9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Monday, March 16, 2009

Handling Officers is a Tough Dispatcher Task

The relationship between dispatchers and their radio buddies is often strained. And yet it represents a life-line that cannot be compromised by misunderstandings, bad feelings, or personalities.

Recently, a group of internet interest group participants discussed how officers and dispatchers relate over the radio. They typed messages back and forth on their computers, creating an on-line debate that mirrors the attitudes of communications centers all across the country.

The discussion kicked off when a dispatcher typed that he works alone, handling telephones, radio and the front counter. He wondered how to explain to officers that he isn't just sitting on his hands, but can't immediately answer the radio because he's doing other tasks.

Another dispatcher said her agency required new officers to spend three, eight-hour shifts in the communications center to begin an understanding of the dispatchers job. The officers are usually surprised at the amount of knowledge the dispatchers have, "at the multi-tasking skills we wield at one time, and had no idea prior to their setting foot inside the division of what our work entails."

Some supervisors agree that having officers work in the communications center might be useful. "The officer gets a whole new understanding and compassion for the dispatcher. Unfortunately, this new found compassion disappears in about a week and it's back to square one."

Single Dispatcher

An internet participant named Scott works at an agency where a single dispatcher handles business and 911 calls, lobby traffic, prisoners, and police radio without assistance.

"If you call the worst officer in to either learn what it's like, or in our case, cover the desk for our lunch time," said Scott, "they then don't have the experience of how they are on the radio and the other units usually slack off with one of their own working the position." For example, when an officer takes over the radio, his/her fellow officers stop making car stops and radioing in complex computer inquiries on each occupant.

The problem is wide-spread. No matter how many times you tell an officer, they still think the dispatcher/officer ratio is one to one.

Robert Kalnes works an agency operating on two radio bands. He's frequently told officers on the low-band that he's busy, "only to have them call me on the high band and request the same information. Who did they think was going to answer them? I was working alone!"

Chet Swanson said that on a busy Friday or Saturday, his agency's two frequencies are clogged with traffic from up to 45 officers. "And every single one of them thinks you are their private dispatcher," he said. "Come on, folks, I've only got two ears."

Annette Hunt agreed that busy nights can be frustrating. She recalled working alone, staying on the line with a caller reporting a burglary in progress. "Three disturbances came in while I was on that complaint. Then the 911 center calls on their straight line and wants to know what happened on a previous call," Hunt said.

"At the same time I had an officer in the jail call about an arrest he had made, needing some times for his reports. He didn't seem to understand why I couldn't look them up for him immediately. It didn't count that I had already given him all of his times before he got out of his car at the jail."

Other Side

A posting from Mike and Sue Steeves represented the opposite end of the radio. "True enough you couldn't pay me to sit in dispatch...even though it's nice and warm in the winter or cool in the summer...and you don't have every dope-soaked idiot in the world out there screaming and spitting in your face while you stop to write down the times the dispatcher gave you."

Their message added, "Guess what, people...there is a different perspective on things than what's limited by the four walls of dispatch. Everything you have said about workload and manning is true, and can be said in spades in reverse."

The two Steeves suggested dispatchers ride with an officer on a busy night. "You're focused on your job...we're focused on ours...it isn't indifference at all," they said.

Stephanie Wyatt respects the officers she works with, but admits some can be very aggravating. "However, some of us do get motherly/fatherly feelings while we're watching over our patrol units. Officers work on the streets to save lives and protect property, dispatchers work inside to save lives and protect property," Wyatt said. She said you can't compare who has the hardest job. "We are two separate families trying to force each other to be one family. Why can't we just be neighbors, help each other out, respect each other's differences, and get along?"

"We as professionals, have to accept those we work with, without judging them," Wyatt typed on-line. "Ideally it would be nice to have a 'perfect' setup, where everyone got along. But if that were the case, we wouldn't need officers, and then we wouldn't need dispatchers. We would be living in a perfect world, free of crime."

"We worry when something goes wrong, we feel sick and responsible if something happens to one of them out there. And sometimes I want to go to an officer and hit them...and say, 'Don't you understand how I feel when you don't answer me when you're on an officer safety call?"

Some officers don't understand that dispatchers feel a closeness with them, "and we, as dispatchers, don't tell them (which adds to the stress)."

"It's all in the way to handle things," Wyatt said. For example, she told how an officer was having a bad day, didn't want to take calls, had too many calls, didn't like the calls he was getting, "dispatch was bothering him too much, etc., etc., etc." Wyatt had a solution. "When he came in, I gave him a big smile and asked him what his favorite kind of crackers were. It took him a minute, and he started smiling. The next day, I brought in the cheese and crackers for him." She quickly added, "Sound juvenile? Maybe...but it's a lot less stressful than talking to the ice queen/king who wants things to work out by his/her standards only."

Wyatt advised dispatchers that, rather than trying to prove "my job is harder than yours," just try to work with and get along with those they serve.

Wyatt also favored officer orientations to the communications center, "Obviously the best choice would be to have them come in while they are new," she said, "and during their probationary period, but that's impossible if you start doing that now. Most officers are inconsiderate because they just don't understand."

Even so, "There are always officers that still don't have a clue, or don't even care," Wyatt said. "That's just one of those negative aspects of our job that we don't have control over." She said there are many officers that do care, but "sometimes those officers are outnumbered by the rest of them."

"To all you dispatchers out there, it makes my day when an officer makes the comment 'gosh you guys, I'd take the street any day over your job, or...I could never do your job.' It's one of those hidden compliments that sometimes is very difficult for those tough officers to give."

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