What it means to be a 911 Dispatcher

Dispatch.

It’s a word that often gets thrown around, without realizing that there is a live human being behind the scenes.

It’s what you here on the news when the media talks about the ‘real’ first responders on scene- not the ones who had to take the call in the first place.

It’s also a weird place to be- I mean- you are intimately involved in the operations at the Police and Fire Station, you know these people (if only by the sound of their voice) and you deal with calls all day long.

And that’s why you’ve got to connect with other dispatchers who get it!

Because some of these calls are simple, some are silly, and some are plain dumb (fireworks do not equal gun shots people)

But what does it really mean to be a Dispatcher? What does it mean to be the literal thin gold line between our blue and red lines?

Talking to a 20 year Veteran 911 Dispatcher

I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t sure what I would find when I reached out to Michell.

See, I, like most people, have taken Dispatcher’s for granted. When I hear about a LODD or a traumatic event, my brain thinks about the people who saw it with their own eyes.

But like Michell points out, hearing about it can be just as horrific.

Hearing people scream, bullets hitting the vehicle (and not knowing if the officer was hit), hearing Maydays and ‘tell my family I love them’ really impacts you on a deep level (remember, dispatchers work with these people everyday- it’s stressful to know you sent someone to a dangerous situation)

Here’s some of the things she shared with me:

1.The People Haven’t got a clue

When it comes to public perception, most people don’t have a single idea that Dispatchers are essential- let alone what they deal with. Because they aren’t plastered all over the newspaper, and you only hear about them when they play the 911 call on TV, we often forget that there’s someone behind the scenes.

2. There’s Helplessness

Dispatchers are placed in a room, with a computer and a headset. They get the call. They are the ones that have to remain calm and give instructions.

But what about those times when you can’t help? When there’s a suicide or a toddler in a pool?

We all have this inate feeling to help others that we come across. It can be a mom grabbing a runaway stroller or holding the door open for someone in a wheelchair.

So to be stuck inside a room with a person on the phone, a person that you can’t help, is incredibly hard.

And it’s something you won’t easily forget.

3. You are there when tragedy strikes.

When talking with Michell she shared that she was a Dispatcher that worked the Columbine Shooting.

For those that don’t know, Columbine was one of the earliest and deadliest school shootings.

Michell hadn’t prepared for this (I mean, no one had, it wasn’t a ‘thing’ back then) and she had to learn as she went. This meant staying calm and alert to Dispatch the crews needed while doing research about what to say next.

This meant working past her immediate shock and trauma to help those people calling for help. This meant listening to victims, family members and concerned citizens as they called for hours and hours.

And despite her essential support, Dispatch was excluded from time off, recognization and counseling- because most people didn’t understand what 911 Dispatchers go through behind the scenes.

4. There’s little support

Not only did Michell work the Columbine Shooting, but she was also a neighboring city to the Aurora Shooting in the movie theater.

While you and I watched these events unfold on TV, dispatchers were coordinating and dispatching friends and family members to the scene.

Michelle’s Husband was a cop who responded and rescued people from the Aurora Shooting- and it was incredibly stressful for everyone involved.

But maybe worse than the immediate stress is the after math. Dispatchers are often excluded from debriefings, trauma support, counseling and PTSD benefits. Most places won’t recognize them as First Responders who need help processing traumatic and stressful situations.

And if you notice among dispatchers, there’s even a twisted sense of humor. A coping method for the years of ‘being invisible’ to the disgusting reality of accidents and criminals.

5. Last, and most importantly, it is…

I know that talking with Michell brought up some sensitive and possible painful topics. There’s bad things that you deal with as a dispatcher- but most importantly- there’s so much good!

There’s helping someone with CPR and instruction about the Heimlich Maneuver.

There’s keeping parent’s calm and helping them remember hiding places to look for their kids.

There’s helping people find AED’s and telling them to put pressure on a wound.

All of these things lead to more lives saved because Dispatchers are trained, calm and caring.

At the end of the day

This doesn’t cover everything about a Public Safety Dispatcher, but it does highlight so many important points.

What a Dispatcher does is absolutely Essential- they actively save lives with their ability to coach people over the phone and quickly dispatch emergency personel to the scene.

And there’s some sore spots. Points where people forget they exist (until they need them!), times where they don’t get the support for those bad calls.

If you are a Dispatcher- Thank You. You are Valuable, You are worth more than they pay you, and we couldn’t keep our Cities safe without you!

And a Special thanks to Michell for letting me pick her brain! She is a wealth of Knowledge. Connect with her on Instagram.

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