“That must be nice. Just sitting all day and talking on the phone.”
“I couldn’t just sit there and talk on the phone all day.”
“Talking on the phone wouldn’t work for me, I need to actually be doing something.”
Over the course of my career, I have heard the above statements and more, many times over. There is more to the career of dispatch than just sitting and talking on the phone. Dispatchers are the first one to hear a scene, and they set the tone for how a response will go. By being the first on scene for almost every 9-1-1 call this takes a toll, and mental exhaustion is an everyday occurrence. Dispatchers will use their very intuitive and investigative skills, to describe and inform responding units as to what is happening on the scene.
The following are a couple of examples of how things would go very different if dispatchers just did what some of the public thinks they do. In these calls, the locations and phone numbers have already been confirmed.
Caller: “Hey we need an ambulance here; this person is bleeding.”
What people think dispatch says: “OK. We will get them on the way.” Then hangs up.
What the dispatcher actually says: “Where are they bleeding from? What happened?
Caller: “Listen, I don’t want to get anyone in trouble, but they were in a fight and was stabbed with something in the upper leg.”
This call just went from medical to a violet, medical situation. Dispatch would stage medical response and start law enforcement. Simultaneously knowing this could be a life-threatening injury, provide pre-arrival instructions. Dispatch would also ask the questions about the attacker and their whereabouts, and if there any more weapons and how the scene sounds. There are many important details that can be related to field responders just from sounds. Are there many voices? How is their attitude? Is there still a fight in progress? All details are related to field responders.
If dispatch did not ask the questions, an ambulance may have arrived on a violet scene, surprised by a dangerous situation. If dispatch did not provide pre-arrival instructions the victim may have had a significant blood loss.
Caller: Send the fire department, there is a fire!”
What people think dispatch says: “OK, we will tell them.”
What dispatch actually says: “What is on fire? Is anyone hurt? Is there anyone trapped in the fire? If it is a structure, how many levels? What side of the structure? Outside fire? How large is the fire? Are there any structures in danger? For both outside and structure, are there any hazards, such as propane or other?
By dispatching the fire department with the knowledge from the questions, it helps them prepare and to know what they are about to face. It also allows dispatch to know if other resources such as medical are needed.
Caller (15-year-old): “My dad doesn’t feel too good. Will you send an ambulance?”
What people think dispatch says: “Yes, we will send one.” Then hangs up.
What dispatch actually says: “Tell me what happened? Is he awake? Is he breathing normally?
Caller: “He hasn’t felt well for a couple hours. He said his arm did not feel right and he was sweating a lot. My mom went to get some aspirin at the store, but now he is not looking good and won’t talk to me.”
Dispatch: “Does he have any medical conditions?”
Caller: “He has been going to his doctor for blood pressure or something. Help, he…”
By talking to the caller, dispatch determined that this gentleman – who the family thought was just not feeling well – is possibly having a heart attack. Dispatch kept the caller on the line and was able to monitor the patient and talk with the caller letting them know help was on the way. While the dispatcher was talking with the caller, another dispatcher was updating the responding ambulance crew. When the words “I am going to walk you through CPR” were spoken, the ambulance crew once again was updated.
By asking the questions and staying on the line with the caller, dispatch was able to be right there to help the 15-year-old save their father by performing CPR, for the first time without training. The voice of the dispatcher coached and assured the caller that they could do it. Dispatch stayed on the phone, talking with the caller until the ambulance crew was right by their side ready to take over. By talking on the phone with the caller, this 15-year-old was able to help save their father, who made a full recovery.
Many people may experience trauma once or twice in a lifetime that leads to a 9-1-1 call. Dispatchers may experience second-hand trauma many times a shift. Just talking on the phone is more than “just talking on the phone.” Mental exhaustion is comparable to some of the most physically demanding careers, such as a lumberjack. When a lumberjack is working you can see every physically movement they make, over and over. When the lumberjack is finished with their day, the product of their physical labor is very visible.
When a dispatcher works, you may only see their chair, eyes and mouth physically moving. But what you don’t see is that they are continuously at the ready for the next call. Always thinking about and checking on all units in the field. Why hasn’t that officer answered my status check? Did I ask all I needed to? Did I miss anything that the caller said? Did I enter my notes correctly? Did I advise how to stop the bleeding in time?
When a dispatcher is finished with their day, there is no pile of products and no boxes checked off. A dispatcher carries their work with them day after day.
No, it is not always “nice” to just sit and talk on the phone all day.
Answering call after call day after day with a calm voice is not an easy skill set. However, this career – chosen by few – is one of the most rewarding.
The Texas County Emergency Services office in Houston is funded by a 3/8-cent countywide sales tax approved by voters in 2013. Assistant director Terra Culley can be reached by phone at 417-967-5309 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.