Any time of day or night people emergency services dispatchers are ready to take your call. When true emergencies arise they spring into immediate action, calling on police officers to rush to the scene or referring the case to an emergency medical team. Rita Thibodeau, Dispatch Services Supervisor for the City of San Mateo talks about what it is like to be on the other end of a 911 call.
What is a typical shift like for a 911 operator?
We work ten hour shifts, four days a week. Part of our duties are dispatching, but we also do a lot of counseling and referrals. We receive over 300,00 calls a year—which translates into approximately 80,00 dispatches. The challenge of the job is being able to discern over the phone what a real emergency is. Dispatchers have to be almost intuitive and bring enough life skills to the job that they can figure out when somebody is truly in trouble.
What are some of the specific skills needed for this job?
You need anticipatory skills. You need to know what your officers are going to need when they get on the scene. You need to give them as much information about the situation, such as any prior incidents, are any weapons involved, are drugs and alcohol a factor? The officers need to have a picture of it before they get there so they don’t have to go looking for information and can call the necessary cover units.
What are the most common types of calls you deal with?
First off, I would say some type of disturbance. Anything from a neighbor playing loud music to people beating each other with baseball bats. After that traffic incidents are the next most common thing we deal with. We’ve seen an increase in road rage and we have two main highways which have a lot of accidents. We also see our fair share of domestic violence.
Describe the hiring process for becoming a 911 dispatcher.
The first step is a four hour test which covers everything from multi-tasking, note-taking, memory skills, and judgment. If you pass the test you are offered an initial interview where we see if you can get a long in a workplace. We look for how someone functions under pressure. We are always under scrutiny. All our calls and radio transmissions are recorded. This is a very error-intolerant job. We want to see if you are willing to function at 110% every day.
Once someone has passed the initial test and interview, what are the next steps in the process?
We have the same procedure as hiring for police officers, with the exception of the fitness test. That means background checks, polygraph tests, andpsychological exams. You have to undergo a six month training program before you are allowed to work alone, and about fifty percent do not make it past that.
What else would you tell prospective applicants?
You have to be extremely motivated and really want to do this job. We have to be so much more diligent to protect our officers—they wear bullet proof vests and they do that for a reason.
What are some of the misconceptions about working as a 911 operator?
A lot of people look at the job description and think they could do it, especially since the salary and benefits are pretty good. But it is a stressful job, we have to weed out the people who won’t be able to handle it. People are out there doing horrible things to each other and you have to listen to it all day long.
Are there any other challenges that people wouldn’t necessarily think of?
We are a law enforcement agency, that means that we work holidays and nights. Also if you are scheduled to leave at a certain time but your replacement is late, you can’t leave until he or she gets there.
What advice would you give prospective applicants?
When I ask people why they want this job and they say they really want to help people, that isn’t really enough for me. I want to hear that they are committed to public service. We get a lot of unhappy people calling us. People don’t call 911 on their best days, they usually call on their worst days. When employees ask if they really have to put up with this, I say yes, you do. These individual’s taxes pay our salaries and we work for them.
What do you like most about your job?
I find it personally rewarding when I’ve been able to do the right thing for everyone involved. When an officer comes over the radio and says I dida good job, I take that home and put it under my pillow. That’s what gets me going.