There is little else that epitomizes the term “love – hate relationship” like the working relationship between dispatchers and the police. At times either side can forget that they are working for the same team. And while police deal with the physical side of the job, dispatchers are no stranger to controversy, anger, animosity, stress, and mental anguish.
A dispatcher is usually the first person to deal with most incidents. They need to handle a call, or several of them, dispatch appropriate personnel, and multi-task many different functions at once. And if an incident comes in that involves a catastrophic event, even the most seasoned dispatcher can get overwhelmed.
While the story I share is not the rule, this incident changed the way I view communications centers. I respected the role of the dispatcher and the people that worked in those roles. I didn't fully understand the impact of staffing, incident recovery practices, and the work environment on the dispatcher or the extended public safety team.
Early in my career, I worked for a very active police department. There were two dispatchers on duty at any given time. One afternoon, one of the dispatchers left to pick up lunch, leaving the other one by herself…a common practice as things could usually be handled by one dispatcher for a brief time. While one dispatcher was gone, a 9-1-1 call came in from an adult vocational school of a domestic in the parking lot between a student and her boyfriend, a relatively common incident. Two officers were dispatched. Before we arrived on scene, 9-1-1 began lighting up with multiple calls. The boyfriend had pulled a gun.
Incidents can escalate quickly, upping 911 dispatcher stress
The dispatcher then dispatched all available units while handling multiple incoming calls. She also tried to get as much information as possible for responding officers. Then, before officers could get there, the man shot his girlfriend multiple times as she sat in her car.
The dispatcher continued trying to get as much information as possible for responding officers while also dispatching emergency medical crews. As officers arrived, they encountered the suspect and apprehended him without further incident. Sadly, the girlfriend died on scene.
The entire incident only took a few minutes from the initial call to apprehension of the suspect. And during those few minutes, the dispatchers attention was split in many directions.
Changing Protocol to Help Dispatchers
It was only later that officers learned that only one dispatcher was in the radio room the entire time. Though she handled it very well, she completely broke down once things had settled and the other dispatcher returned.
Officers had a post-traumatic stress debriefing after the incident but failed in a big way. We never invited the dispatcher. She later confided that she was scared to death for this girl, afraid for responding officers, completely overwhelmed with everything she had to do, guilt over the girl’s death, and even anger that her partner went to lunch. But the worst of it was that the officers didn’t recognize that she was traumatized and didn’t even give her a second thought when it came to the debriefing.
including 911 dispatchers in TRAUMATIC incident debriefing
As a department, we learned from that experience. All new officers spend time in the radio room and all dispatchers ride along with the police at least one shift every year. It’s important that we realize that we are an integral part of working together. Positive dispatcher-police officer relationships are critical to officer survival and agency efficiency, but they are also critical to the mental health of dispatchers as well. They go through a lot. And while it’s been a long-standing axiom that an officer’s goal is to make it home at night, dispatchers want the same for them. They care for the communities and agencies they serve and the officers they work with.
Dispatchers need more than just moral support.
I believe that deep down, most officers understand this. We will pick up lunch and coffee for dispatchers. We’ll often have lengthy conversations on duty and fraternize off duty. But that is not enough.
What can else we do to help?
Imagine yourself in any role you fill trying to function in a rapidly evolving situation. Now take away some of your most vital tools, an crowded or uncomfortable work space, or outdated equipment and picture yourself trying to get through the situation. It’s impractical. Dispatchers need better tools and work spaces.
Now imagine the dispatcher trying to multi-task without the proper tools and equipment, while doing all that is necessary to save the lives of your officers and the public.
Invest in Up-to-Date Dispatch Products
Dispatchers take calls, make calls, enter data in the computer, and dispatch police and fire. They must know where first responders are and handle an endless list of other tasks. Plus they have to be prepared to handle emergencies when technology glitches.
911 dispatchers act as the central nervous system of the public safety community.
Proper dispatch set-up, up-to-date communication products, current software, multiple monitors, and enough space is vital to getting the job done effectively and efficiently. A run-down center, centers with inadequate dispatching tools, and outdated dispatch consoles furniture negatively impacts the team and the people the team serves. A disorganized work space means more time spent locating support tools, potentially delaying assistance to the field.
- Better response times
PSAPs seeking efficient response times, and who want to maintain a full staff and create career dispatchers invest in the dispatcher space and the tools within it. Response times are most efficient when dispatchers have what they need when they need it - without having to move down-time items out of the way, or fetch or re-position analogue tools.
- Effective emotional regulation
Studies show that the space in which a dispatcher works affects the way they feel. In turn, the impact of a welcoming, safe, professional work environment on emotional regulation is seen in more positive working relationships among dispatchers, increased ability to recover after calls. A resilient dispatcher has more productive relationships with field teams and is more likely to make dispatching a career.
support funding for dispatch centers and product updates
As populations grow, so does the risk for more emergent and complex situations. As we support change with bigger law enforcement teams and new technology, we must remember the dispatchers.
They must be adequately prepared and equipped with the right tools for the job including comfortable, focused work spaces and updated dispatch products. Providing dispatchers with adequate personal space, work space and work tools benefits the public safety team, as a whole, and the people we serve. If we look the other way, we are failing the public and public safety in entirety.
You can advocate for your 911 dispatchers. Be vocal and support funding - even when you're not a primary decision maker. And share these resources with a dispatcher you value.
About the Author
As a military veteran with more than two decades in law enforcement, including command experience, I’ve acquired knowledge and insights into the law enforcement and public safety industries. I have a thorough understanding of the strategies, concepts, systems and processes in law enforcement and I recognize the industry challenges related to reforms, technology, and governance. Connect on LinkedIn.
If you liked what you read, to automatically receive new articles. For more resources about dispatch products, PSAP technology, and team culture explore these Dispatch Resources.