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911 Operator Career Guide

What is a 911 operator?

911 operators are telecommunications operators who work at emergency response centers where they relay details of incoming 911 calls to law enforcement, fire departments, or emergency medical teams. They gather and forward information on ongoing crime, disturbances, accidents, or other emergencies to the appropriate emergency response team.

In some locations, a 911 operator may perform the same role as a 911 dispatcher, and the titles may be interchangeable. But in many larger departments in bigger cities, the roles of a safety dispatcher and an operator may be different. An emergency dispatcher typically takes the initial call and then assigns the proper first responders to the scene. The operator, however, coordinates any other necessary efforts after the initial call, including ensuring that the different response teams communicate with one another.

911 operators monitor and record the location of on-duty police officers to allow for the most effective dispatch when an emergency arises. They use and operate computer-aided dispatch programs to assign case numbers to each incident and log each call in a database. They must be alert and quickly assess the situation so they can determine the number of police, emergency medical teams, and fire units to send to the scene. 

911 operators must be good communicators and must be able to work effectively under stressful conditions. They deal with a wide range of callers, who might be injured, hysterical, angry, or virtually incoherent, and try to get needed information, such as name, address or other location, and details of a situation. They must remain calm under pressure and have the ability to calm down callers if needed. They stay current on wanted persons, stolen property, and stolen vehicles. They must have excellent attention to detail as they must keep accurate records of emergency call information. They also have to stay up-to-date on legislations, legal codes, and laws in the city, county, and/or state they work in.

Qualifications and eligibility

To work as a 911 operator, you must have a high school diploma or a GED. Many jurisdictions require certification from a professional association. Some states also require 911 operators to pass one or more emergency medical response tests. 

Skill required to become a 911 operator include:

  • Communication – they work with callers and different response teams and must be able to communicate effectively, especially in an emergency situation
  • Decision making – 911 operators must make crucial decisions quickly to help distressed callers and get the right response teams to the scene
  • IT skills – 911 operators must be computer literate and proficient in handling a range of equipment and systems, such as computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, radios, transmitters, and receivers
  • Compassion
  • Empathy
  • Collaboration skills – 911 operators work closely with a wide range of law enforcement officers, firefighters, paramedics, and supervisors
  • Attention to detail
  • Observation skills
  • Calmness
  • Sound judgment
  • Able to type 35-40 words per minute

Typically, positions require pre-employment tests that candidates must pass to be considered for employment. Check which tests are required in the area you want to work. You can find online resources and practice tests to help you.  

The minimum requirements to become a 911 operator are:

  • Must be at least 18 years of age
  • Must have a high school diploma or GED
  • Pass the computerized pre-employment test
  • Pass an extensive background investigation
  • Pass a medical examination
  • Pass a drug screening
  • 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.

Work environment

A 911 operator works in an office setting where they use computers, telephones, and special telecommunications systems. 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 can be very stressful as operators handle emergency situations throughout their shifts, and in some cases, their actions can mean the difference between life and death. Callers can be injured, frightened, agitated, angry, and even abusive. 911 operators have to stay calm and be in control of the situation at all times.

Typical work hours

Most 911 operators work a 40-hour week. Communication centers are round-the-clock operations, 365 days a year, so operators may be required to work rotating shifts and alternative work schedules, which may include nights, weekends, and holidays. 

Types of 911 operators

Most 911 operators work in an operations call center, or a PSAP, where they handle calls for all types of emergency services and provide the same type of assistance to callers, regardless of what part of the country they work in. Some call centers may only handle emergency calls from one agency, such as the police or fire department. Other 911 operators who work in small towns might work out of a police station or a fire department building. 

Income potential

The earning potential for a 911 operator 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 lowest 10 percent earned less than $29,340, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $63,940.
  • The 5 states with the highest average salary for 911 operators are:
    • New York – $50,913
    • New Hampshire – $48,270
    • New Jersey – $44,510
    • Wyoming – $44,315
    • Arizona – $44,257
  • The highest paying cities are:
    • Atkinson, NE – $54,298
    • San Jose, CA – $51,633
    • Frankston, TX – $51,274
    • Jackson, WY – $51,060
    • Diamond Ridge, AK – $51,014

Position trends

Over the next 10 years, there will be an 8% growth according to The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. There should be just under 10,000 job openings for 911 operators each year for the next decade, making this a fairly stable career choice. 

Career path

Your career path as a 911 operator depends on certain factors such as your location, education, experience, and interests. Many 911 operators 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 operators include:

  • Senior operator
  • Ambulance operator
  • Emergency communications operator
  • Emergency medical operator
  • Emergency fire operator
  • Police operator
  • Police radio operator
  • Public safety communications officer
  • Public safety operator
  • Public safety telecommunicator
  • Communication center supervisor
  • Emergency management director

Steps to becoming a 911 operator

1. Get a high school diploma

To become a 911 operator, you need a high school diploma or GED.

2. Meet the eligibility requirements

There are a few requirements you need to meet in order to become a 911 operator. They include being at least 18 years of age, passing an operator exam, a drug screening, a medical exam, and a thorough background check.

3. Learn the area where you want to work

As a 911 operator, it’s important to know the area around you. Because you will be dispatching many teams, like fire and police, you need to know which agencies to call upon in which area. While there is software that will help you, it’s always nice to know the area too. 

4. Pass a civil service test

Most 911 operators are civil service employees working for a city or county. Due to this, you will probably have to pass the Civil Service Exam. However, this can vary depending on the state and city that you live in. Some 911 operators may need to take additional tests, like the CritiCall Dispatcher Test, which helps evaluate your abilities as an operator. This test will go over writing, typing, reading comprehension, memory, attention to detail, reasoning, and more. It’s important to take this to ensure you’ll do well as a 911 operator.

5. Find a job

Apply for 911 operator positions. Make sure you are willing to work shifts and are prepared to work in a high-stress environment. Because this is a non-stop position, you should expect to have some shifts that are overnight or long hours on holidays.

6. Get training

The good news is that 911 operators are trained fairly well once they get the job. So, you don’t have to worry about intense training before. A lot of this training will be 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 completing an annual training program on specific subjects. Additional training with one or more of the following agencies may also be required:

7. Get certified

You will need to get certified once you’re hired to maintain the position. Check with the certification requirements in your state. 

International Academics of Emergency Dispatch offers the following certifications for 911 operators:

Other organizations that offer certification programs include:

Tips for becoming a 911 operator

Ready to become a 911 operator? If so, there are a few things you can do to get ready for it. 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 the background and drug screening tests.
  • Take the civil service exam if it is required in your state
  • Improve your typing skills to make sure you meet the minimum requirements.
  • Visit a communications center near you and see firsthand what 911 operators do. 
  • Gain customer service experience if you don’t already have it. 
  • Gain field experience through internships with the police, fire department, and emergency medical service.
  • This is a stressful job, so you’ll need to develop essential skills such as maintaining calm under pressure, controlling your emotions, building empathy and compassion, and improving your decision-making.
  • Joining an association can keep you up to date with the latest trends, help you meet people with interests, get better training, learn additional information, etc. Some of the best associations for 911 operators are:

911 operator interview questions to expect

  1. What experience do you have with call recording software?
  2. Are you able to handle multiple calls at once?
  3. When you have to dispatch multiple teams and resources, how do you go about that while still talking to the caller?
  4. How would you describe your past experience dealing with panicking callers?
  5. If you’re dealing with a minor on the phone, how do you speak to them knowing it’s a serious situation?

911 operator FAQs