I AM A DISPATCHER
Or Public Safety Communications Technician; or 9-1-1 person, or whatever you need to label me to make you feel better about what I do. I am NOT a career firefighter, EMT or Police Officer. Unless you are one of the 500,000 or so people in this country that do this job, whether as a line dispatcher or a supervisor or a director or whatever—you DO NOT understand what we do. You may come close. You may believe that because you are a 1) Firefighter 2) COP 3) paramedic you understand exactly what we do in the course of a shift, or a career.
Let me ask you then—just because you eat at a wonderfully expensive steak house, does that make you a chef? Or just because you play Call-of-Duty 32 does that mean the next time a war starts you will be the modern reincarnation of Sgt. York? Or does spending hours on WebMd make you a heart surgeon?
The answer to these comparisons is—of course not. Granted, we may have the same language—we may even use the same toys in the toy box. The best dispatchers, and dispatch agencies, however, serve the PUBLIC FIRST—then the officers, firefighters, and EMTs of their agencies. Here is why: Your community may permit as many units as possible to add themselves to calls that sound good. Why have three engines going to a fire when six may think they should go? Why have an officer respond to one call when she or he may wish to go to the one that sounds better. Ask any dispatcher about this—and she or he will cringe. Ask them about prioritizing calls, resource management, and making tough decisions—and they know intrinsically how crucial it is. Some departments don’t even permit dispatchers to check availability of units when nearby calls come in, or swap units on runs when they are closer to each other’s calls. Even worse, some agencies let the units run the show—adding, swapping and changing assignments in some sort of P25 digital anarchy.
Dispatchers—real dispatchers—know the power of the word NO and of thinking and of decision making. They know why these are the most important tool we have. They know why even with technology we have to know the areas we serve, the challenges and hazards of the community, and the real policies that are followed when it is just too damn busy to “follow the cards”. Real dispatchers must worry about the calls that already happened; the calls that are happening, and the ones that will happen in the future. We can never just take it one at a time. If you take that approach, then you are not a dispatcher. You are merely a human conveyer belt.
But that is how the responders in the field MUST manage things. They have to focus on where they are—when they are or they will not be able to operate safely. That ability—to think in multiple dimensions is only one of the distinctive characteristics of the dispatching profession. It also highlights why being a dispatcher IS a profession—for it requires a unique set of skills, knowledge and abilities that experiences sharpen into an ability on the part of the dispatcher to creatively manage unforeseen or unplanned events. This is not to lessen anyone else in the public safety world—each badge has its own elements that make it unique and special and important. The idea that just because you can do the job in the field you can automatically do the job in the communications center (or vice-versa) is a bigger myth than the tooth fairy, far less fun, and far more dangerous.
No one should ever diminish what happens before the first tone goes off or after the first unit arrives on that other side of the radio. I have no desire to be a career firefighter, or a career cop, or a career paramedic. The best agencies in our world—and the best members of our community—highlight why. Because what we do is a calling and profession in and off its self. Separate from, but a part of law enforcement, the fire Service, and the world of EMS.
So, the next time someone calls you “just a dispatcher” or a member of your agency exposes themselves as just a firefighter or cop or paramedic wanna-be—just politely smile and acknowledge to yourself just how much he or she doesn’t get it. And never miss the chance to come out of your own dispatcher closet to share with those who are willing to learn—or who need to learn—just what it means to say we are the “First-First Responders.” Or what it means when we say we are: