot, and sometimes for nothing at all. Imagine holding an arrow drawn for 12-hours, only to gently place it back in the quiver. That’s hard on a bowstring, and harder on a person.
Sidebar for one more idiom: Dispatchers don’t get paid for what we do. We get paid for what we’re ready to do.
Last of all, dispatchers have to perform like this overnight, on the weekend, during holidays, and often for more than 40 hours a week. Just like almost every other 9-1-1 center in the country, we’re short staffed. (Yes, we’re hiring. Consider applying here.)
9-1-1 dispatchers are the forgotten members of the public safety team, the first person on every scene every time, and the last one to know what happened when the dust settles. It’s a pretty thankless job, but these folks deserve to be recognized at least once a year.