Often, when we think of police officers, the public doesn’t realize that there are a lot of other people in the background who make the city and the officers’ jobs run smoother and safer.
Some of those people are police dispatchers. I was one of them.
Once I started having children, working the midnight dispatcher shift started getting harder and harder. My second child was born premature at 27 weeks, and the long shifts made it difficult for me to juggle between home nurse visits, therapy appointments, and home visits from numerous specialists. I also had health issues of my own after giving birth, and my body was telling me it had enough. Sadly, I had to give up the mic and take care of my family and myself, but I still miss the job.
Police dispatchers are often unseen and not recognized for what they do and what they go through. They are basically the lifeline to the officers and are first to arrive on scene when they answer a call.
I was a dispatcher for 10 years at a small police department in the St. Louis County area. For me, it was a rewarding job that never had a boring moment. Of course, it had its negative qualities and plenty of bad experiences. But, the calls with a good outcome and working with a great partner and receiving gratitude from others made the job worth it. Oh, and the opportunity to run to the bathroom when needed is also a plus.
It is definitely not the easiest job out there. You have to know how to multitask, be in control, and have a sense of humor. And you definitely have to learn to have a thick skin and not take things personally.
You will never forget your first bad call, the very call that still hurts.
It’s the call that I took during my first couple of weeks. I can hear it now: A hysterical female screaming for an ambulance for her child, with a male in the background yelling at her to hang up the phone.
That particular call did not end well. I had to notify the on-duty supervisor and medical examiner’s office. The child was dead. It wasn’t an accident, and the events leading to this innocent child’s death were horrifying.
It was hard to take that call knowing the outcome and having to handle other calls, put in computer entries, and have contact with the public at the window. We had to move on and continue doing our job. There wasn’t time to cry, get angry, or even talk about it. Once you hang up the phone, you have to disconnect.
It’s not because dispatchers don’t have feelings or are callous. It’s something we have to do because officers on the street depend on us to receive correct and reliable information to get them safely to a location. We also have the residents and the public who depend on dispatchers to get an ambulance, fire fighters, or police to their location in a timely manner. This is when having a thick skin comes in. You can’t start crying when you are in the middle of a 911 call with a victim. This will delay the officers from getting to the victim and saving her from her abuser. And if an officer is screaming for help, you can’t lose it and scream back. If you don’t remain calm, the bad situation will become worse and the radio will be chaotic. If we fall apart, someone will get hurt.
It’s hard to recall one single dispatching story; there are just so many. Every shift that I worked was different. No calls were ever the same. Every call from someone receiving the wrong cheeseburger at a local fast food restaurant to someone reporting a UFO really keeps anyone on their toes. To one person, his or her dilemma IS an emergency, and it’s up to the dispatchers to determine that.
There are certain calls that get the blood flowing, make the senses go crazy, and send adrenaline racing: When an officer is in need of aid, when there is a foot pursuit, when shots are fired, or when my husband was hurt on duty while I was working. Those are the times when you have to get your mind in the right place and perform at your highest. There is no room for error.
This type of job isn’t for everyone.
Either you’ve got it or you haven’t. There is no in between in this job. You’re dealing with so much going on at the same time, dealing with the public and different personalities within the department. It’s stressful, frustrating, and exciting at the same time.
I remember one day walking through the door and into a room of total chaos. All I wanted to do was close the door and start over. Or maybe find a secret tunnel into another universe and never come back. But reality hits me in the face, and I have to take my seat and deal with updates, answer the phone, and answer the radio. And the paperwork. Let’s not forget about the never-ending paperwork. Once everything is calm and you get a break, running to the bathroom is a priority, because when you are getting slammed, there is no time to use the bathroom!
Here are a few tips in case you need to call a dispatcher:
- If you have an emergency which means there is an immediate risk to health, life, or property, call 911. Please do not call 911 because your food order was wrong. That is not considered an emergency. When you call 911 for non emergency calls, your phone call may be taking up valuable time for a real emergency call.
- If you call 911, please be calm and don’t speak fast. The dispatcher may not understand you if you are screaming or talking too fast, and you may be told to repeat yourself. This will delay the dispatcher and increase the time it takes for the officers to get to your location.
- When the dispatcher asks questions, please try to answer and give them as much important information as possible. Also, please don’t get upset that the dispatcher is asking too many questions. They need as much information as possible to relay to the responding officers.
- When you speak to a dispatcher, please don’t be rude. They can’t make an officer get to your location in seconds. And it’s not their fault that a crime was committed. Please, don’t take it out on them.
- Also, a dispatcher is not just a dispatcher. Some callers say, “You are only a dispatcher. I want to speak with a … ” A dispatcher is someone who answers 911 when someone is having a heart attack and needs an ambulance. A dispatcher is someone who can talk a suicidal subject out of killing himself or herself. A dispatcher is someone who will answer the phone and speak to someone for 20 minutes while their anxiety attack subsides. A dispatcher is a person who assigns officers and makes sure that the location they are going to is safe, and when it’s not, the dispatcher will alert the officers. And if an officer needs help, you better believe that dispatcher will send the cavalry.
I truly miss being a dispatcher. I believe it’s in my blood. I come from a line of firefighters and military family. My grandpa was a dispatcher for the U.S. Forest Service after he retired as a firefighter. I hope that one day, I will be able to dispatch again. But for now, I’ll be dispatching my kids and husband from home.
Dispatchers are those people who are always forgotten in the background, behind the microphone and computer consoles, always ready to answer the radio and the phones.
Please don’t forget about them. They are superheroes behind the mic.
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