Dispatchers: Cool under pressure, lifeline for officers

“9-1-1, state the nature of your emergency …”

People have often told me they could never be a police officer. Officers deal with high-stress collision scenes, tense standoffs with dangerous suspects and approaching vehicles on a traffic stop when they do not know what or who is in the car.

As an officer, we do the job knowing help is just a radio call away.

Next week is National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, so this article will let you know what dispatchers do. I also want to tell them “thank you.”

The California Highway Patrol’s public safety dispatchers are on the front lines of public safety and service, fielding the vast majority of cellular 9-1-1 calls in the state. CHP dispatchers who work in large call centers are responsible for several counties, so a dispatcher must be familiar with a wide geographic area with multiple emergency services.

From January through December 2014, statewide the CHP handled approximately 9.3 million calls for service; 7.4 million of which were 9-1-1 calls. CHP dispatchers talk officers and callers through extremely intense situations, all while staying calm.

Let me tell you what dispatchers do. The CHP has 25 communication/dispatch centers statewide. Here in Central Division, we have three communication/dispatch centers — Merced, Fresno and Bakersfield. These three centers monitor 17 areas, which are divided into seven separate radio frequencies.

A dispatcher’s main duty is to send patrol officers to various calls. This may sound simple but, things rarely happen in isolation. Take a traffic collision on Highway 99. The communication center will often receive dozens of calls on one incident. The 9-1-1 call taker has to decide whether the calls relate to the same incident. Often, multiple collisions can result from the initial one. Dispatchers decide how many officers to send, and time can be crucial if someone is injured.

Dispatchers must sort through dozens of calls, identify the collision location, find out the type and number of vehicles involved, ascertain whether the roadway is blocked, or if anyone is injured. Even a small collision can be involved for the communication center.

Outstanding teamwork is required. If you have ever worked in a small group, you know the importance of teamwork. A key personality trait for a CHP dispatcher is the ability to work well with others, especially during stressful situations. The 9-1-1 call taker has to provide accurate and timely information to the radio dispatcher, who then relays this information to the officer out on the beat. Seconds count and officers are often asking for updates and additional information.

I went to the Fresno Communications Center to discuss the job with our dispatchers and to get an inside look at what they do. I heard the same answer to why they chose their profession — a feeling of job satisfaction for helping people in need, whether it was people calling 9-1-1 in dire straits or officers requesting critical information.

Are there frustrations? Of course. Our communication centers receive thousands of 9-1-1 calls where no one talks and then hangs up. Abandoned calls were approximately 11.7% of all incoming calls in 2014. These are considered potential emergencies and our dispatchers are required to call the number back to determine if there is an actual emergency.

Please remember 9-1-1 is to be used only to report emergencies in progress. To be sure this lifeline is available, 9-1-1 is not to be used to ask for directions, check the local weather forecast or to “test” a new cellphone.

The overall job satisfaction far outweighed any negatives. The majority of dispatchers think the officers they work with become like family. Through the medium of a radio frequency, dispatchers learn traits, quirks and habits of officers and thereby share emotions of excitement, fear or loss.

So who are these people that become CHP dispatchers? Many of them come from law enforcement backgrounds. Approximately 70% of dispatchers had some connection to law enforcement and it inspired them to become a public servant. Others wanted to become an officer, but due to injuries or hardships, they were unable to do so and found dispatching to be a surprisingly rewarding career.

If you think being a dispatcher sounds like an interesting and challenging career, visit www.chp.ca.gov. National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is April 12-18. If you know a dispatcher, tell them thank you.

April is Distracted Driving Month

The California Highway Patrol, along with the Fresno Fire Department and Fresno County District Attorney’s Office, have teamed up for a campaign on distracted driving awareness.

The campaign’s theme is Distracted Driving is just not worth it!” Click here to watch some videos.