This week is Telecommunicators Appreciation Week. Emergency (911) dispatchers are the first people you talk to when you call with a crisis. Even though dispatchers can’t see what’s happening, they are the eyes and ears of emergency responders—our guiding angels who ensure that the right responders get to an emergency as fast as possible, and who keep responders safe as they help people in crisis.
A Tribute to Dispatchers
Someone once asked me if I thought that answering telephones for a living was a profession. I said, “Its more than profession, it’s a calling.” And so is dispatching.
I have found in my law enforcement career that dispatchers are the unsung heroes of Sheriff’s Office. They miss the excitement of riding in a patrol car with lights flashing and sirens wailing. They can only hear of the bright orange flames leaping from a burning building. They do not get to see the joy on the face of worried parents as they see their child begin breathing on its own, after it has been given CPR.
Dispatchers sit in darkened rooms looking at computer screens and talking to voices from faces they never see. It’s like reading a lot of books, but only half of each one. Dispatchers connect the anxious conversations of terrified victims, angry informants, suicidal citizens, and sometimes grouchy officers.
They are the calming influence of all of them—the quiet, competent voices in the night that provide the pillars for the bridges of sanity and safety. They are expected to gather information from highly agitated people who can’t remember where they live, what their name is, or what they just saw. And then, they are to calmly provide all that information to the officers, firefighters, or paramedics without error the first time and every time.
Dispatchers are expected to be able to do five things at once—and do them well. While questioning a frantic caller, they must type the information into a computer, tip off another dispatcher, put another caller on hold, and listen to an officer run a license plate .. To miss the plate numbers is to raise the officer’s ire; to miss the caller’s information may be to endanger the same officer’s life. But, the officer will never understand that.
Dispatchers have two constant companions, other dispatchers and stress. They depend on one, and try to ignore the other. They are chastened by upset callers, taken for granted by the public, and criticized by the officers. The rewards they get are inexpensive and infrequent, except for the satisfaction they feel at the end of a shift, having done what they were expected to do. They are people who were selected in a hiring process to do an impossible job. They are as different as snowflakes, but they have one thing in common. They care about people and they enjoy being the lifeline of society—that steady voice in a storm, the one who knows how to handle every emergency and does it with style and grace; and, uncompromised competence.
Dispatchers play many roles: therapist, doctor, lawyer, teacher, weatherman, guidance counselor, psychologist, priest, secretary, supervisor, mediator, and reporter. And few people must jump through the emotional hoops on the trip through the joy of one caller’s birthday party, to the fear of another caller’s burglary in progress, to the anger of a neighbor blocked in their drive, and back to the birthday caller all in a two-minute time frame. The emotional rollercoaster rolls to a stop after a 12 -hour shift, and they are expected to walk out to their car with steady feet and no queasiness in their stomach—because they are dispatchers.
If they hold it in, they are too closed. If they talk about it, they are a whiner. If it bothers them, it adds more stress. If it doesn’t, they question themselves, wondering why. Dispatchers are expected to have:
the compassion of Mother Theresa
the wisdom of Solomon
the interviewing skills of Oprah Winfrey
the gentleness of Florence Nightingale
the patience of Job the voice of Barbara Streisand
the knowledge of Einstein
the answers of Ann Landers
the humor of David Letterman
the investigative skills of Sgt. Joe Friday
the looks of Melanie Griffith or Don Johnson
the faith of Billy Graham
and the endurance of the Energizer Bunny
It is a unique and talented person who can do this job and do it well. And, it is fitting and proper that we take a few minutes or hours this week to honor them for the job that each of them does. That recognition is overdue and it is insufficient. But, it is sincere. It takes a special person with unique a unique skillset .We admire you, dispatcher, and we all thank you for the thankless job you do. You are heroes, and I am proud to work with you.