Home / Career Guides / 911 Dispatcher

911 Dispatcher Career Guide

What is a 911 dispatcher?

A 911 dispatcher, also known as an emergency dispatcher or public safety telecommunicator, serves as the vital first point of contact during emergencies. Dispatchers handle incoming calls for emergency services, including police, fire, and medical emergencies. Their job is of immense importance as they facilitate communication between the public in distress and the emergency services that can provide immediate assistance.

Essentially, a professional in this role operates as the critical link between the community and emergency response teams. Their ability to stay calm under pressure, gather critical information, and communicate effectively directly influences the speed and efficiency of emergency response. As such, this role is integral to the functioning of public safety networks and the community’s well-being.

Duties and responsibilities

A 911 dispatcher answers emergency and non-emergency calls, assessing the nature of the situation and determining the appropriate resources to dispatch. Their duties include obtaining crucial information from callers, such as the location of the incident, the type of emergency, and any relevant details that can assist first responders. These professionals must also maintain accurate records of calls and responses.

They must have experience using specialized equipment, such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, radio communication devices, and mapping software. In addition to handling calls, dispatchers monitor and communicate with emergency responders in the field, providing them with the necessary information and updates. While waiting for help, they may give first aid instructions, crisis intervention, or other assistance.

Work environment

911 dispatchers typically work in emergency communication centers or public safety answering points (PSAPs), which are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Local or state governments, law enforcement agencies, or private companies can operate these facilities. The work environment can be intense and stressful, as they deal with high-stakes situations and must make critical decisions quickly and efficiently.

Dispatchers work close to colleagues, sharing equipment and resources to ensure seamless communication and coordination. As they often interact with callers in distress and may face trauma, they must be able to handle the emotional demands of the job.

Typical work hours

This role requires round-the-clock availability, as emergencies can occur at any time. 911 dispatchers usually work shifts, covering 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including weekends and holidays. Shift lengths can vary, but they are typically 8 to 12 hours. 

Overtime may be required during emergencies or when staffing levels are low. The job can be mentally demanding due to the high-stress situations, requiring alertness and focus, regardless of the hour.

How to become a 911 dispatcher

To become a 911 dispatcher, you will need a combination of education, training, and experience. In this career guide section, we cover the steps you’ll need to take to achieve your goal:

Step 1: Complete high school or obtain a GED

A high school diploma or GED is typically the minimum educational requirement for this position. While in high school, consider taking courses in English, communications, and computer technology to help build a solid foundation for the skills needed in this profession.

Step 2: Meet the eligibility requirements

You must be at least 18 years of age and meet other job requirements, such as passing an exam, a drug screening, a medical exam, and a thorough background check.

Step 3: Develop proficient typing skills

You must type information quickly and accurately in this role. Most positions require you to pass a typing test, demonstrating your speed and accuracy, as part of the application process. You should be able to type 35 words per minute with 90% accuracy. 

Step 4: Obtain relevant work experience

Many dispatchers start their careers in related roles, such as customer service or call center positions, to gain experience handling high-pressure situations and communicating effectively. This experience can help you develop the multitasking and problem-solving skills required to excel in this position.

Step 5: Complete a 911 dispatcher training program

Many states and agencies require workers in this profession to complete a specialized training program. These programs often cover emergency medical dispatch, crisis communication, and CAD systems. 

Local community colleges, vocational schools, or emergency services agencies may offer some programs. Completing a formal training program can help you develop the technical knowledge and skills necessary for this demanding role.

Step 6: Pass a civil service test

Most dispatchers are civil service employees working for a city or county. Civil service workers will likely need to pass the Civil Service Exam, which verifies the basic skills you’ll need. Requirements vary by jurisdiction. Check with the state, county, or city you live in for additional information on this exam. 

You may also be required to take other tests, such as the CritiCall Dispatcher Test, which helps evaluate your abilities as a dispatcher, including writing skills, typing skills, reading comprehension, memory, attention to detail, reasoning, and more. The test content can vary by location.

Step 7: Apply for 911 dispatcher positions

Once you have completed the necessary education, training, and certifications, apply for positions in your area. Tailor your resume and cover letter to emphasize your relevant skills, experience, and certifications. 

In addition, prepare for potential pre-employment tests, such as typing tests, critical thinking assessments, and psychological evaluations, which are often part of the hiring process for these jobs.

Step 8: Advanced training

Once hired, you will typically undergo a thorough training program that includes courses in telecommunications, domestic violence, CPR/First Aid/AED, critical incident stress, terrorism, and suicide intervention. Courses may vary by state, county, or city. 

Many jurisdictions require annual training on specific subjects. Additional training with one or more of the following agencies may also be required:

  • National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
  • Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) 
  • National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED)

Step 9: Get certified

Most states require certification within 6 months of hire. Check certification requirements in your state. 

International Academics of Emergency Dispatch offers the following certifications for dispatchers:

Other organizations that offer certification programs include:

  • The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO)
  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA)

Several schools also offer 2-year certification programs for emergency dispatchers. Here is a small list of schools:

  • Oakland Community College, Bloomfield Hills, MI
  • Arapahoe Community College, Littleton, CO
  • Salt Lake Community College, Salt Lake City, UT
  • Portland Community College, Portland, OR
  • Mesa Community College, Mesa, AZ
  • Eastern Florida State College, Cocoa, FL
  • Central Piedmont Community College, Charlotte, NC

Check schools in your area for certification programs in 911 dispatch.

Step 10: Take online courses to set yourself apart from the competition

Consider taking online courses that can enhance your professional skills and give you tools to help you succeed on the job.

How much do 911 dispatchers make?

The salary of a 911 dispatcher can vary significantly based on a few key factors. One of the primary factors is the region or city where they work. Areas with a higher cost of living or higher crime rates generally pay more, as the job demands can be more substantial. 

The size and budget of the department also greatly influence pay, with larger urban departments typically able to offer higher salaries than smaller, rural departments. 

Additionally, experience and tenure play a role in determining salary. Those with more years in the profession generally earn more. 

Finally, union membership can affect wages, as unions often negotiate higher salaries and benefits for their members.

Highest paying states

  • California: $70,000
  • Alaska: $60,000
  • Washington: $57,000
  • Oregon: $55,000
  • Nevada: $54,000

Browse 911 dispatcher salary data by market

Types of 911 dispatchers

In this section of the career guide, we’ll cover the different types and specializations of the 911 dispatcher profession. Within this critical role are several areas of specialization based on the nature of emergencies handled.

Police dispatcher

A person in this role primarily deals with calls requiring law enforcement intervention. These professionals gather necessary information from the caller, such as the nature of the incident and location, and coordinate the dispatch of police officers to the scene. For this role, it’s vital to have a comprehensive understanding of law enforcement protocols and procedures.

Fire dispatcher

Fire dispatchers are trained to handle emergency calls related to fires. They collect information from the caller, assess the situation, and dispatch the necessary fire department resources. People in this role must be familiar with the specific protocols for handling fire emergencies and coordinating with fire department units.

Emergency medical dispatcher

Professionals in this specialization focus on calls that necessitate immediate medical attention. They are trained to perform an initial assessment of the medical emergency, provide pre-arrival instructions, and coordinate the dispatch of emergency medical services. Knowledge of basic medical procedures and terminology is helpful for this role.

Multi-agency dispatcher

Multi-agency dispatchers work within communication centers that handle calls for multiple emergency services. These professionals are trained to handle a variety of emergencies and dispatch appropriate resources, whether police, fire, or medical services. This role requires a broad understanding of protocols and procedures across different emergency services.

Public safety dispatcher

Public safety dispatchers typically operate in smaller or rural communities where a single dispatcher may handle all types of emergency calls. These dispatchers are trained to handle any situation involving law enforcement, fire, or medical services.

Top skills for 911 dispatchers

This section highlights the skills and traits that will lead to career success as a 911 dispatcher.

Active listening

A key part of the job is to extract accurate information from callers who may be distressed, scared, or incoherent. Professionals in this position must listen carefully to understand the situation thoroughly and determine the most appropriate emergency service to dispatch. It’s important to pick up on any background noises or subtleties in the caller’s voice that might provide additional context or clues about the situation.

Communication abilities

These individuals must provide precise instructions to callers, asking the right questions to gather relevant information. They also need to relay detailed and accurate information to emergency responders in real time, ensuring they understand the nature and severity of the situation, the location, and any potential risks involved.

Emotional resilience

This role can be emotionally demanding, as they’re often the first point of contact during crises. Emotional resilience helps dispatchers manage stress, maintain composure, and offer calm reassurance to callers in distress. This skill also includes the ability to bounce back after stressful calls and continue providing quality service.

Multitasking proficiency

This job requires multitasking effectively under high-pressure conditions. They may have to handle multiple calls simultaneously, coordinate with different emergency services, and document calls, all while keeping track of the bigger picture. The ability to juggle various tasks while maintaining accuracy is essential for success in this role.

Problem-solving abilities

In crises, these professionals are required to rapidly assess situations, prioritize responses, and make critical decisions that can have life-or-death consequences. This requires an analytical mind, quick reflexes, and the ability to remain calm under pressure.

Comprehensive understanding of the geographical areas

A comprehensive understanding of local and surrounding geography is necessary for a 911 dispatcher. This includes familiarity with street names, landmarks, and city layouts, which helps them guide emergency responders swiftly and accurately to the incident scene. Some dispatchers may also need to use mapping software and other technologies to assist in locating callers or incidents.

Familiarity with emergency response procedures

Individuals in this role need to be well-versed in emergency procedures and protocols. This enables them to provide appropriate advice to callers while waiting for emergency services to arrive and to coordinate effectively with various emergency response teams. Ongoing training and knowledge updates are typically a part of this job, ensuring dispatchers stay current with best practices and procedural changes.

911 dispatcher career path

911 dispatchers usually begin with an entry-level position as an emergency call taker or dispatcher, where they respond to incoming emergency calls and dispatch appropriate emergency services. 

Upon gaining experience handling high-stress situations and developing their decision-making and communication skills, they may be promoted to a senior dispatcher role, which may involve mentoring and training new dispatchers, coordinating with multiple agencies, and handling more complex incidents.

With substantial experience and a proven track record, they may advance to supervisory or management positions. These positions include a shift supervisor, operations manager, or communications center director. They oversee the dispatch center’s operations in these roles, ensuring efficient processes and maintaining high-quality communication standards. Some may also specialize in certain areas, such as working with specific emergency services (police, fire, or medical) or focusing on emergency management and disaster response.

One significant trend is the increased use of digital and data-driven technology in emergency response systems. This includes using GPS technology for location tracking, digital radio systems for improved communication, and data analytics to optimize response strategies. Consequently, today’s 911 dispatchers need to be technically proficient.

Another emerging trend is the integration of mental health training in the dispatcher’s role. As first points of contact, they often encounter individuals in crisis, and there is a growing recognition of the need for them to have training in handling such situations.

Along these lines, there’s also a push toward improving their working conditions, with attention being paid to managing the high-stress nature of the job and promoting mental health and well-being in the workplace.

Employment projections for 911 dispatchers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment for this profession, classified under “Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers,” is projected to grow 4 percent through 2031, about as fast as the average for all occupations. 

The growth is largely driven by the need for these workers in response to population growth and the increasing complexity of dispatch systems. Those with solid customer service skills and experience using computerized dispatch systems should have the best job prospects.

911 dispatcher career tips

Hone your communication skills

Effective communication is vital for professionals in this role. You will need to convey critical information accurately and promptly to the caller and the emergency responders. This involves active listening, clear speech, and the ability to explain instructions concisely.

Stay calm under pressure

A 911 dispatcher often deals with life-or-death situations. The ability to stay calm, composed, and focused under such high-pressure circumstances is a key factor for success in this position. Regular stress management techniques can help you maintain your composure during challenging calls.

Develop geographic knowledge

A strong understanding of your service area’s geography can enhance your efficiency in this role to guide emergency responders more effectively and quickly if you’re familiar with local streets, landmarks, and neighborhoods.

Build a professional network

Networking with other professionals in your field can provide valuable insights, support, and opportunities for growth. Consider joining professional associations related to emergency dispatch such as:

  • Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International
  • The National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
  • International Academics of Emergency Dispatch
  • National Association of State 911 Administrators

Take care of your mental health

This role can be emotionally taxing due to the nature of the calls. Prioritize self-care and mental health. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or experience signs of burnout or trauma.

Implement continuous learning

In the rapidly evolving field of emergency services, continuous learning is paramount. Stay updated on new technologies, procedures, and best practices. Focus areas might include:

  • Crisis intervention techniques
  • Advanced First Aid or CPR
  • Emergency management software
  • Mental health awareness

Master multitasking

In this role, you will often need to juggle multiple tasks at once, such as talking to a caller, inputting data, and communicating with emergency personnel. Effective multitasking skills are crucial to handle these demands smoothly.

Cultivate empathy

Empathy is a critical skill for a 911 dispatcher. The ability to understand and share the feelings of others can help you provide emotional support to distressed callers. It can also help you ask the right questions and convey necessary instructions effectively.

Where the 911 dispatcher jobs are

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • GovernmentJobs
  • LinkedIn
  • SimplyHired


What skills are important for a 911 dispatcher?

911 dispatchers must have strong communication and listening skills, as they are responsible for relaying critical information between callers and emergency responders. They should be able to remain calm under pressure and handle emergencies with professionalism. 

Quick decision-making, problem-solving abilities, and multitasking skills are also essential. They should be proficient in using dispatch systems and have fast typing skills. Empathy is another essential trait, as they often deal with people in distress.

What are the typical duties of a 911 dispatcher?

911 dispatchers answer emergency and non-emergency calls, assess the situation, and dispatch appropriate emergency services. One of their main duties is to provide essential information to emergency responders and stay in contact with them throughout the incident. 

They may also give callers instructions on what to do until help arrives. Keeping detailed records of calls, coordinating with other agencies if necessary, and sometimes following up on incidents are also daily tasks.

What role does a 911 dispatcher play in emergency response?

911 dispatchers are a critical link in the emergency response chain. They are the first point of communication for people in distress and the connection between the public and emergency services. They must quickly and accurately assess the situation, dispatch the appropriate services, and provide potentially life-saving instructions to callers. Their efficiency and accuracy can significantly influence the outcome of an emergency.

What training is needed to become a 911 dispatcher?

Entering this profession usually requires a high school diploma or equivalent, followed by specialized training. This training often includes areas like emergency response procedures, crisis communication, and the usage of dispatching equipment. 

Some dispatchers may also receive certification in specific areas, such as emergency medical dispatching, which equips them to provide medical instructions to callers before help arrives.

What challenges do 911 dispatchers often face?

911 dispatchers often face challenges like dealing with high-stress situations, making quick decisions under pressure, and managing the emotional toll of handling distressing calls. There is often a need to decipher information from callers who are upset, scared, or injured, which can be difficult. Balancing speed and accuracy in a fast-paced environment is also a significant challenge.

What is the importance of accuracy in the role of a 911 dispatcher?

Accuracy is paramount for 911 dispatchers. Any miscommunication or misinformation can have serious repercussions, potentially delaying emergency response or leading to mistakes in the field. They must be meticulous in recording and relaying information, ensuring they understand the situation thoroughly and communicate the details accurately to emergency responders.

What kind of work schedule does a 911 dispatcher typically have?

911 dispatchers typically work in shifts, as emergency call centers operate 24/7. These shifts can include nights, weekends, and holidays. Shift lengths can vary but often range from 8 to 12 hours. Some may also need to work overtime during emergencies or periods of high call volume. While the schedule can be demanding, shift work can offer flexibility and overtime opportunities.

Is it possible to work remotely as a 911 dispatcher?

While remote work opportunities for 911 dispatchers are uncommon, they do exist in some cases. Some jurisdictions may have remote or virtual call centers that allow them to work from home or another off-site location. However, these opportunities are typically limited and may require additional training or equipment.

How can I maintain my well-being and manage stress as a 911 dispatcher?

Developing healthy coping strategies, such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and sufficient sleep, is crucial. You should also establish a strong support network, including colleagues, friends, and family. Some dispatch centers may offer Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs) or other resources to help dispatchers manage stress and emotional challenges.

What types of ongoing training and professional development are available for 911 dispatchers?

Staying up-to-date on industry best practices and technological advancements is essential for maintaining and enhancing your skills in this field. Ongoing training and professional development opportunities may include attending conferences, workshops, and webinars. Other options may include pursuing advanced certifications or participating in courses offered by organizations like NENA or APCO. 

Additionally, some agencies may offer in-house training programs or support dispatchers in pursuing continuing education in emergency management, public safety, or communications.