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The thin gold line: What it’s like being a 911 call taker or dispatcher in today's climate

12 Mar 2017 7:42 AM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Shelby Dyson

Many 911 calls are received after something serious was discovered, just occurred or in progress. Because of this, callers tend to be amped up and emotional. 

We give basic instructions when necessary, but feel completely helpless until help arrives. Sometimes our best effort isn’t enough. Thirty seconds feels like thirty minutes. 

Once help arrives, we are off to the next call without knowing the outcome of the previous call. For first responders, there are things that can’t be unseen and there are some things that call-takers can’t unhear. Listening to someone’s last words or breath is forever etched within.

We take calls from individuals who don’t speak English. When time is of the essence, the time it takes to locate a means of translation can mean life or death. We ask questions based on pertinent information that we need and then more questions based on those answers.

During most shifts, 911 dispatchers or call takers take verbal abuse from callers who are not current fans of the police, but they want help and we make sure they get it. Callers are easily frustrated as they don’t necessarily understand our line of questioning. We often are asked by callers, “Why are you asking these questions, just send me the help?!” We do our best to remain calm when the caller on the other end of the line may be in imminent danger or struggling to stay alive. 

We also must suppress our frustration with prank calls or calls that start out with, “This is not an emergency, but…”

A typical shift

The average 911 dispatcher or call taker sits for eight or more hours with the possibility of a short break, but nothing is guaranteed. Depending on the agency, some individuals work eight hour shifts with rotating days off, some work 12 hour shifts and many work well over 40 hours per week due to overtime needs. We work 24/7. Most 911 dispatchers or call takers do not get weekends or holidays off unless they have enough seniority to work day shift regularly.

Health and wellness

Unless 911 dispatchers or call takers work a regular shift time, it is extremely difficult to maintain an exercise routine. Good physical health is very important for this work – being able to control the adrenalin or stress from calls plus the sedentary role of the position wreaks havoc on us. We must take care of ourselves.

Basically, any kind of sleep routine is unheard of. We often take just enough of a break to run to the bathroom or heat up food that usually gets cold as we take bites between calls. Many of us rely on food delivery because packing our lunch can be time consuming- especially after working overtime before or after a regular shift.

An extended family

We consider our colleagues, on our side of the radio and on the street, to be an extended family. When one is injured or lost in the line of duty, we all feel it. Deeply.

We constantly check officers' status and make sure they have sufficient if not more than enough backup while on a run. We do what they ask of us and document as much as possible.

Multitasking at its finest

We listen for radio traffic while receiving phone calls and messages from officers on the computer - sometimes at the same time. We handle foot and vehicle pursuits while coordinating with other nearby agencies. We can be given minimal information about a person and become masters of needle-in-the-haystack research and locate a full name, date of birth, SSN, address and driver’s license photo. Our multitasking skills are like a superhero power.

Our downtime, if there is any, is spent on reviewing updated Standard Operating Procedures because policies are always changing.

Our view of the world can become a lot more cynical and our humor slightly dark. We know what really goes on in our jurisdiction, not just what the media decides is newsworthy. It’s hard to know details that you legally can’t give out and it’s hard to see the media reporting on something that puts a misleading spin on the facts.

Thin gold line

This is just a glimpse into the life of a 911 dispatcher. I have had encounters with people who, when they found out where I worked, shared their experience during a time they needed to call 911. Some were positive stories, praises and “thank you for your service.” Others were less positive.

Regardless of their individual experiences, I usually encourage them to contact their local agency for a tour of the 911 center and to even sit with a dispatcher. This job can certainly take a toll, but most of the good days outweighs most of the bad days.

A lot of people are familiar with the thin blue line, which represents the police and the dangerous line they walk every day, but 911 dispatchers and call takers are a lifeline for citizens and officers alike.

We are the thin gold line.

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