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911 Operator is a Misleading Term

Modern 911 Dispatchers Do Much More than Connect Phone Lines


Updated September 11, 2012

There is no more universally hated title in public safety than "Ambulance Driver". This pejorative phrase implies that all an emergency medical technician or paramedic does is simply drive a vehicle from point A to point B. It belittles the training, certifications, and varied responsibilities that are assigned to these professionals who are tasked with much more than just operating a motor vehicle.

Similarly, not all law enforcement professionals are "cops" and not all firefighters are "firemen". In line with that, professional Emergency Tele-Communicators are not "911 Operators". Even though the term "operator" may be in common parlance, Public Safety Dispatchers are responsible for more than simply connecting line A to line B.

Sounding the Alarm

Historically, dispatchers can trace their lineage back to individuals who manned watch towers and rang the fire bell or personnel that patrolled the streets of their communities on "rattle watch" to sound the alert so firefighters knew their services were needed and could respond to the scene. As technology progressed from bells and rattles to callboxes and telephones, there was a need to monitor these systems with personnel dedicated to the communications center (PSAP).

Often, the employees that answered the ringing phone lines were injured EMTs, firefighters assigned to "light duty", or law enforcement officers and deputies picking up additional or overtime shifts. While this effectively staffed the communications center, it became problematic finding personnel trained in on-scene care that wanted to continue their careers tethered to a headset obtaining information for patients that they could not provide hands-on care for. The need to train and employ communications professionals, rather than First Responders, began to evolve.

Modern Dispatcher Training and Certifications

"911 Operator" implies that the only function of the individual is to pick up a ringing phone line. The modern, certified, Emergency Tele-Communicator is trained in the specific skills and duties required of a dedicated 911 professional. The more the industry develops, the greater the need for dispatchers trained on the specific tasks and responsibilities that apply to emergency tele-communications rather than emergency response or public safety in general. Professional dispatchers are required to complete weeks and often months of training on a variety of applicable subjects. Instruction covers skills from working with Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) systems, radio functionality, and plotting locations with latitude and longitude; to the memorization of penal codes, fire terminology and medical protocols; to techniques for keeping emotional callers calm so that essential information can be obtained and applied. More so than a simple "operator", Emergency Tele-Communicators are trained to remain calm, supportive, and in control while they evaluate a scene that they themselves cannot see so that they are able to provide for the wellbeing of the caller as well as the safety of the responders that they dispatch to the incident.

Training is structured and comprehensive and includes classroom simulation prior to any dispatcher trainee transitioning into the center and processing live calls. Scenario training often includes Active Shooter, Mayday, and Mass Casualty Incidents (MCIs). Certified Medical Dispatchers will train to deliver babies and provide CPR - all through a phone line.

Once the initial training is completed, 911 Dispatchers will need to maintain their skills and certifications through follow-up training and continuing education. The emergency dispatcher of the next generation is expected to have the knowledge and skills to provide 911 Services within a digital world as the antiquated telephone system transitions away from phone lines and switching architecture and to mobile devices and internet protocols.

As the modern day communicator is responsible for more than just sounding the alarm, the title "911 Operator" should be retired with horse-drawn engines, hearse ambulances, typewriters, and reel-to-reel computers. The increasing challenges and responsibilities that have developed over the years have led to the evolution of the position of '911 Dispatcher' from just a job or occasional overtime shift into a standalone, specialized career as a certified Emergency Tele-Communicator.

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