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Departments : The Winning Edge

10 Things Dispatchers Want You to Know

The dispatcher is your guardian angel on the job; help him or her give you the information you need to prevail.

September 13, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.
Photo courtesy of Amaury Murgado.

Minutes after a gunman opened fire at the midnight showing of "The Dark Knight Rises," it became the job of an emergency communications specialist to send help. In a clear, calm voice Kathie Stauffer directed officers, paramedics, and EMTs to the aid of the victims. Afterward, she was praised for helping first responders get the resources they needed to help the wounded and dying and for maintaining professionalism despite great stress and distress. Stauffer's role in the response to the Aurora Massacre is proof of the critical role emergency communication specialists, commonly known as dispatchers, play in public safety.

The emergency dispatcher is the police officer's lifeline out in the field: coordinating resources, making notifications, running checks, and getting you help when and where you need it. When your butt is on the line, so is theirs.

Sometimes the channels of communication are wide open and everything clicks. Information comes through just in time to avert disaster. Suspect descriptions are spot on. Officers speak in perceptible tones and dispatchers return information with lightning speed and accuracy.

But things don't always run as smoothly as both sides would hope. Sometimes external factors—bad radio reception, stepped on transmission traffic, and the inexplicable delay between a request and an answer—make communication less than effective.

Empathy helps. But how many cops have really sat in a dispatcher's shoes and know what it is like to deal simultaneously with both sides of an invisible equation, hearing nothing but voices, reading nothing but text, and having no facial or bodily expression to go off of, and no situational awareness of what is happening beyond their headsets? The stress level for these unsung heroes is tremendously high, for they take their jobs seriously and understand that even minor mistakes can have deadly consequences.

Communication, particularly in law enforcement, is a two-way transmission. With that in mind, here are some things that dispatchers say you can do to help them communicate the critical information that you need in the field.

1. That Lousy Call is Not Their Fault

In larger departments, dispatchers have little or no discretion about which calls they handle. If they get a request for an officer to be sent to a location, they send one. True, they can make alternative suggestions to the caller. And where they are given some latitude, they can screen away some of the extraneous situations with relative ease. The guy who advises that he’s out of toilet paper and asks for an officer to help him is not going to get that help. The woman with the spider in the motel room is also not going to see you. Nor will you be talking to the young woman who wants you to roll on a custody dispute, then identifies the involved father as "Adolph Hitler." Dispatchers use their best judgment to the extent that we are allowed to avert calls that you will never even hear about.

2. Be Patient

Dispatchers are juggling other things. So don't expect them to automatically jump at your beck and call. Cindra Dunaway, state certified public safety telecommunicator/training  officer for the Lee County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office, says there can be as high as a 1:40 ratio of dispatchers to field units. "Recognize that there is a lot going on behind the scenes while you are waiting for a response. The informant may be speaking to a 911 operator, who relays that information to me, while I'm typing the information for you," she says. "There may be a politically sensitive issue involved that you may not be aware of, or an officer safety concern that may be dangerous to broadcast. Remember that we're in the same boat as you are: doing more with less. While there may not be as many of us as there once was, we are expected to do more."

3. Let Them Know Where You Are

Dispatchers are your lifeline. But if they don't know where you are, all the cries for help in the world are not going to help you. Let your dispatchers know when and where you are conducting some manner of investigation. Tell them who you are dealing with and clue them in to the nature of the problem. Sometimes that may be enough for a dispatcher to recognize that you need assistance, even if you don't feel comfortable making the request. Dunaway notes that, "We don't know where ‘by the red car' is. Unless you tell us where you are, it makes our job that much more difficult and stressful."

4. Know Your Codes

If the radio code you used while requesting a tow truck actually means fire, don’t blame the dispatcher if you see a bright red engine pull up.

5. Slow Down and Take a Breath

Unless it's an emergency, take your time in relaying information to dispatchers, especially when they have to transcribe your request. Odds are the dispatcher was not a stenographer in a previous life, so save the auctioneer cadence for another time. And remember, most of the time you can run, or you can talk—odds are you can't do both, at least not to the extent that anyone can understand you over a radio. Prioritize and decide what is your true priority: Catching the suspect yourself or coordinating assistance to help you catch him.

6. Know How to Ask Dispatchers for Information

Dunaway says that cops should give her everything they need on a subject in the beginning of their request instead of asking for it piecemeal. "Most of us will drop the information once we give it out and get ready for the next transmission," she says. "Most telecommunicators will give you a hint about how they need information given to them. We have several databases that we work with and each one is different. I consistently get about half of my deputies who give me last name first, even after I ask for first name first. Another thing that bugs us to no end is when there’s more than one unit on scene and both will run the same person."

7. Stick to Business

Many a female telecommunicator has heard it said that she has what is known as "dispatcher voice," a tone that inspires all manner of fantasy. But we're dealing in reality and on the department's dime. Don't try to romance the dispatcher on the job.

8. Show Some Professional Discipline

In emergencies, dispatchers know that you will be responding. Many agencies now have technology that lets them know that you are rolling with lights and siren and where you are rolling from. If such information stands to be redundant, and there is an officer who is trying to put out suspect information or request for paramedics, that's the voice the dispatcher needs to focus on. Please give the dispatcher the opportunity to hear it. Also, dispatchers are aware that you are "running a firearm." If the dispatcher tells you that he or she is on the phone, it may well be because the firearm had been stolen a half-hour before and the dispatcher has the victim on the line. If it is something less substantial, you can hold the dispatcher accountable later. In the meantime, give him or her the benefit of the doubt.

9. Show Some Compassion

Believe it or not, dispatchers care. They are often just as anxious to know what has happened to their fellow public safety employees as you are. If you think about it, let them know how the situation ended. It gives them closure to know who survived and who was sent to jail. Better yet, stop by sometime to let them know when they've done a particularly good job coordinating a broadcast. That really makes their day.

10. Remember Dispatchers Can Help You

If you anticipate the possibility of some complicating presence, let the dispatcher know. If you have a backdrop concern, the dispatcher can contact residents or occupants and have them evacuate a location via a rear door.


10 Things Officers Want to Tell Dispatchers

3 Things You Want Dispatchers To Know

How to Thank Your Dispatchers

Comments (12)

Displaying 1 - 12 of 12

don h @ 9/21/2012 3:22 AM

In my department, patrol officers were allowed to work overtime at dispatch if an off-duty dispatcher couldn't/wouldn't work it. I liked it because it was a change of scenery, but most officers only worked it once. They said, "It's not worth the money." Not only do you get s*#t from the public, but you get it from officers. It's a tough job and they don't get paid enough.

Firecop @ 9/21/2012 4:42 AM

How about the ten things we want dispatchers to know? I respect the job they do for the ridiculous amount they get paid, but it's tough when we're under pressure on the street to keep the right frame of mind when we get attitude fed back over the airwaves. We need to pay them much better and then set the bar at an acceptable level for all. Stay safe.

D-Ray @ 9/21/2012 5:57 AM

I truly appreciate a good dispatcher. I'm often the guy that hears other officers complain about dispatch, and sets them straight on how stressful that job can be. Just because it's not physically dangerous, doesn't make it less stressful. I go out of my way to be patient with dispatch, and to relay information to them that they need. I would tell them when the do a great job, but officers are not allowed in dispatch, nor can we call them. That's a whole other story though...

Phil Werkmeister @ 9/21/2012 10:09 AM

As a Chief in a smaller Dept., I wanted all my Dispatchers and Officers to "walk" in "their shoes", for at least a weeks worth of shifts......It made them understand things that otherwise couldn't be expained....I understand it would be utterly impossible to do so in a larger Dept., but I think most of them gained a whole lot more by sitting in "the other guy's roll"............Take the time to try and understand...........

Jim A @ 9/23/2012 2:46 PM

I have always told my police trainees that dispatching is the most difficult job in law enforcement. New officers believe they are the face of law enforcement but they do not realize that for every officer, there are two other employees that serve in jobs not commonly seen by the public. Every bit of information a dispatcher gets is third hand. The callers refuse to give the information necessary for a proper response, but the professional dispatcher has to remain calm and gather what they can. They pass on what they have to us - and we always expect more. They don't get spit on or hit, but they get cussed at way more than I do. Everyone thinks they can swear at a person on the other end of the phone. Every caller thinks they know more than the dispatcher - and they demand the dispatcher does everything like THEY want it to occur, not like the dispatcher knows it needs to be done. They go through every call with the officer, waiting for the 10-4 and shaking until they get it. They are truly our lifeline.

To all Communiciations Officers, I appreciate what you do! Thank you so much!

TedB @ 9/26/2012 1:27 PM

I have been in LE for 44 years. Many years ago I worked for a large federal agency that rotated officers through dispatch so we could work with the civilian dispatchers and learn what they had to put up with. It was great experience. A few years later I worked a resident post in a rural area where I was dispatched by the CHP. They did such a great job of telling me where to go that I married one of their dispatchers. 27 years later she is still telling me where to go and we have 10 grandkids. We couldn't do the job without their support and expertise at what they do best. God bless the dispatchers.

Ima Leprechaun @ 9/30/2012 1:30 PM

It is true dispatchers rarely get the recognition they deserve. I always took care of my dispatchers and I understood they were handling police and fire traffic as well as incoming calls and walk-ins. Smaller agencies see the demands put upon dispatchers more than larger ones. For a few years when I first started we contracted our dispatch service through another agency. I found we took better care of the dispathcers than the operating agency did. Everyone needs to know the demands of both jobs to better understand each other. I know I would never make a decent dispatcher because it is a different area of the brain that is needed to keep all that stuff coordinated and moving smoothly while telephone calls and civilians, police and firemen are shouting at you. Patrol cops may only need one thing from them but there are other agencies, teletype messages, phone lines, fire traffic and other emegencies going on besides you wanting to run a license check. Just be courteous and understanding for a change.

Diana Sprain @ 11/27/2012 8:07 PM

One agency I worked at allowed sworn police & fire personnel to work in dispatch while on light duty UNTIL we converted to computer-aided dispatch. Before they could take one call or dispatch one unit, they had to learn how to use CAD. It was too much. Our jobs became specialized when we added the full access NCIC position.

Police rookies spent some time in dispatch and a Dispatch SUpervisor taught the radio communications portion of the in-house police academy. We also encouraged our dispatch personnel to get out on ride-alongs (police & fire). When possible, I had field personnel involved with the dispatch training.

We were lucky to have good working relationships between our sworn and dispatch staff.

Ken Kincaid @ 6/26/2014 11:18 AM

As a former 911 system manager I continue to applaud the men and women that do this job. One note. There is no place in the 21st Century for ten codes. Clear speech please.

Michelle @ 8/17/2014 5:25 PM

I have just started working at the local city police department as a dispatcher. I had somewhat of an idea what I was going into since my boyfriend is one of the officers, however it is still a lot different than what the average person would think. All the paperwork that we have to take care of , working with the magistrates office, warrants, the scope, learning how to take the calls properly and then making sure that my guys are safe. I try to make sure I can get a much information to pass on to the guys as I can if not I make my best judgement as I can from the call to at least give them and idea so they may have an idea of what they are going into. I love my job!

Michelle @ 7/18/2015 1:42 AM

I called 911 today because of a severe allergic reaction I had caused by taking ibuprofen for headache and cramps. The dispatcher that helped me until the ambulance arrived was extremely helpful in that he calmed me down as much as I could stay calm. My reaction was fast, growing from minute to minute. I looked in the mirror and what I saw was literally horrible and I was scared. Finally called 911. The dispatcher told me to try and breathe normally. He talked me into every step until help was practically at my door. I am very grateful. Very. And, I am better now. Spent hours in Er. I was given IV, steroids, and Benedryl. It is very humbling to call 911 when there is a problem- for me. I was treated with respect and care. I don't know how I could ever repay that. thank You for helping me in such a horrific experience. ---Michelle.

Dan G @ 4/6/2017 10:51 AM

I recently transferred into an assignment as a Dispatch Manager after spending over 24 years as a uniformed officer in Patrol and Investigations Divisions. It was a true "eye-opener" to witness the volume of calls from the public that literally a handful of hardworking dispatchers are able to handle. Most field officers are unaware of how frantic callers facing an emergency can be extremely demeaning and rude to dispatchers and call-takers, without cause. This, unfortunately, is a routine work day for dispatchers. They really do deserve much more credit and appreciation than they typically receive.

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