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911 Dispatcher Career Guide

What is a 911 dispatcher?

A 911 or emergency dispatcher answers calls for emergency services like police, fire, and medical assistance. They quickly connect people in distress with the right emergency responders.

Duties and responsibilities

911 dispatchers take emergency and non-emergency calls, figure out what’s happening, and decide which emergency services to send. They ask for important details, like the location of the emergency and what kind of help is needed. Keeping track of all this information and maintaining accurate records is part of their job.

They also work with various equipment, like computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, radios, and mapping software. Along with answering calls, they stay in touch with emergency responders, providing updates and giving first aid advice or crisis guidance until help arrives.

Work environment

911 dispatchers usually work in emergency communication centers that are open 24/7. These centers can be run by local or state governments, law enforcement, or private companies. The work can be intense and stressful.

Typical work hours

911 dispatchers need to be available at all times because emergencies can happen any day or night. They work shifts covering 24 hours a day, seven days a week, including weekends and holidays. Shifts usually last 8 to 12 hours. Dispatchers often have to work overtime during big emergencies or when there aren’t enough staff members. 

How to become a 911 dispatcher

If you want to become a 911 dispatcher, you’ll need a mix of education, training, and experience. Here is a step-by-step guide to get you started:

Step 1: Finish high school or get a GED

A high school diploma or GED is usually the basic requirement. While in high school, take English, communication, and computer tech classes to build skills you’ll use on the job.

Step 2: Meet eligibility requirements

You need to be at least 18 years old. Job requirements might also include passing an exam, a drug test, a medical exam, and a background check.

Step 3: Learn to type well

Dispatchers need to type fast and accurately. Most jobs ask you to pass a typing test to show you can type at least 35 words per minute with 90% accuracy.

Step 4: Gain relevant work experience

Many start in related roles like customer service or call centers to gain experience handling stressful situations and communicating with others. 

Step 5: Complete a 911 dispatcher training program

Some states and agencies require special training for 911 dispatchers. These programs often cover emergency medical dispatch, crisis communication, and CAD systems. You can find these programs at community colleges, vocational schools, or emergency services agencies. 

Step 6: Pass a civil service test

If you’re aiming for a job with a city or county, you might need to pass a Civil Service Exam, which tests basic skills. Some places also require tests like the CritiCall Dispatcher Test, which checks your dispatcher skills, like typing, reading, memory, and reasoning. Check with your local government to see what tests you need to take.

Step 7: Apply for 911 dispatcher positions

After getting your education, training, and any required certifications, start applying for jobs. Make sure your resume and cover letter highlight your relevant skills and experience. Be ready for pre-employment tests, like typing tests and psychological evaluations, which are common in this field.

Step 8: Complete on-the-job training

Once hired, you’ll go through an extensive training program. It includes topics like telecommunications, domestic violence, CPR/First Aid, stress management, and suicide intervention. The courses vary by state and agency. You might also need annual training on certain subjects to keep your skills current.

Step 9: Get certified

Most states require dispatchers to get certified within six months of being hired. You can get certifications through organizations like the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), or the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO). Some common certifications include:

  • Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD)
  • Emergency Fire Dispatcher (EFD)
  • Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS)
  • Emergency Telecommunicator Certification (ETC)
  • Quality Improvement Certification (ED-Q)

Step 10: Take additional online courses

To stand out from the competition, consider taking online courses to boost your skills. Courses on mindfulness can help you manage stress, and classes on communication can improve your people skills. You can also refresh your knowledge by taking First Aid and CPR courses.

How much do 911 dispatchers make?

The salary of a 911 dispatcher can vary significantly based on where they work, the size and budget of the department, their experience and tenure, and union membership.

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

  • Police dispatcher: A police dispatcher focuses on calls requiring police assistance. They collect information from callers to understand what’s happening and where then send police officers to the right location. 
  • Fire dispatcher: Fire dispatchers handle emergency calls related to fires. They gather details from callers, assess the severity of the fire, and dispatch the appropriate fire department resources. 
  • Emergency medical dispatcher: Emergency medical dispatchers handle calls that require immediate medical attention. They give pre-arrival instructions to callers, coordinate the dispatch of emergency medical services, and often do an initial assessment of the medical situation. 
  • Multi-agency dispatcher: A multi-agency dispatcher works in a communication center that handles calls for various emergency services. They manage a mix of police, fire, and medical emergencies, dispatching the right resources as needed. 
  • Public safety dispatcher: Public safety dispatchers often work in smaller or rural areas where they handle all types of emergency calls. They are trained to coordinate responses for police, fire, and medical emergencies. 

Top skills for 911 dispatchers

  • Active listening: Dispatchers must carefully listen to callers who are often scared or upset. This skill helps them pick up on background noises and voice tones that could give extra clues about the situation.
  • Communication abilities: They must ask the right questions, give precise instructions to callers, and relay detailed information to emergency responders. They need to explain things clearly and keep everyone on the same page during a crisis.
  • Emotional resilience: This job can be emotionally taxing. Emotional resilience helps them stay calm and composed when dealing with high-stress situations. 
  • Multitasking proficiency: 911 dispatchers often juggle multiple tasks at once. They might be answering calls, updating emergency responders, and keeping detailed records—all at the same time. 
  • Problem-solving abilities: Dispatchers must make quick decisions that can impact people’s safety. They need to assess situations, prioritize responses, and decide the best course of action. 
  • Geographic knowledge: Knowing the local geography helps them guide emergency responders to the right place quickly. This skill involves understanding street names, landmarks, and city layouts. 
  • Familiarity with emergency procedures: 911 dispatchers should understand emergency response protocols and procedures to give useful advice to callers while coordinating with various emergency services. 

911 dispatcher career path

A career as a 911 dispatcher typically starts with an entry-level role where you handle emergency calls and dispatch the appropriate emergency services. Here’s an overview of the usual career progression in this field:

  • Entry-level dispatcher: As a new dispatcher, you’ll focus on answering emergency calls and coordinating the dispatch of police, fire, or medical services. 
  • Senior dispatcher: After gaining experience, you might mentor and train new dispatchers, manage more complex incidents, and coordinate with multiple emergency services. 
  • Shift supervisor: With substantial experience, you could be promoted and oversee other dispatchers, ensuring smooth operations during your shift. 
  • Operations manager: Operations managers are responsible for the overall functioning of the dispatch center. You would oversee processes, maintain high communication standards, and handle any operational issues. 
  • Communications center director: The communications center director is the top position in the dispatch center. Directors focus on improving processes, ensuring compliance with regulations, and coordinating with other emergency service leaders.
  • Specializations: Some dispatchers choose to specialize in certain areas—like police, fire, or medical—or work in emergency management and disaster response. Specializations can offer unique opportunities and lead to career advancement in different directions.

911 dispatching is evolving with technological advances and a greater focus on mental health training. Here’s a closer look at the latest trends and the future outlook for this profession:

  • Technological advancements: 911 dispatchers increasingly use digital and data-driven technology, including GPS for location tracking, digital radio systems for clearer communication, and data analytics to improve response times and strategies. They must be comfortable with technology and willing to learn new systems.
  • Mental health training: Dispatchers are often the first point of contact for people in crisis, and because of this, there’s a growing trend toward integrating mental health training into their role. They need to know how to handle callers in distress, provide calm reassurance, and offer basic crisis support.
  • Focus on workplace well-being: The high-stress nature of this job can take a toll on dispatchers. As a result, there’s an increasing emphasis on improving working conditions and supporting dispatchers’ mental health. 

Employment projections for 911 dispatchers

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), employment for 911 dispatchers is projected to grow by 4% through 2031. This growth is driven by population increases and the need for skilled dispatchers to manage increasingly complex dispatch systems. Job prospects are best for those with strong customer service skills and experience using computerized dispatch systems.

911 dispatcher career tips

Hone your communication skills

You need to clearly convey critical information to callers and emergency responders. Listen carefully, speak clearly, and give concise instructions. Practicing active listening and refining your speaking skills will be valuable.

Stay calm under pressure

911 dispatchers often face high-pressure, life-or-death situations. Staying calm and focused is crucial. Regular stress management techniques, like deep breathing or mindfulness, can help you maintain composure during challenging calls.

Develop geographic knowledge

Knowing the geography of your service area can be a huge advantage. When you understand local streets, landmarks, and neighborhoods, you can guide emergency responders more efficiently. Familiarize yourself with the area to improve your performance.

Build a professional network

Connecting with other professionals in your field can provide support and open doors to new opportunities. Consider joining professional associations like:

  • 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

The emotional demands of this job can be intense. It’s essential to prioritize self-care and seek professional help if you feel overwhelmed or notice signs of burnout. Creating a healthy work-life balance can help you manage the stress that comes with the job.

Implement continuous learning

Emergency services are constantly evolving, so staying updated on new technologies and best practices is important. Focus areas might include:

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

Master multitasking

Dispatchers often juggle multiple tasks at once. To be effective, you need to manage these demands smoothly. Practice multitasking to improve your ability to handle various responsibilities simultaneously.

Cultivate empathy

Empathy helps you connect with distressed callers and provide the emotional support they need. It also allows you to ask the right questions and offer instructions with a human touch. Developing empathy can make you a better 911 dispatcher and improve the quality of your service.

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?

They must have strong communication and listening skills. 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.

What are the typical duties of a 911 dispatcher?

They 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?

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?

They 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?

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?

They 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 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?

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.