9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Telecommunicator's Quest for Respect

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, August 2012
Written by Brian Brown, who has one year of dispatch experience and works for Currituck County Communications in Currituck, N.C.

"If you paln on being an officer, don't take that job at dispatch; they'll never respect you."  It is only now, as I devote my workdays to fielding both tedious and exciting calls for service from the public, all while handling radio traffic from field units who may not realize or may not care that I'm doing three or four other things while trying to answer them, do I truly understand the sentiment behind that statement I heard years ago.  As a young college student, working on a degree in criminal justice, I couldn't fathom that people who were supposed to all be on the same side wouldn't have basic professional respect for each other.  I just took it for granted that we all chose the field to help society and that this would create a common bond among us.  Of course, as we all know, this is not always the case.

I've been a telecommunicator for just shy of one year now.  As someone who always planned to be on the other side of the radio, sitting at a desk answering the phones and manning the radio simply seemed like a stepping stone to bigger, better things when I applied for the job.  Fresh out of college with a B.S. in criminal justice, I wanted to be in the field, and if dispatch was my foot in the door, so be it.  What is interesting to point out here is that in all my studies of the system, dispatch is the one topic which I can honestly say was never, ever addressed.  No time was spent pointing out that when we put on the badge one day and started taking calls that we were going to be the second responder.  There was no praise for that individual who I now realize is the "first first responder," as we like to call ourselves, no acknowledgement that it takes a special kind of person to do what we do.  The concept of communications was never addressed in classes that claimed to offer a comprehensive overview of policing.  This just goes to show that even those who work in the field of public safety are uneducated when it comes to what goes on in the communications center.

Unfortunately, lack of education is not the only catalyst when it comes to the lack of respect for telecommunicators in general.  The media is the primary culprit in generating didain for not only dispatchers, but for police officers, firefighters, paramedics and EMTs, and any number of other public service officials.  We all know the reason why: Happy stories don't generate ratings. 

More often than not you won't hear about the dispatcher who gave lifesaving CPR instructions to the man who found his wife unconscious in their living room.  Instead, major media outlets will run the audio clip of the dispatcher who gets short and snappy with a caller having problems with their child, all the while leaving out that their producers cut out bits of the tape so that you, the shocked and horrifiedd public, won't hear the fire call and traffic stops the dispatcher was trying to juggle at the same time.

This is certainly not to say that negligence or poor customer service should be ignored in our line of work; the fact of the matter is that it cannot be overlooked.  But if our mistakes are newsworthy, why shouldn't our triumphs be as well?  In a world where a celebrity's choice of outfit for their trip to the grocery store is the makings of a front page headline, why not give a small bit of recognition to those who society relies on to answer their frantic calls for help?

Another sad fact is that the media is given significant ammunition by the varying standards of training required in various locales to be a telecommunicator.  For example, we all know EMD to be a key tool in our professions, both to aid the public and to protect ourselves from liability.  Unfortunately, this was a foreign concept to me when I started dispatching: in all the times I had called 9-1-1 in my life to request an ambulance, I had never been asked a series of medical questions.  To the best of my knowledge, that 9-1-1 center where I used to live still doesn't perform EMD -- a fact that makes me cringe when I think about family and friends there needing to call for medical help.

When it comes down to it, we all know how it is.  You have some field units who are great to work with, friendly and competent.  They make the shift go by smoothly even in the worst of situations.  And then there are those who act as if we're a bother to them, simply another required nuisance to be dealt with in the performance of their duties.  They can't imagine that your job is as difficult or important as theirs, albeit in different ways.  And forget about trying to change their mind, because we all know that when field units come to visit the dispatch center nothing will happen anywhere in your jurisdiction to give you the chance to show off for them.  They don't realize that when they walk out the door the phones may very well light up and send the center into a frenzy of controlled chaos.

I never did accept that job at 9-1-1 while I was in college.  Fortunately, it wasn't due to the comment that was made about officers not respecting me; it just didn't work out with my class schedule at the time.  But I never forgot what was said to me, and it wasn't until sometime last year after my training officer cut me loose and I really got down to it that I truly understood what that friend meant.  I really doubt she even understood the dynamic behind the lack of trust and respect in the relationship between responders and dispatchers, she was just commenting on an accepted fact of how things work.

I've come to believe you can't understand this job until you do it, nor will you have the level of respect for dispatchers that they deserve until you are one of them.  Even our family and friends don't quite understand, although they know our job is important.

At the end of the day, it's okay that nobody gets it.  While the rest of the world heads off to the office, we're probably just getting off duty, trying not to think about some of the things we heard at work, and knowing that the system cannot function without us.  The past year of my life has made me realize that being out in the field and visible to the public isn't a necessity when it comes to making a difference in someone's day, if not their life.  What really matters is being there, whether in person or on the phone, in that moment when you have a real chance to help someone get through a tough situation.

One thing is certain: Regardless of where my career takes me, either further in communications or perhaps out into the field someday, I'll always have true respect for those individuals who ride the often thankless, emotional rollercoaster that is 9-1-1.

Co-worker Erin Peaden says..."The newcomers are always intrigued the first few days and sometimes even overwhelmed with what they see and hear.  At first taken back by all the computer screens and the buttons on the radios, they are under the impression that this could be a fairly sophisticated secretarial job and that answering phones and just listening to people on the radio is fairly easy...About the time they see their new colleagues in action, the respect for the job of a telecommunicator starts to form."

Co-worker Shana McReynolds says..."I applied for this job because I wanted to help people every day.  I stayed because I know it is my callling.  In the end, the respect that has the most impact on me is the respect that I have for what I do and the people I work so closely with, my fellow telecommunicators.  I learned you have to earn respect.  Just like anything worth working for in life, it isn't easy.  You have to give respect in order to receive it."

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