Dispatchers… The Most Important People You Will Never See

By Jan Myers

A Couple of Questions: Why is the phrase, ‘I’m just a dispatcher” still used? When will dispatchers finally accept that they are first responders?

Over 18 years ago I was tasked to write an article; an extremely unfamiliar and uncomfortable task required to complete a year long process of becoming a master instructor for California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). This was not a task I took lightly for two reasons: Being published scared the living crap out of me, and, I was JUST a dispatcher…How could someone like me write an article?

I pondered on this for a bit. I’m no longer fearful of writing, thanks to the 3 plus years on non-stop writing required of a mental health counseling graduate degree program. I no longer work a radio or telephone system, thanks to a posttraumatic stress disorder diagnosis in 2001 – not that I could not continue the work, I chose not to. On the other hand, I’ve been blessed to continue to work with 9-1-1 dispatchers, emergency call takers, telecommunicators, etc., by way of teaching at academies in California and Oregon, and participating with pro-dispatch programs such as Safe Call Now. Reflecting on these experiences, I continued to ponder … What concerns have dispatchers continued to express in academies and or advanced courses over the years? What are they fearful of? Do they still feel unappreciated?

Considering what I have heard and observed over the years, I realize, for the most part, not much has changed in the past 18 years.   Yeah, yeah, technology has changed exponentially, radio consoles that once held 1-2 monitors are now overwhelmed with 3 times as many; cell phone calls into Comm Centers is now the norm, and NextGen 9-1-1 is just around the corner. The one thing that has not changed in the world of 9-1-1 dispatching is the human aspect. No matter how technological things get, human beings with real emotions continue to listen to the worst day of others, to their officers screaming for back up, lose contact with a firefighter who has fallen thru a collapsed roof, and work within administrative systems that do not respect the job of a dispatcher nor have any concept of what it really takes to be a dispatcher.

Just as it was 18 years ago, I hear from dispatchers who continue to be “forgotten” when debriefings are held. I still hear the phrase, “I’m just a dispatcher” or “We’re not considered first responders.” I hear unbelievable stories of communications training officers (CTOs) treating their recruits horribly. I watch dispatchers give 120% to their job, unsure of why their personal lives are no longer manageable. Here in lies the problem – with additional technological advances in the world of dispatch, such as texting to 9-1-1 or livestreaming videos in which dispatchers will be ‘on scene’ witnesses to the unthinkable AND that human aspect, NOW IS THE TIME to believe in yourselves – stop waiting for others to do so! Demand to be invited to debriefings, retire the phrase ‘just a dispatcher’, come to the reality that you are indeed first responders, quit treating your replacements horribly, and do as much for yourself as you do for others! There is one thing I have consistently seen dispatchers do across the country; they rise above. Raise the bar on dispatchers, and they’ll meet it. Now is the time to raise the bar so as to prepare for what the future holds.

Now is the time to access the resources available to dispatchers, such as Safe Call Now, peer support teams, employee assistance programs (EAP), and mental health counselors who understand public safety work (yeah, they exist). Now is the time to give a copy of Lilly and Pierce’s 2012 research article on the duty-related trauma exposure of 9-1-1 dispatchers to your communications supervisor, manager, chief or sheriff. Now is the time to utilize the 9-1-1 acute and traumatic chronic stress management standards set forth in 2013 by the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). Unaware of this study or this standard? Google both – you’ll find them.

Use them both not as an excuse for bad behavior or poor performance, but as an explanation to the necessity of most agencies to stop sweeping the reality of duty-related stress under the proverbial rug.   Now, as many others have done for the past 15 years, is the time for all dispatchers to support each other, share resources, and change the archaic mindsets that still exist. There has been no better time than now to take advantage of what is around you, personally and professionally.

Now is the time to proudly state that you ARE a dispatcher. Now is the time to be recognized and acknowledged as first responders, because you are. Now is the time to really prepare for the unthinkable things you will continue to hear, and soon enough see, because you will always be an emotional being expected to be technologically savvy. Now is the time to believe in who you are and what you do. You do a job most cannot do even without the added technology. Now is the time to believe in you, not just the job you do.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008