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Communication Breakdowns

To prevent conflict and improve safety, field officers and dispatch need to learn more about each others jobs.

August 24, 2011  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo: Amaury Murgado.
Photo: Amaury Murgado.

When you first become a cop, everyone tells you, you can make a difference. As you leap into your new profession, you have a sense that the people you will be working with will share your values, your goals, and your desire to protect and serve.

Within your first year, however, your experiences tell you that things are not exactly like what your academy instructors said they would be. During your first few days at your agency, you hear words like family to describe your new workplace. And yet somehow, the word dysfunctional is omitted.

I'm not talking about certain elitist tendencies or the favoritism associated with "golden child" syndrome. I'm referring to the friction generated between the different divisions of your agency. It reminds me of high school; only this time, it's not how the jocks treat the geeks, but how one division views another. A classic example is the tumultuous relationship often found between road patrol and communications (dispatch).

See if this exchange doesn't sound vaguely familiar:

Dispatch: "Last Unit, say again, I had background."

Officer (to another officer): "Damn, can she put the Avon catalog down long enough to pay attention? All she does is sit on her ass and gossip all day long with her friends."

Officer: "Dispatch, can you ask if there are any other weapons in the house?"

Dispatch (to another dispatcher): "If I knew that, I would have told him already; can't he just go to the damn call? All he does is sit on his ass all day long in an air-conditioned car and talk with his friends on the phone."

The reality is that both the road officer and the dispatcher are intertwined in a symbiotic relationship where you can't have one without the other. I can argue both sides equally well, as I am married to a former dispatcher who has worked at the county and state levels. Dinner at my house has included some work-related conversations that have been, how can I put it mildly...interesting.

A Mile in Their Shoes

I recently polled a group of communications officers and their supervisors. And I received some very candid and insightful responses. Remembering that perception is reality, I'd like to list some of the more salient points. If any of it applies to you, then maybe understanding both sides of the issue will help you create a middle ground where everyone benefits.

A communications manager with an agency that employs close to 500 sworn officers says, "Field units often discredit telecommunicators due to their support role. A telecommunicator's job is not just about relaying information anymore. There is a technology overload, which means more work for the telecommunicator who now manages more resources, systems, and databases at once, in addition to the traditional business and emergency phone lines."

This dispatch supervisor made me realize that managing information and officer requests is often as complicated as handling in-progress calls in the field. "Officers in the field handle one call at a time," she explains. "They can focus all of their attention on their immediate needs. Field supervisors can delegate, assign, and ask for other assistance. Telecommunicators don't share that luxury. They handle multiple calls at once in addition to officers' demands for assistance and information. Everyone on that channel calls in to speak with just one telecommunicator."

I also received a lot of feedback from individual communicators. The main voice, however, comes from one particular senior operator whose in-depth responses seemed to summarize everyone else's. I have always appreciated her candor and honesty.

Here's what she had to say:

Comments (2)

Displaying 1 - 2 of 2

J.P. Fane @ 8/26/2011 6:05 AM

Thanks Lt, this is one of the best articles I have seen in a very long time that deals fairly with a daily issue. As an offcer with over 20 years experience I recently took over our Consolidated Dispatch Center. The daily riff between the field and the center is counter productive. I just wanted to thank you for a delivering this important message to both sides.

S. P. @ 3/5/2012 8:52 AM

I've been a dispatcher for 5 years and worked in a jail before that. This article couldn't be more perfect. Some of the quotes by the senior operator I have said myself. I feel all officers should have to work in dispatch once a month so they remember what goes on in here. Our dispatchers ride out with officers pretty often so we usually have an understanding of their end. Thanks for the article

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