Learn About What It’s Like For 911 Dispatchers
Every year, the United States 911 operating system receives approximately 240 million calls. Emergency dispatchers are the first responders who assess a caller’s situation and dispatch the proper teams to assist. It’s a demanding and stressful job, with some shifts lasting up to 16 hours. Here’s some insight into the jobs of 911 dispatchers, with info straight from the operator’s mouth.
Most 911 calls answered aren’t emergencies
On a busy day, dispatchers can get between 300-500 calls and answer all of them. However, a lot of those are not at all emergencies.
Amanda, a 911 dispatcher in British Columbia, explains about these non-emergency calls.
“Ninety-five percent are nothing calls. They’re not people who need help. They’re people who have low coping skills. The fact you don’t know how to change the batteries in your fire alarm is not a 911 call. The fact you don’t know where you parked your car at the mall is not a 911 call. But you’ll have days where it seems that’s all you get.”
Dispatchers know that sports fans procrastinate in medical emergencies
Guaranteed slow times for 911 dispatchers is during major sporting events, especially the Super Bowl. But that’s because sports fans wait until the game is over before addressing their issues.
“As soon as the game is over, you’ll have 20 guys having a heart attack because they weren’t willing to call during the game. “It’s true every single year,” explains dispatcher Herron.
Butt-dials are a big problem
All over the country, people accidentally dial 911 from their pockets and purses. The FCC estimates that almost half of the 911 calls in New York City are accidental, which totals about 84 million calls a year. It’s a problem for a few reasons, but mainly because it clogs up the lines for real emergencies that need to get through.
Nikki, a dispatcher for nine years in Michigan, explains,
“We’ve had people call with the phone under their pillow while they’re having sex, or people singing while they’re driving down the road.”
Dispatchers never ask ‘why’
On the phone, they need to know the ‘what’ and ‘where’ of your emergency. The ‘why’ is not important to them.
A lot of callers don’t know their location
Not everyone knows exactly where they are when disaster strikes. Dispatchers must use investigative questions to pinpoint the caller’s exact location. They’ll ask for any type of descriptor or landmark in order to figure out where you are.
Dispatchers are at high risk for PTSD
In 2012, a study found that 911 dispatchers are at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder due to the high volume of distress they experience at work. Insomnia, paranoia, and grief can haunt dispatchers when they aren’t on the phone lines.
Dispatcher Amanda explains her perspective about this negative aspect of the job.
“A lot of people I work with live with a lot of fear and assumptions that terrible things will happen in the world because that’s what they hear. But my frame that keeps me ok is I know that this person is having a terrible day whether I’m there or not, and anything I do might make things better. And most people never have to call us.
Calls involving kids are the worst
911 operators have seriously thick skins working in such an intense field. However, emergencies involving children are the exception.
“Everyone hates a baby call,” says Herron. “If you get a call that a baby isn’t breathing, the whole room gets really, really quiet and all the dispatchers pull for the person giving CPR instructions. I’ve had a couple that have gone badly and those are hard to let go.”
Dispatchers are really superstitious
Most dispatchers avoid using the word ‘quiet’ during a lull when there aren’t a lot of calls because it is usually followed by a ton at once. Instead many use words like ‘tranquil’ and ‘serene’.
Dispatchers have regular callers
Some people call so often that dispatchers recognize their phone numbers and know them by name.
“We call them frequent flyers,” Blume says. “You kind of develop a relationship with them. You remember them and know how that conversation is gonna go. It may be someone prone to alcoholism or who has a history of mental illness and you know certain things that work on other calls just aren’t gonna work there.”
The level of distress someone displays doesn’t correlate with how serious the issue is
If a person sounds panicked on the phone, it doesn’t necessarily mean something terrible is happening.
Dispatcher Amanda explains,
“The people who are screaming the most generally have overflowing toilets. But the calmest guy will call up and say, ‘I don’t really wanna bother anybody, but my wife isn’t breathing.’”
The job turns you into a human lie-detector
From the beginning of a call, dispatchers are listening for signs that the situation is not what you say. Callers lie for a variety of reasons.
“Usually you can read into tone,” says Blume. “A red flag is if, when I call back, they say the call was a mistake, that’s a big difference than if they say it was an accident. If they say it was a mistake that gives me the impression they were trying to call on purpose and clearly there was a reason why they did it. You have to be suspicious.”
There’s a call hierarchy
Calls are triaged based on the level of immediate danger. Things involving physical health, weapons, kids, and domestic violence get prioritized. If there’s no current threat (like your house got broken into) the call will be a lower priority.
The 911 system can give a busy signal
Sometimes there are more calls than dispatchers can handle at once and the system produces a busy signal. This happens most often when there is a very public emergency that many people witness. For example, a big car accident or a fire can result in 1,000 calls coming in at once.
No matter what, don’t hang up
Every time someone calls and hangs up, dispatchers are required to call that number back. Whether it’s taking a long time to get an answer or you called by mistake, it slows down the process for dispatchers.
There are a lot of creative employees
For a lot of dispatchers, the job is supplemental work to make money while pursuing creative careers as things like musicians and writers.
They are experts at calming people down
Dispatchers need to get as much pertinent information as possible from a caller, which is hard to do if they’re hysterical or panicked.
“I slow my language and bring my tone way down,” says dispatcher Herron. “If they’re shouting, I don’t shout back because it’s human nature, if someone else talks quietly, you listen.”
Landlines are more helpful for 911 calls
Unsurprisingly, around 80% of 911 calls now come from cell phones. This poses a problem for dispatchers because cell phones aren’t connected to addresses the way landlines are. This makes it more difficult to track down where the call is coming from.
Dispatchers are great multi-taskers
Between calls on slower days, dispatchers get bored like the rest of us. Many of them resort to browsing social media or doing tasks like knitting and admit to doing these things while simultaneously saving a life.
Dispatchers are trained to communicate if you can’t speak
In dire circumstances, like if there is an intruder in your home or you’re choking, callers can’t always speak. Dispatchers are trained to ask yes-or-no questions a caller can answer by pushing a button.
Martha, a dispatcher from Georgia explained,
“If they don’t press a button we’ll know they’re in a county. Or if there’s a domestic situation, we’ll ask, ‘Is he still in the room? Does he have a weapon? Has he been drinking?’”
911 dispatchers don’t know what happens to callers
After a dispatcher sets up the best course of action with first responders, they hang up and move on to the next caller who needs help. Jill, a dispatcher from Florida, explains, “You have this intense moment with this person, it could be the most horrible moment of their life and you’re the first one to help them, and you never find out what happens.”
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