Monthly Archives: September 2016

The Most Important Thing


It’s hard to argue with the notion that two most important pieces of information of a call are the call location and the caller’s callback number. Out of those two things, the trickier variable is the location. The type of phone line used to call in affects the kind of information available to the call-taker. If the call for service is inside a building or out on the street – those details make a big difference. Sometimes the caller is third-party, maybe not even on scene- they may not know the address. Child callers may or may not know their address, or they may not know how to describe where they are.

It is critical that the caller know where the response needs to go – but in a moment of crisis, sometimes that’s hard to communicate. For example, if a caller is at a friend’s house, they may not know the address. If they are in an intersection, maybe involved in an accident, they may be too disoriented to explain where they are located. Many people function on some level of ‘autopilot’ while they are driving around – often unaware of the name of the street they are on or the cardinal direction they are traveling.

This is where the knowledge and skill of the dispatcher comes in – verifying the location of the call for service. If you are interested in becoming an emergency call-taker or dispatcher, I would highly recommend that you work on becoming extremely familiar with the area the agency services.

(Hey, prospective applicants!)
You’ll need to know:

  • The jurisdictional boundaries of the agency
  • General jurisdiction of surrounding agencies
  • Major landmarks in the area – shopping centers, hospitals, city facilities
  • Names and locations of apartment complexes and neighborhoods/subdivisions
  • Major roadways in the area (including outside of your jurisdiction)
  • The cardinal orientation of all major roadways (N/S, E/W, SW/NE, etc)


I’ll offer an example of why it is so important to know your area. A frantic person calls in on 911 and says, “I need help here, quickly!” They are calling on a cell phone. We can see the general area where they are located (they are calling on a cell phone), but do not have enough information to plot a call location. They advise the call-taker that they are on the highway, and there has been an accident with injuries. They keep repeating that they are on the highway. The area that their cell phone is plotting near has two major highways with four levels of roadways/flyovers. If the call-taker incorrectly plots the address of the call, the police, fire, and EMS response could be delayed several minutes as they drive to the wrong location — only to have to exit, backtrack, and respond to where they can see the accident has occurred. What can the call-taker do?

Ask for landmarks. What do you see around you? Any businesses or signs? If the call-taker knows the area, they can start to picture in their mind what the caller is describing. What direction was the caller traveling (north, south, east, west)? If they don’t know, the call-taker can ask where they were traveling from (from X city? from Y road?), and where they were traveling towards. If they are on the highway, are they on the actual highway (often called the “proper” or the main part of the highway), or are the on the service (or “frontage”) road? These details can affect the response time by several minutes.

Callers — know your location! If you don’t, stay on the phone with the call-taker and keep answering their questions. The call-taker talking to you doesn’t slow down the dispatching of first responders, but they need priority information to relay to those who are driving to help you. Its not like in the movies – we don’t always know where you are. We will need you to answer our questions so that we can get you the right help as quickly as possible.

A final PSA – please teach your children their home address, and consider writing it down in multiple places in your home. In a crisis, their frightened minds may have trouble remembering it – but they can read it to the call-taker if its taped to the fridge. Consider teaching your children (even the very young ones!) the names of the roads that you travel to and from school, the name of the parks you visit, and which neighbors to go to in case of an emergency. The call-taker who answers a child’s call for help will do everything in their power to figure out where they are, but please consider preparing your child with this information. Your local dispatcher will thank you!

P.S. Last year, John Kelly and Brendan Keefe of USA Today released an investigative piece about the lack of location data (consistently) available to 911 dispatch centers throughout the country. Chapter 4 of their article provides a more technical explainations of cell phone data flow to public safety answering points (PSAPs).

911’s deadly flaw: Lack of location data


Brain Overload

Digitally generated My brain has too many tabs open

Image from

I am currently working with a trainee that has no previous dispatch experience. When I started with my agency, I also had zero experience- so I sympathize, I really do! In hindsight, its hard to believe that I survived the pressure and the struggle– but I stuck it out, and here I am.

As a trainer, I view my role as being that of a facilitator. I can help facilitate the learning process. I cannot learn for someone else. I encourage that they take ownership over their training experience by actively engaging- asking questions, asking for clarification, taking initiative with documentation (or asking for it). Particularly with on-the-job training, like we have in our agency (greatly due to staffing), the trainer may be able to talk and teach for a portion of the day (as workload allows), but it is ultimately up to the trainee to retain that information.

As a trainer, every day I remind myself of the two biggest challenges that I faced as a trainee:

  1. Limited frame of reference. In other words, a trainee may hear or receive a piece of information, but they don’t know enough to understand how it connects to everything else.
  2. Self-confidence/self-esteem. Everyone wants to go home feeling like they did a good job. There is an enormous amount of pressure inherently present with this job. The training/ramping-up period takes an excruciatingly long amount of time. They warned me about this, but I still struggled with it! I make a point to repeatedly remind my trainees that it is important to trust the process.

The nerdier side of me has been delighted and comforted by reading about how the brain learns and re-wires itself with repetition and pressure. It has also been particularly relevant with the shift work that this job entails.
I really like this article about how the brain works. If you are interested in being a trainee, being a trainer, or if you have a brain – I recommend reading it! (I’m also a total plant-nerd, so their “your brain is like a garden” line really got me!)

Your Brain Has A “Delete” Button—Here’s How To Use It

Multitasking Octopus


Image from

The video I am going to share with you makes me laugh and shake my head every time I watch it. I can’t believe what I’m watching, but I know that I do it every day. Aside from the bit of dramatic music, this is the most accurate depiction of what it can be like to be an emergency dispatcher. The ‘running tally’ of to-do’s is a mental function that must be developed and carefully tracked – I think it is very well illustrated here!

Perhaps you will watch this video and get a bit wide-eyed. That’s probably normal. But if you are interested in being able to multitask like that as a dispatcher, what can you do to start the process? On a very basic level, I would recommend that prospective applicants practice taking dictation. It doesn’t have to involve a person – you can take dictation from the radio or TV. Maybe sit in a coffee shop and eavesdrop on a nearby table- it’ll build your listening skills! (Kidding.) Practice your ten-key entry. Copy names, addresses and phone numbers out of a phone book. Enter the text into a text document or a spreadsheet, and consider toggling between the two. Data entry and navigating between software windows are both critical skills.

Consider another avenue: Emergency simulators and games- have you tried them?

I remember searching for them while I was waiting for my next interview with the PD, but I never found any that seemed applicable. Since then I’ve found several online, and these two seem to be the most popular:
911: First Responders® and Steam’s “Emergency” series, such as Emergency 2016.

I’ve never played any of them first-hand, but from what I’ve seen they are much more flashy then what we get to see in the comm center. Perhaps our imaginations are enough!

The agency I work for uses CritiCall testing software, and it is much more relevant to the tasks and skill-set we utilize. I’m still searching for a hybrid of the two – a skill-developing interactive game that can help strengthen visual, auditory, and fine motor skills during those long hiring months.

Have you found something like this? Are you a game developer? Maybe we can put our heads together – there is definitely a demand for this product from both the (prospective) employee and the employer.

John Oliver’s three cents


Image from

911: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

This came across my personal social media stream, and I have been asked about it by several friends. While its humorous and silly throughout, he hits on several legitimate points. Let’s discuss a few, shall we?

  1. People call 911 when they do not have an emergency.
    Yep, all day every day. Is it a lack of education? Is it a lack of respect for the resources they are tying up? If there was an improvement in public education of our strained 911 resources, would they stop calling for information or non-emergency purposes? Even when the knowledge is there, the phone call often starts out with, “I don’t really have an emergency, but…”
  2. Location technology is deficient industry-wide.
    There are efforts and improvements coming down the pipeline… slowly. In the short term, it is critical for callers to know their location. We want to help you, but location is key, and we (most of us) don’t have access like you might see in the movies or TV. Hopefully there will be a trickle-down of accurate technology nation-wide in the near future, but in the meantime – know your location! Teach your kids their home address, and encourage them to know where you are at all times.
  3. Under-staffing is an industry-wide problem.
    Long hiring process, long training process, long hours. High level of expectation, high stress, and an often thankless job. Operators are usually talking people in the worst moment of their day/week/month, and everything an operator does is recorded. No pressure there, right? There are low training completion rates and high employee turnover.
  4. Pocket dials (aka butt-dials) do tie up lines and steal operator/officer attention.
    I’ll slip in one more PSA learning moment – lock your phone keypad. If you accidentally dial, don’t just hang up – talk to the operator. If you give a baby/child your old disconnected cell phone to play with, consider that unless you take the battery out, it can still dial 911.

Please feel free to post any question in the comments below – I’ll do my best to answer them.

I’d like to leave you with a quote from James Dillman, an Indianapolis 911 dispatcher who contributed a thorough post about what to expect when you call 911:
“Do your part to keep the 911 lines available to those who really need it.”

How to Call 911

Industry Recognition


I really think you should know what I’m about to share, and I bet you’ll agree with me.

The branch of the federal government that classifies job occupations (Office of Management and Budget) currently classifies the role of police, fire, and EMS dispatchers as a clerical position. There is a strong and ever-growing movement urging the OMB to reclassify these roles in the same category as crossing guards, lifeguards, law enforcement officers, firefighters, and EMS personnel.

It is important to our industry to be recognized as first responders. We are often the first responder to connect with those who call for help, and yet we are being classified like secretaries, administrative assistants, or taxi dispatchers. We go through vigorous background checks, security screenings, professional licensing, months of training, and fulfill continuing education requirements.

On the forefront of this push for recognition are the folks over at Within the Trenches, a podcast capturing the experiences of those in the emergency communications field. They have also initiated a #IAM911 following, working to share and shed light on the responsibilities of an emergency telecommunications worker, which is exactly what the OMB has said that it needs to reconsider the classification. They are also working with APCO and NENA towards this goal.

Here is a concise write-up about the #IAM911 movement:
#IAM911 – Join the Movement to Reclassify 9-1-1 Professionals

Here is information about how to take action, via APCO:
Take Action!

What do you think? Should 911 dispatchers be classified in the same category as administrative assistants, clerks, and secretaries?

Key Terminology


Found on via GIS.

Its a busy world on the comm floor, and its important to speak the language! While every agency may use different 10-codes and abbreviations, this quick list of key words can give you a head start. Use them to impress your trainer, or just to keep up when your dispatcher friends start ranting.

(Disclaimer: these are very broad, high-level definitions, described in my own words as I would to a friend or family member.)

PSAP – Public Safety Answering Point: A communications center that receives 911 calls.

TCO – Telecommunications Operator: Typically “floor” dispatchers (non-training, non-supervising dispatchers)- although you may have a different official title depending on agency/job duties. One alternative is ‘PSCO’ – Public Safety Communications Operator.)

CTO – Communications Training Officer: Trainer of TCO’s, PSCO’s, etc.

ANI/ALI – Automatic Number Identification/Automatic Location Identification: This information will likely come across through the screen associated with the phone system. This information may include the phone number, the service provider, what kind of line it is, latitude/longitude information, the address associated with it, etc.

CAD – Computer Aided Dispatch: Typically a software program that aids in managing calls for service, unit dispatching, etc. Will vary in complexity.

10-Codes – A set of codes used by some agencies as a substitute for saying particular words or phrases, primarily over the radio. Some agencies use them, some don’t, and there is not a standard. One common 10-code is “10-4” – which is usually meant as an affirmation or acknowledgement of the previous traffic (depending on context).

EMD – Emergency Medical Dispatch: In the movies, when the 911 dispatcher is giving CPR instructions, or talking someone through delivering a baby? That type of activity is a part of standardized EMD. Some agencies use standardized protocol for assessing a medical situation over the phone, and giving “pre-arrival” instructions (while waiting for the arrival of EMS responders). Some agencies do not give medical instructions, but will connect the caller with an agency that does (typically the agency that dispatches out the ambulance).

APCO – Association of Public Safety Communications Officials
An international professional organization – dispatchers often have training through APCO.

NENA – National Emergency Number Association – An association focused on 911-related issues primarily in the US/Canada.

Speaking of NENA – if you’re hungry for more dispatch vocabulary, check out the NENA Master Glossary. There is quite a bit of information elsewhere on their website, so be sure to bookmark it for one of those rabbit-hole career-research nights. 

Call note policies and procedures will be different from agency to agency (and sometimes from shift to shift). There are often abbreviations used in the interest of fast, concise data entry. Here are a few commonly used abbreviations- but confirm with your trainer/agency, again – these vary!

adv = advise / advised

lts = left the scene / leaving the scene

dot = direction of travel

ls = last seen

xfer = transfer

xport = transport

hx = history

When I was in training, I made flashcards just like I was taking a college course. Whether you are the one entering call notes or interpreting the notes to air information over the radio, it is critical to understand what your agency’s codes and abbreviations mean.