What is a 911 dispatcher?
A 911 dispatcher takes 911 calls and directs them to the police, fire department, or emergency medical teams to allow for quick responses to emergencies. A 911 dispatcher has to be a great listener and a strong communicator. They also have to remain calm and collected in an emergency.
A 911 dispatcher must be prepared for the unexpected as every call is unique. They deal with a wide range of people on the other end of the line who can be frightened, injured, anxious, shouting, crying, screaming, barely understandable, and more. They attempt to take down vital information, regardless of the emotional and physical state of the caller, such as the name of the caller, details of the situation, and an address. They then assess the location of the nearest emergency medical teams, police officers, and/or fire department, and dispatch the appropriate team to the scene.
Some 911 dispatchers are qualified to provide basic medical information to the caller before emergency teams show up at the scene. They stay on the line with the caller and attempt to calm them or keep them calm until help arrives. These professionals work under very stressful situations and must keep a clear head at all times.
Qualifications and eligibility
To qualify for a position as a 911 dispatcher, you must have a high school diploma or a GED. Other qualifications may vary by state due to differing laws that govern police dispatchers or emergency response teams. Some states require specific training or certification from an accredited association, and others may require that you know how to offer medical advice in emergencies. You might be required to pass one or more tests that prove you have achieved a basic level of skills and knowledge. Dispatchers typically develop their skills in on-the-job training that usually last three to six months, but some opt to enroll in a course that covers essential topics needed, such as crisis intervention, civil/criminal law, stress management, emergency medical dispatching, radio broadcasting procedures, and communication center operations.
The minimum requirements for becoming a 911 dispatcher are:
- Must be at least 18 years of age
- Must have a high school diploma or GED
- Must pass the computerized pre-employment test
- Must pass an extensive background investigation
- Must pass a medical examination
- Must pass a drug screening
- Must pass a computerized voice stress analysis (CVSA)
In some states, you might also need to:
- Attain certification
- Acquire a license
- Pass the state certification exam
Check the requirements in the state where you intend to work.
Computer skills are essential to receive, record, and manage emergency calls. Dispatchers must also be familiar with radios, recording equipment, and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems. They must know how to operate multi-line phone systems and emergency alert systems. They need basic database skills to enter case information into local and national databases.
To become a police dispatcher, individuals should be familiar with the area they work in, including major streets, highways, landmarks, buildings, waterways, and city or county boundaries. They need excellent communication skills to clearly instruct response teams on where to go. Compassion and calmness under pressure are vital as dispatchers often talk to callers who may be in the middle of very stressful situations and highly emotional states. They need good judgment and the ability to quickly evaluate situations and make quick decisions. Good typing skills are also required as 911 dispatchers must accurately record each case.
Collaboration is a key element for these professionals as they work closely with a wide range of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, and supervisors.
A 911 dispatcher works in an office setting where they use computers and telephones. They typically work in communication centers called public safety answering points (PSAPs) where they sit for long periods while communicating with callers or emergency response teams throughout their shift. The environment is very stressful as they deal with emergency situations constantly, and in some cases, their actions can mean the difference between life and death. Callers can be excited, frightened, agitated, angry, and even abusive. 911 dispatchers have to stay in control of the situation at all times.
Besides computers and phones, dispatchers can also use two-way radios to communicate with emergency teams. They monitor computer screens for long periods and must be careful of eye strain and back pain.
Typical work hours
Most 911 dispatchers work a 40-hour week, but they work in a 24/7 environment, providing round-the-clock coverage, so they are often required to work rotating shifts and alternative work schedules, which include nights, weekends, and holidays.
Types of 911 dispatchers
Most 911 dispatchers work in an operations call center, or a PSAP, where they handle calls for all types of emergencies and provide the same type of service to callers, regardless of what part of the country they work in, for enforcement agencies. Some call centers may only handle calls for one department, such as the police or fire department. Other dispatchers who work in small towns might work out of a police station or a fire department building.
The earning potential for a 911 dispatcher can vary greatly depending on geographic location, education, experience, skill level, and certifications.
- According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual wage for public safety telecommunicators was $46,670 in May 2021.
- The top wages for public safety telecommunicators by industries in May 2021 were as follows:
- State government – $47,940
- Local government – $46,970
- Hospitals – $38,250
- Colleges, universities, and professional schools – $38,180
- Ambulance services – $37,080
- The 5 states with the highest average salary for 911 dispatchers are:
- New York – $44,808
- California – $43,557
- Idaho – $43,363
- New Hampshire – $42,390
- Vermont – $41,402
- The highest paying cities are:
- Atkinson, NE -$50,130
- Santa Clara, CA – $49,879
- San Francisco, CA – $48,184
- Bolinas, CA – $47,882
- Fremont, CA – $47,085
- They also list the top companies are:
- City of Oakland, (Oakland, CA) – $95,475
- City of Pleasanton, (Pleasanton, CA) – $92,313
- City of Emeryville, (Emeryville, CA) – $89,318
- Municipality of Anchorage, (Anchorage, AK) – $84,385
- City of Belmont, (Belmont, WA) – $84,327
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts an 8 percent growth for public safety telecommunicators from 2020 to 2030, about as fast as the average for all occupations. They project an average of 9,800 openings for public safety dispatchers each year over the decade.
Your career path as a dispatcher depends on certain factors such as your location, education, experience, and interests. Many 911 dispatchers work for large call centers for city or state governments, but others work for police departments or fire departments.
The most common job opportunities for 911 dispatchers include:
- 911 operator
- Ambulance dispatcher
- Emergency communications dispatcher
- Emergency communications operator
- Emergency medical dispatcher
- Fire dispatcher
- Police dispatcher
- Police radio dispatcher
- Public safety communications officer
- Public safety dispatcher
- Public safety telecommunicator
- Senior dispatcher
- Call center supervisor
- Emergency management director
- Air traffic controller
To advance into management and supervisory positions within a dispatch communications center, you will typically need an associate’s or a bachelor’s degree.
Steps to becoming a 911 dispatcher
1. Get a high school diploma
You will need to receive a high school education or its equivalent to be eligible for a position as a 911 dispatcher.
2. Meet the eligibility requirements
You must be at least 18 years of age, and you must meet other 911 dispatcher requirements such as passing an exam, a drug screening, a medical exam, and a thorough background check.
3. Develop good typing skills
You are required to type information quickly and accurately as a 911 dispatcher. Most positions require that you can 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.
4. Learn the area where you want to work
As a 911 dispatcher, you must know the local geography to properly assess and assign emergency response personnel and identify the location of callers. Study and learn the names of neighborhoods and streets, and familiarize yourself with local landmarks.
5. 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 the Civil Service Exam. You may 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.
6. Find a job
Apply for 911 dispatcher positions. Make sure you are willing to work shifts and are prepared to work in a high-stress environment.
7. Get training
Once you are hired as a 911 dispatcher, you will typically go through 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)
8. Get certified
Most states will require you to be certified, typically within 6 months of hire. Check with the certification requirements in your state.
International Academics of Emergency Dispatch offers the following certifications for dispatchers:
- Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) – A 3-day course that teaches you how to deliver quality care to the public with emergency needs. To become EMD-certified, you must also be CPR-certified through the National Safety Council, American Heart Association, American Red Cross, or equivalent.
- Emergency Fire Dispatcher (EFD) – learn the ins and outs of structured call processing in the fire-rescue field.
- Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS) – this certification course provides you with the confidence to use the online dispatch protocol in a communication center.
- Emergency Telecommunicator Certification Course (ETC) – The ETC program is a 40-hour course designed to train new employees who are unfamiliar with emergency communication centers, emergency telecommunication, technology, interpersonal communication, legal issues, and job stress factors. The course features comprehensive content, multimedia presentations, and hands-on training.
- Quality Improvement Certification (ED-Q) – ED-Q certification assures that you are confident using the Emergency Priority Dispatch Systems for all medical, fire, police, and nurse triage protocols. The program includes state-of-the-art, instructor-led multimedia learning technology.
Other organizations that offer certification programs include:
- The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO)
- The National Emergency Number Association (NENA)
A number of 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 to see if they offer certification programs in 911 dispatch.
Tips for becoming a 911 dispatcher
If you are planning to become an emergency dispatcher, there are a few things you can do to get ahead of the game. Here are some tips:
- Get your high school diploma.
- Find out what the eligibility requirements are in the city, county, or state where you want to work, and make sure you meet all the requirements.
- Make sure you can pass background and drug screening tests.
- Take the civil service exam if it is required for the position you are seeking.
- Consider enrolling in a 2-year 911 Dispatch certification program.
- Work on your typing skills to make sure you meet the minimum requirements.
- Go to a communications center near you and see firsthand what 911 dispatchers do.
- Gain customer service experience if you don’t already have it.
- Check what licenses might be required.
- Develop essential skills you’ll need such as maintaining calm under pressure, controlling your emotions, building empathy and compassion, and improving your decision-making.
- Improve your communication and organization skills.
- Join an association to keep up with the latest trends, meet people with like interests, get training, etc. Some of the best associations are:
911 dispatcher interview questions to expect
- This is a high-stress job. How do you manage the emotions of this position?
- Someone calls after hearing a gunshot. Which teams do you dispatch?
- A child calls in distress. How do you ensure they stay on the phone until help arrives?
- If someone is panicking on the other end of the phone call, how do you manage them?
- What if a caller is unresponsive? What do you normally do?