Life in a Fishbowl

Dispatchers have the most difficult job in emergency services. As responders, we encounter the calls we are sent to and do our very best to solve other people’s problems. We are fixers by nature and usually see the concrete results of our efforts. Whether we save a life or a life is lost, we know the outcome. For dispatchers, that awareness, that closure, is extremely rare. They spend a few moments on the phone with a person in distress and often leave their shift without any idea whether they made a difference. Such lack of closure acquired over years of doing the same thing is why so many dispatchers are prone to the same chronic stress disorders with which all other first responders can be afflicted. Substance abuse, poor health, shortened life spans, relationship challenges abound - just as they do in the firehouse.

Our dispatchers are our lifeline. They come to see us on the other end of the radio as family members and are deeply committed to playing their role in our safety and survival. They provide critical information before we arrive to warn us of potential dangers, and they serve as our link to the outside world when we are inside hazardous environments. They are always listening. Consider the number of times that a dispatcher has picked up on a Mayday call that was not heard by the incident commander (IC) and then relayed that information so that the IC could adjust operations to save a firefighter in distress. Clearly, the dispatcher is not the person rescuing that firefighter. Were it not for their attention and commitment to us, however, more of us would surely be lost.

It has been 16 years since 9/11, and the memories of that day have long since faded from the headlines. There is an entire generation of firefighters entering the service who were young children on that day, who have no first-hand memories. Yet the stunning and heroic work of the dispatchers working that day remains - seared into the audio history books and available to be heard at any time. Even as thousands of people called 911 to report that they were trapped on floors above the fire, the dispatchers remained calm. They performed their jobs flawlessly even as they watched with the rest of the world as people they knew were killed. They did not stop doing their job.

Unintentionally, we often make their jobs harder. We listen to the radio every moment of every day and second guess them. We often get to the scene of a call only to find that the dispatch nature code and the actual incident found do not even remotely resemble each other. We are quick to criticize. We call the dispatchers after the incidents are complete and ask them to defend their actions. We wonder aloud how they got their job and whether they would not be better suited to doing something else … anything else. Telecommunicators working in 911 centers across this country live in a fish bowl. They make unbelievably difficult decisions with incomplete information under extremely time-compressed parameters in an effort to fulfill their mission: Sending the right people at the right time to the right location with the right information. More than 90 percent of the time, they get it right. Sometimes, they do not. Like us, they are human beings and can make mistakes. Let he who is without error cast the first stone. When we respond to a call, we are handling one 911 call. They are handling every one. Want to get a glimpse into their world? Spend a shift sitting with them listening to 911 callers. You will see how difficult that job truly is.

The more serious challenge is not that we are critical, it is that too often we do not even think of them. When we are handing out awards for bravery or exemplary performance we inadvertently become myopic about where that heroism started, thinking that it began when the tones went off. Who set off those tones? Who ensured that we responded to the correct address? Who gave CPR instructions over the phone to buy us the time needed to respond? Who stayed on the phone with the caller until help arrived? The next time you are in a position to recognize members of your department for their actions, take the call all the way back to the beginning … “911, what is the exact location of your emergency?”

Without dispatchers, we are nothing. Our ability to do what we do as emergency responders begins and ends with them. Our dispatchers are public safety professionals and deserve nothing less than our absolute support, enthusiastic recognition, and, most importantly, respect.

Current Issue

October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10