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911 Operator Career Guide

What is a 911 operator?

A 911 operator, also known as a public safety telecommunication or emergency services operator, is the link between individuals in distress and emergency response teams. These professionals are the first point of contact in emergencies, and their role involves assessing the situation and dispatching the appropriate emergency services. They work in emergency communication centers and directly contribute to public safety and welfare.

Their value is paramount in the emergency response infrastructure. They are responsible for gathering vital information, making rapid decisions, and providing important instructions until help arrives. Their role significantly influences the efficiency and effectiveness of emergency response, and they often contribute to saving lives or preventing further harm in critical situations.

Duties and responsibilities

The primary duties of a 911 operator are to answer incoming emergency calls, assess the callers’ situations, and dispatch appropriate emergency services such as police, fire, or ambulance. They must accurately gather and document vital information, including the nature of the emergency, the location, and any pertinent circumstances or descriptions.

In addition to dispatching services, they often provide over-the-phone assistance to callers, which may involve guiding someone through first aid procedures or providing instructions to ensure personal safety. They also maintain communication with dispatched units, providing updates and information as necessary.

Work environment

The work environment of a 911 operator is typically a centralized communications center or dispatch office. These professionals work with multiple computer screens and specialized communication equipment. The nature of the job can be highly stressful due to the critical and urgent situations they deal with regularly.

Despite the high-pressure environment, it’s essential for these operators to remain calm, composed, and focused. They must have exceptional listening skills and the ability to make swift decisions. Managing stress and maintaining emotional resilience is crucial in this role.

Typical work hours

Given the round-the-clock nature of emergency services, 911 operators often work in shifts, covering all hours of the day, every day, including holidays. These shifts can include nights, weekends, and overtime. 

Depending on the size and resources of the emergency call center, some may work long shifts, such as 10 or 12 hours at a time, followed by several days off. Despite the irregular hours, working in this role provides a unique opportunity to serve one’s community and make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

How to become a 911 operator

To become a 911 operator, 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

The first step is to complete your high school education or obtain a GED certificate. A strong foundation in English, math, and psychology is helpful in this role.

Step 2: Meet the eligibility requirements

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

Step 3: Acquire relevant work experience

Experience in customer service, call centers, or other roles that involve handling high-stress situations and communicating with the public is valuable for aspiring operators. Volunteering or working in emergency services or law enforcement can also provide valuable insights into the field.

Step 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 your state and city. 

Some may need additional tests, like the CritiCall Dispatcher Test, which evaluates your operator abilities. This test will cover writing, typing, reading comprehension, memory, attention to detail, reasoning, and more. It’s imperative to take this to ensure you’ll perform well in this position.

Step 5: Complete a 911 operator training program

The good news is that 911 operators are well-trained once they get the job, so you won’t have to worry about intense training beforehand. This training will include 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 6: Apply for jobs

Once you have completed the required education, training, and certifications, you can apply for 911 operator positions. Tailor your resume and cover letter to showcase your relevant qualifications and experience. Be prepared to discuss your ability to handle high-pressure situations and your communication skills during interviews.

Step 7: Get certified

You must get certified once hired to maintain the position. Check certification requirements in your state. 

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

Other organizations that offer certification programs include:

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

Step 8: Set yourself apart and deepen your knowledge with online courses

You can set yourself apart from the competition and sharpen your skills by taking online courses that interest you. 

How much do 911 operators make?

911 operator salaries can be influenced by various factors, including the geographical location, the population size and call volume of the area they serve, their level of experience, and any additional skills or certifications they possess. Operators working in areas with higher living costs or larger populations generally earn more due to the complexity and volume of calls.

Additionally, the operator’s level of training and experience can significantly impact their salary. Those with advanced certifications or specialized training, such as Emergency Medical Dispatch (EMD) certification, often command higher salaries. The type of agency (police, fire, medical, or combined) can also affect pay.

Highest paying states

  • California – $68,000
  • Oregon – $65,000
  • Washington – $63,000
  • Alaska – $60,000
  • Nevada – $58,000

Browse 911 operator salary data by market

Types of 911 operators

This career guide section highlights the various career types and areas of specialization for 911 operators. Below, we highlight the unique attributes and responsibilities of each job title.

Police dispatcher

A police dispatcher, or law enforcement dispatcher, is a type of 911 operator who specializes in handling calls related to law enforcement. When a call comes in reporting a crime or requiring police assistance, the police dispatcher assesses the situation, prioritizes the response, and dispatches police units as needed.

Fire dispatcher

Fire dispatchers specialize in handling emergency calls related to fire incidents. They collect vital information from callers, dispatch fire departments, and often advise callers on how to stay safe while waiting for help to arrive.

Emergency medical dispatcher

Emergency medical dispatchers deal with calls related to medical emergencies, providing basic over-the-phone medical instructions to help stabilize the patient until medical professionals arrive. This could involve providing CPR instructions, helping with childbirth, or advising on how to control bleeding.

Multi-agency dispatcher

In some areas, 911 operators work across all emergency services, acting as a multi-agency dispatcher. These operators take calls for police, fire, and medical emergencies, assess the situation, and dispatch the appropriate emergency service.

Emergency services operator

In certain regions, some 911 operators act as emergency services operators instead of directly dispatching emergency services. Operators in this role answer incoming calls, assess the nature of the emergency, and then transfer the call to the appropriate specialized dispatcher or emergency service.

Crisis intervention operator

In addition to the traditional emergency services, some call centers have operators who specialize in crisis intervention. They handle calls related to mental health crises, domestic violence, suicide prevention, and other situations where immediate intervention is needed but might not require police, fire, or medical services.

Top skills for 911 operators

This section outlines the primary skills and traits needed for career success as a 911 operator. The following descriptions provide insights into the abilities anyone aspiring to this role should focus on developing.

Communication skills

Communication skills are crucial for a 911 operator to listen carefully, extract necessary details and information quickly, and communicate clearly and calmly with callers in distress. They also need to provide clear instructions, often related to first aid or safety measures, while emergency services are en route. Effective communication can ensure that the right help gets to the right place at the right time, potentially saving lives.

Decision-making abilities

Decision-making and problem-solving abilities are key skills for making quick decisions under pressure, such as determining the most appropriate response to a situation or calming a distressed caller. Every second counts in emergencies and the ability to think clearly and act decisively can greatly influence the outcome.

Emotional resilience

Emotional resilience is necessary for operators who deal with high-stress situations and often encounter distressing scenarios. They must be able to manage their emotions, stay focused, and maintain professionalism while supporting those in crisis. Emotional resilience helps them cope with the job demands and provide the best possible service to callers.


Multitasking skills are essential. They often handle multiple tasks simultaneously, such as listening to a caller, inputting information into a computer system, and dispatching emergency services which requires a high level of concentration, quick reflexes, and the ability to prioritize tasks effectively.

Technological proficiency

Finally, technological proficiency is vital for using complex computer systems and telecommunications equipment to receive calls, locate callers, and dispatch emergency services. Comfort with technology ensures they can operate these systems effectively and efficiently, which is critical in emergencies when every second counts.

911 operator career path

Starting a career as a 911 operator often begins with a role in customer service or another field that requires strong communication skills and the ability to handle high-stress situations. Before or upon being hired, candidates usually undergo specialized training programs to learn the necessary skills and protocols to handle emergency calls efficiently and effectively.

After gaining initial experience, there are opportunities for advancement, often based on performance, experience, and additional training or certifications. You might move into a senior operator or lead operator role, where you continue to handle calls and provide guidance and support to less experienced colleagues.

With further experience and proven leadership abilities, they could advance to a supervisory or managerial role, such as a shift supervisor or communications center manager. These roles involve overseeing the operations of a 911 call center, ensuring quality control, and managing and training staff.

Beyond this, there may be opportunities to move into administrative or executive roles within emergency services or public safety organizations, such as a director of communications or emergency services coordinator. These roles involve more strategic planning, policy development, and coordination with other emergency service agencies.

This role is evolving due to technological advancements and changing societal needs. A significant trend is the adoption of Next Generation 911 (NG911) systems, which enable the public to make voice, text, or video calls from any connected device. These systems also allow for sharing additional data like medical records, accident photos, or real-time video, providing operators with more information to assess and respond to emergencies.

Another trend is the increasing emphasis on mental health training for 911 operators. Given the high-stress nature of their job, there’s a growing recognition of the need for mental health support and stress management programs for these professionals. 

There’s also a growing demand for bilingual or multilingual operators as communities become more diverse. Communicating effectively with callers who speak different languages is becoming increasingly important in this role.

Employment projections for 911 operators

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, including 911 operators, is projected to grow 4 percent through 2031, approximately as fast as the average for all occupations. The need for 911 services will continue to drive demand for these professionals, but job growth may be tempered by budget constraints at the local government level. Job prospects should be best for candidates who have excellent communication skills, can handle high-stress situations, and have knowledge of computer and telecommunications technologies. 

911 operator career tips

Develop emotional resilience

Working as a 911 operator involves handling stressful and emotionally challenging situations. Developing emotional resilience will help you manage these situations effectively, stay calm under pressure, and assist callers in distress.

Practice active listening

Active listening is crucial in this role. You’ll need to accurately obtain and understand information from callers who may be panicked, upset, or in danger. Your ability to listen carefully, interpret, and act on the information provided can make a significant difference in emergencies.

Familiarize yourself with local geography

A deep understanding of your local area’s geography can greatly aid in dispatching emergency services effectively. Familiarize yourself with local landmarks, streets, and neighborhoods to quickly guide responders to the correct locations.

Build a professional network

Professional networking can provide valuable insights and support, particularly in high-stress roles. 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

Prioritize self-care

Given the nature of the job, burnout can be a real concern for 911 operators. Prioritize self-care strategies such as regular exercise, a balanced diet, and adequate sleep. Don’t hesitate to seek professional help if you’re feeling overwhelmed.

Implement continuous learning

Continual learning in this role is essential. Stay updated on new technologies, procedures, and best practices. Some areas of focus might include:

  • Crisis intervention techniques
  • Advanced First Aid or CPR
  • Multilingual communication
  • Mental health awareness

Develop multitasking skills

Operators often need to handle multiple tasks simultaneously, such as calming a distressed caller while dispatching emergency services. Strong multitasking skills greatly help to manage these demands effectively.

Cultivate patience and empathy

Dealing with distressed callers requires a high level of patience and empathy. It’s essential to remain patient, even in tense situations, and to convey empathy to reassure callers that help is coming.

Where the 911 operator jobs are

Top states

  • California
  • Texas
  • Florida
  • New York
  • Illinois

Top job sites

  • zengig
  • Indeed
  • GovernmentJobs
  • LinkedIn
  • SimplyHired


What skills are required to be a successful 911 operator?

A 911 operator needs excellent communication skills, as they’re often the first point of contact in emergencies. They should be able to extract critical information quickly and effectively, even from distressed or confused callers. Strong problem-solving abilities, emotional resilience, staying calm under pressure, and multitasking skills are also crucial. It’s also essential to be proficient in typing and complex dispatch systems.

What are the typical duties of a 911 operator?

911 operators answer emergency and non-emergency calls, gather critical information, dispatch appropriate emergency services, and provide callers with instructions while help is on the way. 

Their duties also include documenting calls, staying in contact with emergency personnel dispatched to the scene, and occasionally following up on cases. Sometimes, they might provide life-saving instructions, such as guiding someone through CPR.

What role does a 911 operator play in emergency response?

A 911 operator plays a critical role in emergency response. They’re often the first point of contact for individuals in distress, and their actions can significantly influence the outcome of an emergency. They gather essential information, dispatch the correct emergency services, and provide potentially life-saving instructions. Their ability to stay calm, think clearly, and act quickly can make a significant difference in emergencies.

How stressful is the job of a 911 operator?

The job of a 911 operator can be highly stressful. They deal with life-and-death situations regularly and need to make quick decisions under pressure. 

They often work in fast-paced environments and must handle multiple calls simultaneously. The emotional toll of dealing with emergencies and hearing people in distress can also be significant. However, many operators find the job rewarding because they help people in need.

What kind of training does a 911 operator need?

Training requirements for 911 operators can vary by location but typically include a high school diploma or equivalent, followed by specialized training in a program approved by the local or national emergency communications standards body. This training often covers emergency medical, fire, and police dispatching, crisis communication, and the use of dispatching equipment. 

Some operators may also receive certification in emergency medical dispatching, which enables them to provide medical instructions to callers before help arrives.

What role does a 911 operator play in public safety?

911 operators play a vital role in public safety. They are a critical link between the public and emergency services. Their ability to quickly gather information, assess situations, and dispatch the appropriate emergency services can help save lives, prevent injuries, and protect property. They also contribute to public safety by providing instructions that can mitigate risks while help is on the way.

How does a 911 operator interact with police, fire, and EMS departments?

A 911 operator interacts closely with police, fire, and EMS departments. They dispatch these services to emergencies based on the information they gather from callers and then clearly communicate the nature and location of emergencies to these departments. They stay in contact with dispatched units, providing them with additional information or instructions as needed.

What challenges does a 911 operator typically face?

911 operators face a variety of challenges. They deal with high-stress situations, and the emotional impact of handling emergencies can be significant. 

They often need to extract information from distressed, frightened, or injured callers, which can be difficult. Maintaining accuracy and speed in a high-pressure, fast-paced environment is also challenging. Additionally, they may need to deal with difficult callers, language barriers, or technical issues.

What is the importance of empathy in the role of a 911 operator?

Empathy is crucial in the role of a 911 operator. Callers are often distressed, scared, or even in danger, and empathetic communication can help operators calm them, build trust, and gather critical information. 

An empathetic operator can acknowledge the caller’s feelings and reassure them that help is on the way, which can make a significant difference in an emergency. However, they must also balance empathy with professionalism and efficiency to ensure they can perform their duties effectively.

What shifts do 911 operators typically work?

911 operators typically work in shifts, as emergency call centers are staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week. These shifts can include nights, weekends, and holidays. Shift lengths vary, but 8, 10, or 12-hour shifts are common. 

They may also need to be available for overtime during emergencies or periods of high call volume. The schedule can be demanding, but many operators appreciate the flexibility that shift work can offer.