911 dispatchers aren’t just responsible for receiving incoming emergency calls, prioritizing calls based on the nature of an emergency, providing instructions on life-saving emergency medical interventions, and dispatching the proper emergency personnel. As if this isn’t enough, they’re also responsible for helping callers remain calm enough to provide the information first responders need to understand the full scope of a situation.
Emergency dispatchers know that the more information first responders have when they arrive on the scene, the quicker they can assess a situation and take action. They also know that seconds can be the difference between life and death. 911 dispatchers that are composed and mentally present help maximize the speed of the entire dispatch process, reducing response times and saving lives.
The National 911 Office oversees America’s 911 emergency response system, but the public safety answering points (PSAP) organized at the municipal and county level within each state have the final say on basic qualifications, experience prerequisites and training requirements for new recruits. This means the police departments, sheriffs’ offices, fire departments or combined emergency dispatch centers that hire 911 dispatchers make the final call on everything from background restrictions for prospective candidates, to the level of CPR training required of new hires.
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Learning how to become a 911 dispatcher starts with a specific plan of action:
Step 1. Prepare for Employment
Becoming a 911 operator involves preparing for employment by meeting minimum requirements, which usually involves being at least 18 years old and possessing a high school diploma or GED. Some agencies require candidates to also possess a valid driver’s license.
Many individuals who are interested in pursuing a career in emergency dispatch choose to complete a college program in a closely related field. A degree program can provide considerable knowledge of the criminal justice system, communications, emergency management, and public safety protocols – all of which are highly relevant to working as a 911 dispatcher.
For individuals with aspirations of advancing in the field of emergency communications, a college degree may better facilitate career advancement. In addition, many agencies accept a formal educational program as a substitution for experience, on a year-by-year basis, thereby allowing many individuals to advance at a faster pace into supervisory positions, or even qualify for entry-level jobs that stipulate experience requirements.
Areas of study that are most often recognized in this profession include:
- Emergency Management
- Homeland Security
- Public Safety
- Criminal Justice
Step 2. Identify 911 Dispatcher Employers
One of the best ways for individuals to locate 911 dispatchers is to find the state’s public safety answering points (PSAPs), which are defined as primary points of contact for individuals who dial 911. In addition to primary PSAPs, there may also be a number of professional opportunities throughout a state’s secondary PSAPs, centers to which calls are transferred after being received at the primary PSAP.
The FCC maintains a master list of PSAPs located throughout the country for easy reference.
PSAPs may be found at dedicated call centers, police stations, fire departments, and public safety departments. Depending on the state in which the PSAP is located, it may be organized at the county level or the city level, and in many states, PSAPs represent a coordinated effort between a number of counties, cities, towns or municipalities.
Step 3. Identify Job Duties and Understand Essential Skills
Although 911 is a universal system throughout the United States, the job duties of 911 dispatchers may differ, depending on the PSAP they work for. Some PSAPs hire both call takes and dispatchers, with these two professions requiring their own set of job duties.
Before applying to become a 911 dispatcher, it is important to carefully review the specific job duties of the position, which may be found on the PSAP’s website or through a formal job posting.
The general job duties of a 911 dispatcher include:
- Questioning callers to determine their location and the nature of the emergency
- Receiving incoming telephone calls regarding fire, police and emergency medical services
- Determining response requirements and placing priorities on situations
- Recording details of all calls, dispatches and messages
- Retrieving and entering data from teletype networks and computerized data systems
- Contacting emergency response field units to determine their availability for dispatch
In addition to basic job requirements, job postings for 911 dispatchers commonly detail the essential skills and knowledge associated with the position. It is important that candidates review these requirements to ensure their skills are in line with the demands of the job.
911 dispatchers must:
- Have a strong grasp of the English language, both in the written and spoken word, which includes the meaning and spelling of words, composition, and grammar.
- Have knowledge of administrative and clerical procedures, including word processing systems, stenography and transcription, and similar office procedures and terminology.
- Have knowledge of laws, legal codes, government regulations, and agency rules.
- Have knowledge of computer applications, computer programs, and computer hardware and software.
- Have knowledge of the jurisdictional geographical area they will be serving, including highways and thoroughfares.
- Be able to communicate effectively and use logic and reasoning to come to solutions, conclusions, or alternate approaches to problems.
- Be able to identify complex problems, develop and evaluate options, and implement solutions.
Step 4. Undergo Pre-Employment Testing and In-Service Training
Becoming a 911 dispatcher involves more than an interview. In fact, these professionals must often complete an extensive, pre-employment process, which may include a panel interview, a skills test, a background investigation, and a complete medical and psychological evaluation.
Upon being hired, most agencies require the completion of a comprehensive training program for dispatchers, which may include classes and on-the-job training. Each agency sets its own standards for training, although most follow state standards. Typical courses within a dispatcher training program often include the following:
- Advanced First Aid/CPR/AED
- Basic Telecommunications
- Critical Incident Stress
- Domestic Violence
- Emergency Medical Dispatch
- Hazardous Materials
- Suicide Intervention
- TTY Training
Most states require about 40 hours of initial training, as well as the completion of ongoing, continuing education. In addition to customized state training, some states defer to training programs through professional associations, such as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED).