Written by Rhonda Harper, MA, RPL, NREMT, is the 9-1-1 administrator for the Independence (MO) Police Department and an APCO Institute adjunct instructor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
When discussing training and required skillsets, it is often asked just what, exactly, the difference is between a tactical dispatcher and a telecommunicator. The best, though somewhat complicated answer, is that the purpose of the tactical dispatcher is to support specialized teams with accurate, efficient documentation of events during critical incidents. The simpler answer is that the two positions actually do perform many of the same duties and hold the same responsibilities, just on a different level of criticality.
As with most elements of public safety communications, the difference depends on individual circumstances and the agency in which the dispatchers perform. No matter where you go, the tactical dispatcher and the telecommunicator quickly gather information from the caller and a host of other available sources, then disseminate that information to units in the field.
The profession of public safety telecommunicator is constantly evolving, and there is no such thing as having too much knowledge. There is always some new technology or skill to be learned or shared with colleagues. It is essential for telecommunicators to know every aspect of their jobs, as well as their agency's policies and procedures. The daily practices of the telecommunicator must mirror the policies and procedures the agency has in place in order to minimize liability for the telecommunicator, the agency and any governing entities.
This general standard for all telecommunicators goes hand-in-hand with rising to the specialized skill level of a tactical dispatcher, though how the position of tactical dispatcher is utilized will vary from agency to agency. For example, some agencies have the tactical dispatcher respond with the SWAT team for hostage situations or barricaded subjects in a specialized mobile command post, while other agencies will have the dispatcher run this position from a console. This decision depends on the individual agency's available equipment, manpower, resources and needs.
There continue to be misconceptions of the 9-1-1 emergency number system by the general public. It is often believed (and the media plays a part in exacerbating this problem) that when an individual calls 9-1-1 for help, they are speaking to a member of the specific profession that is needed. For example, if someone calls for a medical emergency, they assume they are talking to a medically trained professional such as a paramedic or EMT. And when people call 9-1-1 to report a fire, they often believe they are talking to a firefighter. Or if they call to report a crime, they believe they are speaking to a law enforcement officer.
What the general public doesn't realize is that, in many jurisdictions, they are actually speaking to a civilian who is specially trained to take their calls for service and assign units to help when the caller so desperately seeks assistance. Telecommunicators possess a set of skills and personality traits unique to their profession that aren't always shared by field officers, firefighters or paramedics. Among those skills is an innate ability to multitask -- managing multiple incidents and sources of information at the same time, all while listening and accurately repeating complex information in a concise and efficient manner. Having a skilled tactical dispatcher on duty during heightened incidents is critical because it frees up officers to resume tactical field roles.
Duties & Responsibilities
The desire alone to become a tactical dispatcher is unfortunately not enough to pass the skill level or qualifications necessary to perform this duty. Each agency has its own process in which tactical dispatchers are chosen, however the first step for every agency is to decide what duties and responsibilities will be the domain of the tactical dispatcher. The next step is to look at the qualities and characteristics needed for an individual to become a tactical dispatcher. Again, each agency is different and will have different requirements.
The tactical dispatcher must be proficient not only in their daily duties, but also in the specialized knowledge required by their agency, and they must possess a will to continually seek out more knowledge. Working in this capacity, the tactical dispatcher must understand the "why" behind the "what" of their jobs. If something goes wrong, the tactical dispatcher must find a work-around. The primary duty of any telecommunicator is to protect their responders and the public. This task is especially crucial during heightened situations when a tactical response is needed.
Not everyone can make it as a dispatcher. There continues to be a shortage of experienced and dedicated telecommunicators in agencies nationwide because of this fact. Failing to pass the training program doesn't necessarily reflect poorly on the person, it simply means it takes a very special type of person to be able to do this job.
The general daily duties of a telecommunicator include gathering information, prioritizing needs based on the response level required and resources available, then recording and documenting all communications. This, in a nutshell, is what the telecommunicator does. To expand further, the telecommunicator also completes requests from field responders and runs warrant checks, license plates, articles and vehicles through the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) while keeping responders up to date and disseminating information quickly, efficiently and accurately.
These tasks are typically performed within a dispatch center, often with other employees working nearby. Depending on the agency's preferences and resources, the tactical dispatcher may work from within the comm center at a console or on scene, typically from a response unit specially designed for radio capabilities. When the tactical dispatcher is based in a specialized response unit, it is imperative the individual chosen for this position is able to work around any problems or unexpected situations, as there will not be assistance available from a nearby co-worker or supervisor.
Specific qualifications for the tactical dispatcher position will vary depending on the individual agency. Below is a list of common requirements.
- The dispatcher may be required to be on the job for a predetermined number of years prior to being given the opportunity to apply.
- Must be able to monitor and complete multiple tasks at once without missing any radio traffic or information.
- Must adhere to policies and standard operating procedures as set forth by the agency.
- Must have proficient knowledge of the jurisdiction.
- Must be able to problem-solve as a situation progresses.
- Must be able to document and relay information to field units in a timely and accurate manner.
- Must be able to remain calm under intense pressure and for long periods of time.
- Must be able to utilize technological equipment effectively.