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Departments : The Winning Edge

10 Things Officers Want to Tell Dispatchers

The working relationship between officers in the field and communicators suffers from a lack of communication.

November 07, 2012  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Yuda Chen
Photo: Yuda Chen

Within the law enforcement profession there is a core constituency of guys and gals who take pride in trusting their gut instincts and playing hunches. But even within these ranks, there runs an appreciation for concrete information, a desire to remove as many unknowables and abstractions as possible. These officers want to get where they need to be, with as much knowledge as possible about what awaits and what resources they will need.

Unfortunately, much of the time officers are given very little information upon receiving a call. Unless it is a "return to" situation, they have little or no idea of what actually awaits them. And most of the time, they have no means of finding out on their own. That is where dispatchers come into play.

Dispatchers send officers into harm's way. This may not be their intent, but it's their job. And it is a heady responsibility by any standard. It's a job that that commands respect, both by those who are obligated to perform it and perform it well and the officers who depend on that performance.

Previously, POLICE Magazine shared some things that dispatchers always wanted officers to know. This time, the shoe is on the other foot, and we allow field units to give dispatchers some advice. In order to make this article easier to read, we are going to boil down all of the information that we gathered on this subject into 10 points delivered in the voice of one typical officer.

1. Tell Me What to Look For

When you assign me a "just occurred" call, I know that I may be entering something of a mystery. But that doesn't mean it has to be "Twilight Zone" territory. Please get me some type of description of both cars and people.

I know the informant isn't always familiar with the various makes and models of cars, the differences between domestics and imports, and what constitutes a long bed or a short bed. None of this precludes the possibility of his recognizing something about the vehicle that might make it stand apart in the crowd, that might save me from needlessly fixating on the wrong vehicle. How often does the description come out "a van"—and then we find there's a hundred vans in the immediate vicinity? Ask the informant if he noticed something, anything, distinctive about the ride. Two-door? Four-door? Tinted windows? Decals? Some smart-alecky license plate frame? Was there any body damage? Did it appear to be an older model car or a newer one? The same goes for the suspect himself. Tall? Short? Bald? Long hair? Every piece of information that you relay to me is another piece of the puzzle played.

2. I Need Useable Intel

Descriptions are obviously great, but I also need good intel. Don't just tell me a suspect is on the side of the house, tell me which side. The front and back I can deal with most of the time. But the "right?" The "left?" Is that the "right" as when you're inside the house and looking out (in which case it's to my left when I arrive)?

If the call is a suspicious vehicle, then what makes it suspicious? Is it visibly occupied? Are the windows blacked out?

Ask clarifying questions. Don't assume things. Pass along all pertinent information. If the informant is deaf, please let me know so I won't necessarily TASER her when she runs out excitedly and fails to comply with my verbal commands.

Three Pittsburgh police officers were killed in 2009 when a dispatcher failed to relay information advising that there were firearms inside a house. Those guns were then used to kill the officers as they arrived at the location. Please spare me that fate. The presence of guns at the scene is a very important detail; bring them to my attention.

By the same token, don't needlessly escalate things by inferring things are worse than they are. Upon hearing that a store employee "got shafted," a dispatcher put out the call as an armed robbery, which led to a nine-minute pursuit and crash that seriously injured a Thurmont, Md., police officer. It turned out that the crime had only been a petty theft.

3. Use Common Sense

Please try to play devil's advocate on my behalf. Often, this isn't as difficult as it may sound, as it can come down to simply exercising common sense. For instance, if you send me on a suicide by hanging call, do you think I can probably use an assisting unit to help me cut the guy down in hopes of saving him? Consider the resources I might need, not just in terms of the number of units I need rolling, but whether or not a field supervisor, EMS, Fire, or some combination thereof needs to respond.

4. Put 2 and 2 Together

If you receive a call from an informant advising of two prowlers entering the backyard of a residence, followed by the sound of breaking glass and all you put out is a "suspicious person" call with none of that additional information do you think I might be frustrated upon my arrival to find a window-smash burglary, two suspects running, and no backup unit in sight?

On crime or possible crime calls such as domestics, always ask if there are weapons involved. If the person lies to you, shame on them. If they don't answer one way or the other because you failed to ask, shame on you.

The night that Arlington, Texas, police officer Jillian Michelle Smith was killed in 2010, a dispatcher failed to let officers know that Smith hadn't communicated with her in 15-minutes, as well as withheld information of a call advising that there'd been shots fired at the location and an officer was down. She sent the responding officers into an extremely dangerous situation that could have resulted in their being killed, as well.

5. I Have My Hands Full

Yes, I know that I have the means for running serialized property myself, and I apologize in advance if my lack of opportunity to do so places momentary constraints on you. But often it isn't laziness dictating the request but officer safety. I might have two digits worth of gang members detained and only so many handcuffs to go around and so much room in my backseat in which to detain them. My request is often made in prudence to their presence or the presence of others who might seek to exploit my attentions being committed elsewhere. Hopefully, you are in a much more comfortable position across the board to do this on my behalf.

6. Pay Attention to Your Work

The little outfits that you sew to put on those little bears and piggies are undeniably cute, but they are not part of your job description. Yes, you will have your down time. Appreciate it as such. But don't resent its disruption or my asking you to do something pertinent to our respective responsibilities. If we work together, you can return to the basket weaving with a clear conscience later. And I might even be able to get home to my family.

7. Prioritize Your Calls

Remember that your phone line has a "hold" button. This affords you the means to place less important calls on the backburner while you attend to more pressing concerns. Of course, it’s nice when you can remember to get back to calls that you have put on hold as well.

8. Be Consistent in Your Humor

If you don't like particular types of jokes, don't barter in them. Nothing is more aggravating than having the game rules switched mid-play and it can sour our working relationship thereafter.

9. We Hear What's Said About Us

Unless you are the one actually dispatching and have the opportunity to key and unkey the mic at will, we can hear you in the background. And since there are two sides to every story, you can bet that the Type A personalities among us will be sure to communicate our side at a more convenient time, should we feel it necessary. If push comes to shove, as in a hostile work environment allegation, a review of recorded radio transmissions may well come into play.

10. Tell Me If I Offend You

Maybe I have rubbed you wrong. It might be my personality, my tone of voice, or my occasionally curt nature. If I have done something to offend you, please bring it to my attention first. If your position has merit, I will try to adjust my conduct toward you. Should I fail to do so, I can hardly blame your taking the matter up elsewhere. But please remember, it may simply be a matter of responding in kind, on my part.


3 Things You Want Dispatchers To Know

10 Things Dispatchers Want You to Know

How to Thank Your Dispatchers

Tags: Dispatchers, Communications, Pittsburgh Ambush, Arlington (Texas) PD

Comments (31)

Displaying 1 - 31 of 31

Steve Evans @ 11/29/2012 12:42 PM

Thirty two of my fifty years in law enforcement were at the city and county level. I started with our own county dispatch unit at the beginning of those years and ended with our own city dispatch unit for non-emergency city services traffic, plus a county-wide central dispatch (CAD) unit for our PD. I eventually wound up being a trainer for both police officers and dispatchers at the city, county and state levels (for about fifteen years). The best thing I ever did was to require them work together during their training programs. A week in dispatch for the new officers and a week as a ride-a-long for the dispatchers. Both learned to appreciate each other's roles and to assist each other in making their jobs easier and safer. There is no substitute for having them walk in each others' shoes.

Bill @ 11/29/2012 1:12 PM

1. We like information. We aren't asking for every detail, but if you have more than "Police Matter" to provide to us, we'd appreciate it. For example, when your caller says "Four people are dead, more will die tonite". Let us know that so we aren't walking into a triple homicide/suicide unprepared and without back-up.
2. If you don't like your job, quit. We don't need your attitude on the radio with us when we ask you to check something while we are standing with a suspect. Keep it professional. If checking warrants is a burden, McDonald's is always hiring.
3. If an Officer is rude or short with you, don't return the favor on the radio. (this goes both ways)
4. Be mindful of the fact that at anytime, an Officer could start screaming for help. Long winded dissertations about a barking dog are not necessary and present an officer safety issue.

Now, these are just incidents that I've dealt with personally, but 95% of the time, our dispatchers are on top of things and I have no complaints. But the 5% (listed above) always stick out as problems that could be and should have been avoided.

Bonnie @ 11/30/2012 6:55 AM

When call taking you are only as good as the information YOU CAN GET.. What always happens is you are on the phone attempting to get the information and the complainant, victim, witness etc. only tells you "just get someone out here!" They never have a good description, no direction of travel, unknown weapons etc. When the officer gets on the scene..... they have an epiphany and can remember every little detail. Makes the call taker feel terrible and the officer believe no one tried to get the details.

Lora @ 11/30/2012 8:00 PM

I realize this article is meant to be beneficial but this is written in a very demeaning manner towards dispatchers. As a 17 year veteran of the Illinois State Police, who also holds a college degree, I take offense at this writing. I am sure that between myself and my fellow police dispatchers of all kinds across the USA that we, too, could find many things that officers do to us that make our jobs difficult to do effectively and efficiently.

Dean Scoville @ 11/30/2012 8:40 PM

Lora, I wrote both the "What Dispatchers..." and "What Officers..." stories. In both instances I tried to convey as accurately as possible the feelings as they were communicated to me, often in the parlance in which they were stated. And let's face it - men and women tend to use different words to share their intutions and experiences. In all instances, the people that spoke with me did so with the understanding that I would share their thoughts and concerns in a manner that was consistent with their intentions. The covenant I keep with them and any inherent truth is more important to me than any desire I might otherwise have to sanitize things or couch sentiments lest I the hurt sensibilities of someone who apparently thinks a college degree trumps all. Indeed, I "take offense" at your implicit expectation of some politically correct alternative.

Ron @ 12/1/2012 7:17 AM

I'll have to agree with Lora. Parts of this artical was written using a condensending tone. I found #6 particularly offensive. I was a reserve officer for 22 years and then worked dispatch for several after. I never made arts and crafts and stayed quite busy doing data entry of items the officers were above doing while they covered the desk at a small agency. It's interesting to see the roles reversed, something that I imagine you wouldn't see at a large department. Dean, you appear to take offense with Lora, maybe it's your wrting style. She was trying to qualify herself and not brag. This would be similar to you stating your fifty years of service. This is an example of the comunications break down you mentioned. I also pity the dispatchers who handle police and fire. I also understand the frustration of officers who see the FEW dispatchers who don't keep their minds at dispatching first. I've also seen the parked patrol cars with the video game cords extending between them, so does the public (a perfect time for an ambush?). Lets work together. Oh yeah I also have a degree...

Ron @ 12/1/2012 7:38 AM

My apologies, Steve mentioned his years of service (and thank you for all of them).

Lora @ 12/1/2012 3:03 PM

I just got home from the funeral of an ISP trooper of which I was the one working the radio when the incident happened earlier this week. The hardest thing I ever had to do was say Officer Down on the air and sit in my chair visualizing the horrific scene and talk to the witness on the phone. I work alone too, there are no other people on my shift to help me. Last night as I was searching the Internet for things such as dispatchers coping with in the line of duty deaths.... I get nothing of the sort except for this article about me doing arts and crafts at my desk. Yeah. I'm a little offended. I also worked dispatch phones and radio ALONE during the Megabus accident that also received nationwide attention.

Lora @ 12/1/2012 3:04 PM

Just to clarify , I don't have the time to do arts and crafts.

Dean Scoville @ 12/1/2012 4:08 PM

Well apparently there are those who do make arts and crafts on the job, Lora. If the shoe fits, then sweat it. If it doesn't, then don't personalize it and make it all about you.

Lora @ 12/1/2012 4:40 PM

Wow. The underlying point was that I was looking for some mental guidance and this came article is what I got instead. Obviously bad timing on my part to read your work at this time. It's not all about me....Thanks. So sorry if YOU were offended by MY comments. Gee whiz.

Greg @ 12/5/2012 6:36 AM

Good article, too bad some of the content is condescending. Was going to share it with my Telecommunicators but don't think I will bother. We don't have anyone here sewing cute things, it's busy.

Ray @ 12/5/2012 10:11 AM

As a 22 year veteran communication officer, I find this article very offensive towards those men and women who are here 24/7/365. Remember officers the first word in officer safety is officer. We can't protect you from everything and we can't always get "everything" you need from a hysterical caller trying to give us information on what they perceive they are seeing. As a communication officer we are dealing with multiple calls and officers at one time, we can't give individualized attention to one officer who thinks his information is more important only because he is working that call. I can tell you there is not one communication officer who sits behind their console thinking how they can make that officer on the street miserable. They are dedicated professionals who are under appreciated for the work they do.

Dean Scoville @ 12/5/2012 10:41 AM

Now this is how you do it, Lora: Rather than go off half-cocked and post a tirade which subsequently obliges him to some revisionist history as to what he took exception to in the first place, Greg simply laid out his case. In doing so, he tossed out a bit of flattery ("Good article..."), articulated out his grievances ("...too bad some of the content is condenscending (sic)"), then let me know how the tone of the piece will cost us prospective readership ("Was going to share it with my Telecommunicators but don't think I will bother.") He even closed with a relatively innocuous smart-ass comment ("We don't have anyone here sewing cute things, it's busy.") (Some might even characterize it as "condescending"; I accept it as responding in kind. Kudos to Greg). In this manner he has successfully communicated his desire that I change the tact with which I write some of my articles. I won't, but I appreciate his tact. As far as Ray is concerned, has it occurred to him that perhaps I found having to relay this information offensive? That *NONE* of the concerns articulated should have to have been said in the first place? That the fact that there were speaks to legitimate officer safety concerns? I note that herein and elsewhere - on my Facebook page - people take particular exception to number six. Well, wtf - the others are ok? Again, NONE of this should be a matter of concern. I would tender an apology if I felt the need for one. But I don't.

Melody @ 2/11/2013 10:48 PM

I agree with some of the requests however as I am old school, I would LOVE to handle any issues face to face but new departmental policies are big on "chain of command" and therefore it says I have to contact a supervisor if there is any issue with an Officer... therefore adding to most of the problems listed above. I do think that some of it is condenscending but as mutli-taskers (which is usually the big difference between road and dispatch, most officers walk out of dispatching shaking their heads mumbling how they could never do our jobs) we can handle the radio, phones, crochetting and pick right back up on a conversation we were in the middle of when duty called....

Melody @ 2/11/2013 11:10 PM

ps... i do ask all those questions you would like us to ask, and then some, to the point i feel like i'm drilling a homicide suspect but I will definitely find out everything there is to know and it infuriates me when some of the people i work with don't get all the info. I "warn" my co workers that when i ask them something about the call, and their reply is "they didn't say" that is not acceptable to me and i politely ask them to call the caller back and ask for all the info. we as dispatcher know what to do, how to do it and what to ask. I take pride in my job and I work with a great department who expects me to do my job to the best of my abilities!

Michelle @ 3/6/2013 8:18 AM

I agree that a lack of communication between field officers and dispatch can be huge. Fortunately, that situation has been rectified in the last 5-7 years in my department. We still have officers that just plain don't like dispatchers and vice versa...we're all human and that's just the way it is. We have a quality assurance program in place, and compliance is 95%. Dispatcher A gets/dispatches the same info as Dispatcher B and so on. Consistency is key, open communication is also key. Anonymous bitching and backbiting is useless and I like to say (to officers AND dispatchers), "sack up and make a formal complaint or shut your food hole." I don't let issues fester, I take care of them (on either side of the radio). I was looking for ideas for National Public Safety Telecommunicators' Week when I came across this article, I too was going to share it until I started reading it. No thanks, I'd rather not expose them to the vitriol that this article conveys. It's a shame, this could have been a good training tool.

Gina @ 11/30/2013 5:23 PM

I've been a police communications officer for over 18 years. Nothing frustrates me more than a lazy dispatcher. Trust me , if an officer can trust you and know that you will make sure you do your very best to keep them safe then they do respect you ... Yes , we are busy but the officer is actually in ' harms way ' there is a big life threatening difference ... My officers respect me because they know I am a professional and my job is my career I love it and it shows I've never had a problem with a police officer

Marie @ 5/8/2014 12:42 AM

I don't know what place you work for that grants dispatchers down time for arts and crafts. I was considering sharing this with my own crew in an attempt for dispatchers and officers to have better communication, but this article is definitely not appropriate. It's condescending. You sound bitter, and no dispatcher would take your crap, and they can get their job done without your lack of professionalism. So maybe that's why you sound the way you do.

K Smith @ 5/16/2014 1:50 AM

As dispatchers we DO ask for descriptions. We can only give to you what the caller gives to us, and when they are panicked, pissed off, scared, or nervous, they don't give information willingly, or at all usually. Most of the time it is, "just send me the effin cops/ffs/medics and I'll tell them when they get here!"

K Smith @ 5/16/2014 1:52 AM

And most of the time, how many units we send is policy and at the discretion of the supervisor. Not my call.

Skip @ 5/16/2014 8:13 AM

I think the points are all well made. Some have a tone I'm not a fan of but it is stated as from the voice of a typical officer. And if I can deal with the general public who calls and treats me like crap on the phone I can let the tone slide off of me as well.

My biggest issue is the following line. "Unfortunately, much of the time officers are given very little information upon receiving a call."

If you had said "Unfortunately there are SOME times..." I would think it was a great article. However by saying this occurs "much of the time", you're making it sound like all of these issues occur all the time and that dispatchers are keeping info from PD. I am guessing these issues may occur at most dispatch centers but are the exception, not the norm.

By stating at the start of the article that these things occur much of the time you lose any credibility for the rest of the article, which is too bad because there are some good points for people on both sides of the radio.

B. Culpepper @ 5/16/2014 10:03 PM

People! Please! The intent was to help us all understand both sides. There are both large and small departments all over the US. I have seen dispatchers doing arts and crafts and some watching TV. This does not mean everybody does it. It does not apply to you then let it ride. There are times that nothing is happening and there are times when it's non stop, we all know that. I worked with officers that had never had to dispatch and they always complained about dispatchers. I would tell them quickly that if they had never done it, they did not fully understand what was going on. The jobs are tough on both sides of the microphone.... try to be understanding of one another. The sad fact is.... we are not ALL good at what we try to do..... but yet we try. Y'all be safe out there... I'm retired now....

Bella @ 5/16/2014 11:05 PM

I agree with some of it, and as a dispatcher not all of it, I see both sides of the story, and I know when I am on the street what I will want as well, I think that cross training would be ideal, that all new officer and old officers who never spent a day in dispatch should, especially busy agency. We get as much info as we can, some agencies aren't busy so we craft. I work for 6 total and 3 are in the ghetto so I don't have time to have water let alone anything else, but at the other 3 I can if there is down time because I have many partners. I doubt anyside will ever understand eachother but lets try.

Almost to Retirement @ 6/20/2014 7:26 PM

Lora, Sorry for your loss. You can reach out and get support through COPS "Concerns of Police Survivors". I am a Sergeant with 26 years on the job, and I get the intent. Cops are cops, and trust me, I speak my mind which might offend some. I read the article looking for constructive material that I could share. What I found was not the case. I also will not be sharing this article as all it will do is piss off my good dispatchers. Too condescending. Sorry Dean.

Name Withheld @ 6/25/2014 6:41 AM

The "what dispatchers want officers to know"article was written with a sense of humor but was not condescending and nasty. This article starts out assuming MOST dispatchers are withholding information and speeds downhill from there. I planned to use the other article for training and this one to use as the flip side of the coin. Won't be using either now. I don't want my trainees following the link to this article from the first and and adopting the same nasty attitude. This article did more to belittle dispatchers and the important role they play than anything I've seen in a long time. I'm not impressed.

David @ 6/25/2014 10:15 AM

This article and the preceding one lose all credibility they may have held due to the smug, condescending attitude of the writer both in the original post and the comments. Your comments have taken an article that could have been productive and useful and made it absolute garbage.

Leah @ 6/25/2014 7:14 PM

I thought the previous article was good as were the majority, if not all, the points in this article. However, the delivery of this article is incredibly condescending. Yes, these issues do occur on occasion and should be addressed when they do. However, to do so in this manner only worsens the problem and breaks down the lines of communication even more. We are a team and we do our best work when both sides have a mutual respect for each other. Full cooperation and team work will only be achieved when both sides lose the attitude that they are more important than the other.

That Dispatcher. @ 6/26/2014 1:36 AM

Emergency Telecommunications Officer. FIRE/EMS/LAW and sometimes even call taking all rolled into one. Good article, but I really enjoyed the article titled "10 Things Dispatchers Want You to Know" haha. People who say it's "condescending" should have thick enough skin by now from working in the environment we call home to ignore it. Of course at my agency we don't basket weave, sew or sleep (sent home without pay / if not immediate termination). Cheers.

Dispatch/Police @ 6/26/2014 7:56 AM

Having been a police officer for five years, and a dispatcher for 11 years, I feel qualified enough to comment on this. I find this list/article extremely condescending and arrogant. It completely feeds into the disconnect between officers and dispatchers, whereas officers think and act like they are "better" than dispatchers. Keep in mind that when you're dealing with one scene, whether it be a traffic stop, a burglary, or a battery, we are still dealing with everyone else's scenes in addition to yours. Take notice that when you're in a foot pursuit and need dispatch's absolute focus, there's another impatient officer going to a different radio channel just to run a VIN so he doesn't have to spend any more time on his call. Dispatchers don't tell officers how to conduct searches, dust for prints, or write probable cause affidavits, but officers certainly try to tell dispatchers how to do their job.

BizzyM @ 10/6/2014 1:24 PM

Officers, when dispatch tries to raise you and give you a call reapeatedly, the response "Standby, I'm on the phone", is entirely laughable. Why? Because we're probably on the phone too, and we don't get to tell you to hold on.

Also, officer, when you decide that you need something from dispatch, realize one constant fact: you're dealing with one call, we're dealing with multiple. We're dealing with up to a dozen officers just like you and they all want to be attended to immediately. So if you want EMS, ask. If you want a backup unit, ask. If you want your field supervisor, call him, I'm sure you know his ID.

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