In the event of an emergency, the first person you speak to might be the dispatcher who answers your emergency call. They're responsible for getting you help as soon as possible, and keeping the officers, fire fighters, or paramedics informed of the situation while they're on the way. Photo by Dawid Skalec (Wikicommons).
To learn a little about the day to day work of emergency dispatchers, we spoke with Cameron West, who, despite the occasionally harrowing calls, finds satisfaction in helping people.
First of all, tell us a bit about your current work and how long you've been at it.
I am currently a 911 dispatcher and have been for a little over a year now. We're responsible for taking the 911 calls, dispatching the units (fire fighters, paramedics, and police officers) to the scene and keeping everyone up to date on what is going on.
What drove you to choose your career path?
I chose this career because I really wanted to help people, in fact I started schooling to become a firefighter, but as a firefighter in my area you have to be an Emergency medical technician as well. I opened up the text book for the EMT and nearly fainted because I do not do well with blood. I'm glad I found out before I got too serious about the schooling. My father is a fire chief and was a fire fighter when I was growing up and I always looked up to him. So, I found out about 911 dispatchers, not something I had ever thought about, and put in for it.
How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?
I was told about the job by a family friend and simply applied, the only requirements for this job were a typing speed above 60 words per minute, a high school diploma, and applicants have to be over 21.
What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? Is there a lot of down time between calls?
There could be a book written about what we do that no one sees. We're the ones that are telling officers where to be and why. We tell firefighters about burning buildings and people who have fallen and can't get up. I spend most of my time talking to police officers and letting them know where they need to be. I update them on information that is pertinent to their situation. For example, [if there's a] fight at a bar, we let the officers know who was involved, how many, what they were wearing, which direction they left in and if they were carrying any weapons. We typically have anywhere from about one second between calls to one hour, depending on the time of day and day of week.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job?
One misconception that I've noticed is that people believe we're officers, and, at least not in my centre, we're not. We are considered public safety, but we're not uniformed officers. We just get to tell them where to go. Another one that bugs me is Hollywood's depiction of the call taker's answer. Our most important information to know is WHERE ARE YOU? If we don't know that we can't get you help. We don't say, "911, what is the emergency?" We say, "911, what is the address of the emergency?" and then once we have that we want to know how we can get back in touch. We'll ask for phone number just in case our caller ID is not working. A lot of people don't understand this and get frustrated, but we're here to help.
What misconceptions do people often have about your job? Typical 9-5 thing or not?
Definitely not a typical 9-5 thing. I work from 12-22 (noon to 10pm) Saturday - Tuesday and more often than not pick up overtime to work closer to 60 hours a week. Our centre is staffed 24/7. Christmas, Thanksgiving, and even birthdays are spent in the centre, but it is all worth it.
What personal tips and shortcuts made your job easier?
One personal tip that my trainer gave me was, "Don't take things personally. People are calling on the worst days of their lives and you're their first point of contact. Be like a duck and let the water roll off your back." I live by those words when I'm at work. I don't let people get to me, sometimes it's hard when the caller is personal and just plain mean, but a lot of the time you just have to take a breath, and let it all out.
What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession?
We have a cool system that sends out our medical responders as soon as we have enough information in regards to what is actually happening. We have some of the fastest response times in the country due to this system. For example, if a caller is having an allergic reaction, we get the address and the phone number first, then find out they're having an allergic reaction, and that's all we need to start sending help. We fill in the gaps as they're on their way. Other centres will gather all the information, age of patient, conscious/breathing/alert status, severity of the reaction, et cetera, and then they will send. It takes about a minute longer, but that minute can count.
What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it? Some of the calls must take an emotional toll.
The worst part is dealing with children who need help. It always takes a toll on you mentally when a child is injured, or worse, dies. They really are the hardest calls to handle, but of course we have to. When something hits particularly close to home, we will call a briefing and get the responders who were actually on scene to come and talk to us with a psychologist who will help us to feel better about the situation. I remember shortly after my daughter was born I dealt with a baby girl who was not breathing. That was hard. We did get her breathing and she was ok when they got her to the hospital though, and that's why I do this job. I love helping people.
What's the most enjoyable part of the job?
The most gratifying part of my job is helping people. It always makes your heart light and makes you feel much better. I love knowing that I have the ability to make someone's day better. Often people are just stressed and when they receive the help they need they calm down. I remember one individual who was told by her neighbour that her house had been vandalised while she was out of town. I took the time to reassure her that we'd get a report started and my officers went out and took care of her house before the homeowner got back into town. She wrote a letter to us and it felt great.
I also remember one dad whose child's mission was to shake hands with as many police officers in the state as he could, and we dispatch for 14 different agencies. I helped him get four of them, as the other agencies were all out of the way and busy at the time.
What kind of money can one expect to make at your job? Or, what's an average starting salary?
We aren't paid a lot, but it is enough to get by. I know the cost of living is cheaper in Utah, and therefore $US16/hour is enough to get by, (with a lot of overtime) and that's what I'm currently making. I started making just under $US14/hour though. We had the lowest average in the area until our director got us a big budget increase for starting.
Is there a way to "move up" in your field?
We are constantly moving up. We have a lot of turnover and have people leaving often due to personal issues, other jobs, and some people just can't handle the stress. If you like the job, the only way to go is up.
What do people under/over value about what you do?
I have been told that I'm easy to work with because I have an easy personality. I don't get up tight about many things, like I said, "Be like a duck." I am a bit of a jokester, not as much as some others, but I get along with most everyone I work with.
What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?
Take care of problems at home and don't let them build up on you; you won't be at your best. I have felt this personally in my life and can attest to the truthfulness of these words.
Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about — from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.