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What Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers Do About this section

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Dispatchers monitor and track the status of police, fire, and ambulance units.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety telecommunicators, answer emergency and nonemergency calls.

Duties

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers typically do the following:

  • Answer 9-1-1 emergency telephone and alarm system calls
  • Determine the type of emergency and its location and decide the appropriate response on the basis of agency procedures
  • Relay information to the appropriate first-responder agency
  • Coordinate the dispatch of emergency response personnel to accident scenes
  • Give basic over-the-phone medical instructions before emergency personnel arrive
  • Monitor and track the status of police, fire, and ambulance units
  • Synchronize responses with other area communication centers
  • Keep detailed records of calls

Dispatchers answer calls from people who need help from police, firefighters, emergency services, or a combination of the three. They take emergency, nonemergency, and alarm system calls.

Dispatchers must stay calm while collecting vital information from callers to determine the severity of a situation and the location of those who need help. They then communicate this information to the appropriate first-responder agencies.

Dispatchers keep detailed records of the calls that they answer. They use computers to log important facts, such as the nature of the incident and the caller’s name and location. Most computer systems detect the location of cell phones and landline phones automatically.

Dispatchers often must instruct callers on what to do before responders arrive. Many dispatchers are trained to offer medical help over the phone. For example, they might help the caller provide first aid at the scene until emergency medical services arrive. At other times they may advise callers on how to remain safe while waiting for assistance.

Work Environment About this section

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Dispatchers work in communication centers, often called public safety answering points (PSAPs).

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers held about 98,300 jobs in 2019. The largest employers of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals 79%
Ambulance services 6
State government, excluding education and hospitals 6
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 3
Hospitals; state, local, and private 2

Dispatchers typically work in communication centers, often called public safety answering points (PSAPs). Some dispatchers work for unified communication centers, where they answer calls for all types of emergency services, while others may work specifically for police or fire departments.

Work as a dispatcher can be stressful. Dispatchers often work long shifts, take many calls, and deal with troubling situations. Some calls require them to assist people who are in life-threatening situations, and the pressure to respond quickly and calmly can be demanding.

Work Schedules

Most dispatchers work 8- to 12-hour shifts, but some agencies require even longer ones. Overtime is common in this occupation.

Because emergencies can happen at any time, dispatchers are required to work some shifts during evenings, weekends, and holidays.

How to Become a Police, Fire, or Ambulance Dispatcher About this section

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Dispatchers must pass a typing test.

Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma. Many states and localities require dispatchers to have training and certification.

In addition, candidates must pass a written exam and a typing test. In some instances, applicants may need to pass a background check, lie detector and drug tests, and tests for hearing and vision.

Some jobs require a driver’s license, and experience using computers and in customer service can be helpful. The ability to speak Spanish is also desirable in this occupation.

Education

Most dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma.

Training

Training requirements vary by state. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International) provides a list of states requiring training and certification.

Some states require 40 or more hours of initial training, and some require continuing education every 2 to 3 years. Other states do not mandate any specific training, leaving individual localities and agencies to structure their own requirements and conduct their own courses.

Some agencies have their own programs for certifying dispatchers; others use training from a professional association. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) have established a number of recommended standards and best practices that agencies often use as a guideline for their own training programs.

Training is usually conducted in a classroom and on the job, and may be followed by a probationary period of about 1 year. However, the period may vary by agency, as there is no national standard governing training or probation.

Training covers a wide variety of topics, such as local geography, agency protocols, and standard procedures. Dispatchers are also taught how to use specialized equipment, such as two-way radios and computer-aided dispatch software. Computer systems that dispatchers use consist of several monitors that display call information, maps, any relevant criminal history, and video, depending on the location of the incident. Dispatchers often receive specialized training to prepare for high-risk incidents, such as child abductions and suicidal callers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Many states require dispatchers to be certified. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) provides a list of states requiring training and certification. One certification is the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) certification, which enables dispatchers to give medical assistance over the phone.

Dispatchers may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as the National Emergency Number Association’s Emergency Number Professional (ENP) certification or APCO’s Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) certification, which demonstrate their leadership skills and knowledge of the profession.

Advancement

Training and additional certifications can help dispatchers become senior dispatchers or supervisors. Additional education and related work experience may be helpful in advancing to management-level positions.

Important Qualities

Ability to multitask. Dispatchers must stay calm in order to simultaneously answer calls, collect vital information, coordinate responders, use mapping software and camera feeds, and assist callers.

Communication skills. Dispatchers work with law enforcement, emergency response teams, and civilians. They must be able to communicate the nature of an emergency effectively and coordinate the appropriate response.

Decisionmaking skills. When people call for help, dispatchers must be able to quickly determine the response dictated by procedures.

Empathy. Dispatchers must be willing and able to help callers who have a wide range of needs. They must be calm, polite, and sympathetic, while also collecting relevant information quickly.

Listening skills. Dispatchers must listen carefully to collect relevant details, even though some callers might have trouble speaking because of anxiety or stress.

Typing skills. Dispatchers type the details of calls into computers, and speed and accuracy is of the essence when responding to emergencies.

Pay About this section

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers

Median annual wages, May 2020

Public safety telecommunicators

$43,290

Total, all occupations

$41,950

Material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing workers

$41,160

 

The median annual wage for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers was $43,290 in May 2020. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $28,040, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $67,150.

In May 2020, the median annual wages for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

State government, excluding education and hospitals $50,520
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 43,510
Colleges, universities, and professional schools; state, local, and private 40,600
Hospitals; state, local, and private 39,570
Ambulance services 38,450

Most dispatchers work 8- to 12-hour shifts, but some agencies require even longer ones. Overtime is common in this occupation.

Because emergencies can happen at any time, dispatchers are required to work some shifts during evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Job Outlook About this section

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Public safety telecommunicators

6%

Total, all occupations

4%

Material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing workers

-5%

 

Employment of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers is projected to grow 6 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

Although state and local government budget constraints may limit the number of dispatchers hired in the coming decade, population growth and the commensurate increase in 9-1-1 call volume is expected to increase the employment of dispatchers.

Job Prospects

Overall job prospects should be favorable due to employment growth and the need to replace dispatchers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Those who can handle demanding schedules and who have strong communication and typing skills should have the best job prospects.

Employment projections data for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Public safety telecommunicators

43-5031 98,300 104,300 6 6,100 Get data

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