According to the National Emergency Number Association, there is an estimated 240 million calls made to 911 every year.
The 911 operators (also called 911 dispatchers) who handle these calls need to be exceptional under stressful situations and have empathy to guide the caller in what they perceive is a crisis situation. Although these professionals remain virtually anonymous and unrecognized for their invaluable contribution, we can’t imagine what it would be like if there were no 911 dispatchers out there.
This career is a tough one, but it’s really rewarding when you think about all the good that comes from it. In this article, we will cover every topic on 911 dispatches and how you can get started in the field.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty details, let’s talk a little bit about what a 911 operator actually does.
What Does A 911 Operator Do?
A 911dispatcher works for police, fire, or ambulance services and receives telephone calls from the public through the emergency dispatch system. All 911 calls are routed to different agencies based on their geographical area and specific needs.
These agencies can include the fire department, emergency medical services, or police.
911 dispatchers work hard every day to:
- Converse with people in dire need of medical or police assistance, then provide them with basic information and determine what kind of help they require.
- Take accurate notes and type reports of the incident/call as it unfolds.
- Maintain confidentiality of victims and witnesses in a professional manner.
- Try to calm down a caller who is panicking, delirious, or hysterical.
- Persuade callers not to commit suicide.
- Remain composed despite receiving life-or-death calls daily.
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Are A 911 Operator And Dispatcher The Same Thing?
In some locations a 911 operator and dispatcher may be terms used interchangeably, but there are some small differences between the two jobs. A 911 operator will receive calls on the 911 line, while a dispatcher will ultimately be the person who makes the call on a radio to dispatch teams to a location.
How To Become A 911 Operator
If you want to become a 911 dispatcher or operator, you should be prepared for a long hiring process. In some cases it can be more than a year from application to getting hired.
There are also basic requirements that will need to be met, and each state may have its own requirements. Below are some of the most common requirements that states require.
STEP 1: Minimum Requirements
- Must be at least 18 years of age
- Excellent typing skills with at least 30 words per minute with a maximum of 2 errors
- High school diploma or GED
- Ability to pass a background investigation
- Pass a medical examination, psychological evaluation, and drug screening
While a college degree is not required, taking courses or getting an associate’s degree in criminal justice can help land a job and provide better career advancement opportunities.
STEP 2: Internship or Apprenticeship (Optional)
While it’s not required, employers will always prefer anyone who has experience in any field related to customer service, call center work or dispatching. To set yourself apart from other applicants, it can help to try and find an internship or apprenticeship in the field.
Many aspiring 911 operators also benefit from enrolling in internships like:
- Police internships. Law enforcement departments can give you hands-on experience working within a 911 dispatch center while learning various aspects of police work.
- Firefighter internships. Interning as a firefighter can offer some insight into different areas of the emergency services sector and let you explore other potential careers.
- Emergency medical service internships. These programs allow you to learn about the ambulance system, how 911 systems work, what happens during emergency calls, and more.
- Emergency management internships. Emergency management agencies can offer useful hands-on training to teach you skills ranging from basic first aid to advanced search and rescue techniques.
Volunteering can also bring similar benefits as an internship. To gain experience and show potential employers how responsible and helpful you are, you can find many programs that recruit people willing to help during emergencies and natural disasters.
STEP 3: Education/Training Needed
Formal education requirements vary from state to state and city to city. Once you apply and get a job as a dispatcher, in most states you will complete a training program and may go through on-the-job training.
These positions are often computer based, so having knowledge of the computer applications, government regulations, state laws, and more will all be part of your training.
If you want to gain an edge against other applicants, you can also opt for online training via the Emergency Communications Accreditation Council (ECAC). Approved trainers have designed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) program to cover every necessary skill and topic.
STEP 4: Testing or Certification
911 operator testing is a very competitive process involving several screening tests that are designed to measure your capabilities.
These are some of the most popular testing components used by 911 communication centers:
- Typing tests. Typing speed is an important criteria in hiring because all 911 dispatchers are required to type their notes while talking with callers. Many recruiters also use online typing tests to check your speed before interviewing you or inviting you for a formal typing test at the dispatch center.
- Oral exams. An oral exam will consist of several different case studies and scenarios that you will need to solve. They will test your common sense, ability to use the information provided, critical thinking skills, and problem-solving abilities.
- Simulation tests. A simulation test will usually consist of an audio recording that you will need to listen to and comprehend, then act accordingly by transferring or dispatching the right call.
- Written tests. Most 911 dispatch centers use written tests—either multiple choice or true/false type questions—to assess your problem-solving skills, critical thinking ability, understanding of different call types, and general knowledge.
Recommended Skills For 911 Operators
Learning how to become a 911 operator is not an easy task. If you want to do well, these are some of the most essential skills you will need:
Operators need to remain calm at all times and be able to remain well composed even under the most stressful experiences.
Problem Solving Skills
As a 911 operator, you regularly encounter people in medical distress or life-threatening situations, so you will need to think on your feet and find solutions to unusual or complex problems.
Operators need to be able to read and comprehend complex information, hear different types of sounds in high-pressure situations, know when they are listening to a distressed caller, and how to make sense of what they are saying.
Being patient is key because you will be interacting with a wide range of people, from medical professionals to distressed citizens.
Attention To Detail
Operators need to have excellent listening skills, accuracy, and clarity.
Operators should know how to prioritize tasks and stay on track, especially during emergencies. Some dispatchers work 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, which means you will be juggling multiple ongoing projects at once.
Pros & Cons Of Being A 911 Operator
Every job has benefits and drawbacks. Here is some information about what it’s like to be a 911 operator:
- Receive competitive salaries and work in a pleasant environment with supportive supervisors and colleagues.
- Being able to help people in their most vulnerable moments can be very fulfilling.
- You can work part-time and find a balance between your work and personal life.
- You can work anywhere in the world as long as you have a stable internet connection and proper equipment.
- Most 911 operator training programs are short and self-paced.
- Public service employees enjoy excellent benefits packages.
- You need to remain professional even when people are rude or become violent on the other end of the line.
- The job can be physically and emotionally exhausting even to the most experienced operators.
- You need to pay close attention to detail even if the callers are panicking or hard to understand.
- You may end up working long hours at odd times like graveyard shifts or weekends.
How Much Do 911 Operators Make?
According to the United States Labor Department, the median annual pay for all 911 operators in 2020 was $43,290.
That means that half of all dispatchers will earn more than that amount, and half of them will earn less.
Your salary will depend on where you live, your level of experience, and whether you work full time. If you want to improve your rates, you can become a certified emergency police dispatcher (EPD), emergency fire dispatcher (EFD), or emergency medical dispatcher (EMD). It’s the best way to prove that you have the required skills and experience for this type of job.
How To Get A Job As A 911 Operator
After going through the training and getting any state specific certifications, the job hunt begins.
Below are a few options for landing a job:
- Connect with various local organizations on LinkedIn and keep up on their job listings
- Do a search on Indeed
- National Emergency Number Association job board
- Contact your local police department, emergency medical services, or fire department
- Talk to the current county or city dispatch office to see if any opportunities exist
- Reach out to private companies as well like ambulance companies
911 Operator Job Outlook
There are roughly 95,400 911 operators employed across the United States. While there is a lot of competition, you should still easily find work because there is a high turnover in this profession.
The US Bureau for Labor Statistics also predicts that the employment of emergency dispatchers will likely increase by 8% between 2020 and 2030.