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Updated April 17, 1:02 p.m.–
By Rylie Friesen– This week, April 12-18, marks National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which recognizes police dispatchers and others who work in the emergency communications field.
Police dispatchers are responsible for receiving 9-1-1 calls for fire, police, and emergency medical service, along with making decisions to appropriately prioritize calls and dispatch field units. Non-emergency calls made to the police station are also handled by dispatchers.
“We are often not seen. We talk to hundreds of people every week, and yet we never get to meet face to face, and they never get to see us,” said Citrus Heights Police Department Communications Supervisor Nikki Bell in an interview with The Sentinel this week. “We’re often talking to them when they’re having the worst day of their life, or they’re in this dire time of need, and I think it’s important to remember what these faceless heroes do.”
Police dispatchers are also called the “lifeline” for officers, handling requests for help or backup, and providing officers in the field with vital information they need to know in responding to a call.
“We’re able to tell them where the incident is happening, who is involved, what kind of weapons are present,” Bell said. “We’re able to determine what has happened, what nature of incident it is. And by doing all of that we can safely say how many officers we think should go to that call.”
To keep both the public and officers safe, the dispatcher plays a key role in asking a series of questions unique to the nature of each call.
“For example, if the caller is reporting a fight between two people, one of the most crucial questions that we would ask is if there are any weapons seen,” Bell said.
Dispatchers also pay close attention to the demeanor of the caller or any background noises to help assess the situation. During calls, a computer-aided dispatch system is used to see if any prior calls may have important information for the call. All the information is taken and organized for officers to quickly understand the situation.
One of the calls Bell remembers most was from a man who called 9-1-1, talking about ending his life. Although the caller wasn’t in her jurisdiction, she kept him on the phone and was able to save his life by making him feel cared for.
About a year later, she found out he got the help he needed and was doing well.
“We often don’t get to find out what the ending was on calls; we never have closure,” she said. “So, for me, to be able to have closure and know that I helped make a difference meant the world to me.”
What it takes to be a dispatcher
Although specific prerequisite schooling isn’t required for the job, Bell says there are certain characteristics that are critical to become a dispatcher. The ability to remain calm, strong multitasking skills, adaptability, quick-thinking, good instinct, customer communication skills, and an innate desire to help others are a few of them.
Once hired, the dispatcher must attend the California Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Dispatcher Academy within a year of hire, as well as continue education credits every two years. A psychological test, medical test, and background check is also required to get hired, similar to police officers.
The pay range listed for a currently open dispatcher position at the Citrus Heights Police Department is $28-37 per hour. Dispatchers typically work three 12-hour shifts a week, although not all departments use the same guidelines.
“I worked at a dispatcher agency where we worked a 48-hour shift,” Bell said. “So you’ll see anything on the spectrum.”
The job isn’t for the faint of heart, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not uncommon among dispatchers. As Bell describes it, there are calls you can’t “unhear.”
Inside the communications center
About 350-400 calls per day come into the dispatch center in Citrus Heights, about 100 of which are 9-1-1 calls. There are a total of 22 dispatch employees, with three dispatchers on duty per shift.
Bell said the most common calls received are disturbances, accidents and traffic collisions. Dispatchers also often hear from “difficult” callers.
“They’re not difficult because they want to be, but because of the circumstances they’re involved in,” Bell said, noting callers who may be agitated, stressed, or in shock when calling police.
To organize calls, CHPD’s 900-square-foot communications center is split into four identical terminals, each filled with five computer screens. One is a radio system, one is an office computer to access the internet system, two are for computer-aided dispatch systems, and one is for the phone system.
The layout gives the dispatchers the availability to talk to one another while on calls, helping with efficiency.
“Oftentimes we will pair at things,” Bell said. “We’ll still type it in the call, but being able to be in the same room and having that situational awareness of our partners is incredibly important.”
Outside of the communications center, tactical dispatchers are part of the SWAT Team and respond in a mobile unit set up near crime scenes. All radio operations for the specific incident are handled from inside the mobile command post.
Bell says her job as a police dispatcher has been a rewarding career.
“When people don’t have anybody else to call, they call us,” she said. “From how to cook a turkey, to their house flooding, to they just found their loved one had just passed away.”
“I think it’s really important to honor these people.”
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