By Michael Rigert
The caller—concealed under a pile of laundry inside a bedroom closet—whispered to Emily Utterback that a pair of men clad in dark clothing had forced their way into his suburban Sacramento home just after 9 p.m.
Falling back on her training, Utterback calmed the caller, quizzed him using the Police Priority Dispatch System, and assured him that police officers were on their way.
“You get an adrenaline rush when you take a call,” Utterback told The Sacramento Bee regarding the Nov. 21, 2013, call. “It’s a rush when you help.”
If Utterback’s enthusiasm for emergency dispatch comes across a bit “newbie-ish,” it’s with good reason. A teenager, Utterback is a student at Center High School in Antelope, Calif., enrolled in a pilot program that provides juniors and seniors with hands-on 9-1-1 dispatch training. Though the break-in call was not real, the quality of instruction the two-year track provides students is the genuine article; upon graduation, seniors can depart Center High with cap and gown, diploma, and emergency dispatch certification.
“It is perhaps the most comprehensive such program available at any high school or community college,” Shawn Messinger, police consultant with Priority Dispatch Corp. (PDC), told the Sacramento daily newspaper. “These kids are getting access to a level of training that professional 9-1-1 centers have been using for almost 34 years.”
Introduced at the school two years ago, the program already counts one Center High graduate as a new hire for an emergency dispatch agency.
Utterback and her classmates in the prep school program could, in the very near future, form the vanguard of a new breed of dispatcher entering 9-1-1 comm. centers as the profession continues to evolve in the 21st century. Forward-thinking secondary education programs like Center High’s may begin to trend as high schools continue to move away from outdated vocational training, like metal and wood shop, and instead introduce in-demand, technical career programs, such as emergency dispatch.
But no matter what trends may be on the 9-1-1 dispatch horizon, experts agree that emergency dispatch remains an industry in flux. With change as a veritable constant, the profession continues to attain increasingly greater relevance as a destination career as opposed to merely being a speed bump on the road to other pursuits in emergency services.
A changing field
As call volumes and public expectations about what services emergency dispatch provides have spiked in recent decades, 9-1-1 comm. centers have reshuffled to meet those demands.
Few centers, if any, can afford to operate with minimally trained staff using archaic, homegrown protocols, and in the absence of computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, said Ivan Whitaker, a veteran EMT/paramedic and PDC consultant.
From a liability standpoint alone, comm. centers are almost forced to adopt standardized call protocols that include lifesaving instructions while also increasing staffing numbers and the level of training telecommunicators receive.
“When I came into dispatching, training was like one month,” said Whitaker, also a former comm. center manager. “Now, at larger metro call centers, training can be six to 12 months. For many centers, training is similar to the equivalent of an associate degree.”
Some states require the same amount of training for dispatchers that EMTs receive, according to Whitaker. In Florida, for example, state law requires that emergency dispatchers complete 232 hours of training to obtain certification, he said.
Jennifer Kirkland, operations support supervisor with Vail (Colo.) Public Safety’s comm. center and a frequent presenter at NAVIGATOR, said the introduction of standardized protocols has directly impacted public attitudes regarding the emergency dispatch industry.
“As public expectations of those protocols has increased, it provides an extra level of expertise and increases the perception that dispatching is a professional endeavor,” Kirkland said. “It’s changed the viewpoint of dispatchers as temporary employees or as a foot-in-the-door type of position to a profession that has really come into its own.”
Advances in technology are also an ever-moving X-factor with which public safety agencies and comm. center managers have had to adapt. Cellphones, protocol software, texting, and emerging video and audio capabilities have kept comm. center IT techs on their toes and forced agencies to re-evaluate the industry’s traditional phone-based public interface.
“Great multitasking skills are essential,” Whitaker said. “I’ll sit behind a dispatcher in a high-volume city, and it’s just amazing the call volume and degree of multitasking involved.”
The more things change …
But as much as some elements of the 9-1-1 world are in a rapid state of transition, others aren’t changing nearly fast enough.
Some agencies perpetuate the stereotype of emergency dispatch as a “dead-end job” or a temporary assignment for staff returning to the field, according to Whitaker. Centers can also undermine the profession when field officers with little to no dispatch experience are promoted to take command of a comm. center, or when an agency’s dispatcher/calltaker salaries and benefits pale in comparison to its EMTs and other field personnel.
“Instead of viewing dispatching as a career, some centers are still paying minimum wage,” Whitaker said. “We’re making some headway, but we still have a lot of work to do.”
In contrast, a comm. center in Lake Oswego, Ore., for which Whitaker provided consultation, offers benefits more in-line with other emergency service professionals.
“They’re very big on competitive pay, retirement, training, and resources,” Whitaker said. “I was totally amazed at [Lake Oswego’s] view on dispatching.”
Yet bleak dispatcher/calltaker retention rates also remain a continual struggle at many comm. centers, with the current national average hovering between 17 and 19 percent, according to Whitaker.
One factor that may help stem that tide is comm. center managers are beginning to recognize that younger generations of dispatchers challenging the status quo of some longtime center practices can improve retention rates, Whitaker said. For example, as an employee’s needs change through various stages of life, so do his or her priorities, such as family and earning a college degree. To this end, some comm. centers allow more flexible scheduling, such as working 12-hour shifts Friday through Sunday, so a dispatcher can continue spending more time with family or pursuing an education.
As a comm. center manager in Florida, Whitaker said he was a strong proponent of supporting telecommunicators’ continuing education efforts.
Kirkland said another key to improving retention rates is careful candidate selection from the get-go. Finding good matches doesn’t end at the pre-screening. New hires must receive the training and tools necessary for success and be made to feel like they’re a valued part of the team. Dispatchers also need access to healthy outlets for letting off steam and dealing with stress as well as continuing education opportunities to help them meet their personal goals that can aid in preventing telecommunicator burnout.
“You have to build a team atmosphere,” Kirkland said. “A lot of it rests with the individual person, and how call center managers support dispatchers when they’re having family issues or looking at going back to school. Dispatchers that feel supported in all aspects of their lives will be more dedicated to the agency.”
Kirkland said the Vail Public Safety’s comm. center has found greater stability and employee success in recruiting former members of the military because of the same attributes they brought to the armed forces.
“They’re not afraid of pressure, they’re used to shift work, they understand the chain of command, and they’re extremely loyal to the agency,” she said.
What impact is the popular trend of comm. center consolidation having on the profession’s accessibility?
Logic might indicate that it would lead to fewer available positions. Not so, some say. Employment in the profession is estimated to grow by 12 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while consolidation might signal some reductions in force, Kirkland pointed out the anticipated employment opportunities that Next Generation 9-1-1 adaptations will bring to the comm. center, such as texting and live video and audio streaming.
“You can’t expect a person who is already busy doing calltaking to also monitor these,” Kirkland said. “There will be a consolidation of positions but not a consolidation in terms of type of work that needs to be done.”
The future’s so bright …
Within the next five years, comm. centers will face sizable transitions in leadership as Baby Boomers enter retirement, Whitaker said. Those vacancies will pose an opportunity for public safety decision makers to promote personnel from within the trenches who have demonstrated management potential.
For 9-1-1 telecommunicators who want to advance their careers, Whitaker recommends reviewing dispatch supervisory and managerial job descriptions and requirements, including those from industry online job postings at the IAED, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and 911 Magazine.
“By following this method, the dispatcher can develop a conceptual view of what it takes to become a supervisor or manager across the country,” Whitaker said. “I personally believe that broadening the scope of the dispatcher’s knowledge, skills, and abilities to fit national and even international requirements provides the best opportunity for success.”
Most higher-level supervisory and management positions require an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree; 5–10 years managerial experience; knowledge of radio, GIS, and CAD systems; the ability to manage budgets and personnel, develop policies, procedure, and SOPs, and write request for proposals; and excellent project management, conflict resolution, and business writing skills, according to Whitaker.
Dispatchers should develop a strategic plan to complete a college degree and acquire the necessary skills for advancement. For example, they could ask the center’s manager or director to train them on how to manage the budget and ask to be included in the annual budgeting process. Employees could also look into local community and technical colleges offering adult education courses that help them acquire marketable management skills, Whitaker said.
“This is where I learned the ins-and-outs of business writing, the Microsoft Office Suite, tactical and strategic planning, and much more,” Whitaker said.
Kirkland said emergency dispatchers seeking to propel their careers forward should also become active in the IAED, NENA, and APCO; conduct themselves professionally at all times; and become certified training officers (CTO). She also recommends volunteering for projects in the center that pique their interest.
“This displays teamwork, a positive attitude, and a willingness to work,” Kirkland said. “This will reflect positively on you when opportunities for advancement arise, and look good on a résumé.”
Another way to stand out from the crowd is to find someone you admire who is in the type of position you desire, either within your agency or at another call center, and ask them to mentor you, Kirkland said.
“Mentoring is a great way to learn skills in a non-pressure environment, and you may learn aspects of the position that you hadn’t realized before,” Kirkland said.
Whitaker adds that dispatchers can raise their market value by taking advantage of in-house step ladder and promotional programs; attending professional dispatch conferences, such as NAVIGATOR; getting published in industry magazines; and briefly interviewing 5–10 area leaders in different industries to learn why they are good leaders. You may even glean some management tips from them. It also doesn’t hurt to brush up on your interview skills by conducting mock interviews with family members or friends for practice, he said.
“Stay motivated and do not become discouraged,” Whitaker said. “Not being selected for a position can be disappointing. Use the disappointment as fuel to dig deeper and continue to develop. Don’t be afraid to apply for positions with different agencies. The process alone will be invaluable.”
Going the distance
Wherever the future takes the profession of emergency dispatch, Whitaker and Kirkland agree that the occupation is on an upward trajectory and offers opportunities for growth and advancement to those willing to work hard.
“I think the future is bright as long as technology continues to change and so do demands,” Whitaker said. “As demands increase, so will training that will give added value to the position as an important profession. The training, professionalism, protocols, and technologies will continue to grow dispatch into a stable profession that draws talented people.”
According to Kirkland, the greatest challenge to the emergency dispatch profession going into the future will be for its leaders to keep up with the pace of change while also identifying and training quality candidates.
Comm. centers that secure the best talent, Whitaker said, will be the ones that educate candidates about the realities and challenges of the profession. Screenings should include panel interviews, during which tough questions can be posed to candidates, in addition to having applicants participate in a variety of ability, multitasking, and behavioral testing, he said.
But, ultimately, Kirkland said, the responsibility of successfully navigating and managing one’s career falls to the individual.
“I know people who have been in the business for 30 years or more, and also people who get in and leave within six months to a year,” Kirkland said. “I think it’s a mistake for anyone interested in public safety to think they can’t make a career out of emergency dispatch. It’s just like any industry; not everyone is suited for it and not everyone stays. You have to have a good self-care program in place, be proactive, and take charge of opportunities. No one can expect the agency to do it all.” γ