The dispatch community is truly the lifeline for all first responders. They not only form the critical bridge with community members in their time of need but are the first line of backup for police, fire and medical responders in the field. According to the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), there are more than 6,100 emergency call centers in the United States, handling more than 200 million 9-1-1 calls every year. For emergency call centers, the national standard is to answer 90% of 9-1-1 calls within 10 seconds.
Recruiting and retention is a challenge for dispatching, just as it is for all emergency services nationwide. With the current unemployment rate hovering around 3.1%, dispatchers are now a premium commodity. Currently, there are about 100,000 dispatchers working throughout the country, with about 10,000 dispatchers being hired every year.
We know that work conditions, total compensation and recognition are all part of the retention mix. Yet, few states recognize these professionals as first responders by state statute or administrative rule. How can this critical workforce be taken for granted?
Technology, training and specialization have turned dispatchers into police, fire and EMS telecommunicators in the new millennium.
In honor of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which takes place April 10–16, let’s highlight this group of unsung heroes who contribute daily to our safety and the effectiveness of police, fire and first responders.
Today, the title of telecommunicator means much more than the old dispatcher title. These folks are armed with computers to enter emergency call data, have multiple radio channels to communicate across agency lines and are trained to provide emergency first aid instructions by phone. They also are the link between law enforcement and all of those computer files identifying wanted people, driver’s information and a host of court orders and safety information.
Let’s do a quick review of the evolution of modern-day dispatching.
Police started using automobiles by the end of the 1800s. The only communication then was a red or blue light placed at selected intersections or on government buildings. When the light was on, it was time to find a call box to call the station.
In 1928, the Detroit Police Department came on the radio air with one-way transmissions that could be received by just one patrol vehicle. California police agencies followed with their own one-way radio systems. Then, in 1933, the Bayonne, New Jersey, Police Department introduced two-way radio communication in nine of their patrol cars. The Connecticut State Police rolled out the first statewide radio system in 1940.
Founded in 1935, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) International was created when 25 police communication officers, including representatives from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Investigations, met in St. Louis, Missouri, to form APCO. Today, with over 35,000 members, APCO offers training certifications for line staff and supervisors, along with advocacy for new technology.
In the 1950s — after years of unregulated ambulance services run by towing operators, medical equipment companies, funeral homes, hospitals, and police and fire departments — funeral homes took over emergency patient care, providing nearly half of the country’s ambulances. Dispatching still struggled trying to connect various responders through the limited technology of the time.
By 1960, portable radios came on the scene and are now standard equipment for every officer, firefighter and medic. These “bricks” often weighed more than five pounds and were expensive. Today, this dependable lifeline between a dispatch center and fellow first responders is often taken for granted.
In the 1970s, patrol officers might have had a couple of radio channels in a car radio that took a few minutes to warm up. Dispatchers were locked up in rooms in police and fire departments. Training ranged from a mere week of structured classes to nothing more than on-the-job coaching. Technology was limited, and many radio systems were simple line of sight, maybe supplemented with an occasional repeater sprinkled across a county.
While it was now possible to have dependable radio communication linking dispatchers with units in the field, citizens getting in contact with emergency services was still a hurdle.
Across the country, there were thousands of different seven-digit phone numbers for police, fire and ambulances that were often being operated by a local mortuary. Far too often, people would just dial “0” and expect an operator to summon help. Many times, that operator was nowhere near the caller’s location, creating more challenges.
The idea of a common emergency number dates to the 1950s, with proposals being made by the American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) system. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended the creation of a single number that could be used nationwide for reporting emergencies. The first official 9-1-1 call was placed on February 16, 1968, by Representative Rankin Fite, the speaker of the Alabama House of Representatives, in the town of Haleyville, Alabama. By 1987, 50% of the nation was using the system. Canada chose to adopt the same number for its emergency calls, and 98% of the U.S. and Canada can now contact emergency services by dialing 9-1-1.
Dispatching adapted to the new, faster resource of processing 9-1-1 calls, which also cut response times for all emergency services.
Consolidation brings cost-effectiveness
As technology continued to evolve, thousands of city and county dispatch operations moved to consolidate. Spotty radio coverage and the cost of new transmitters, repeater stations, computer and software costs made it a wise step forward to create regional 9-1-1 dispatch centers. This also required new training for telecommunicators who were dispatching police, fire and EMS calls.
Dispatch training pioneered by APCO led the way to extend the special needs associated with police response, fire dispatching and life safety responses supporting EMS. This new specialized training propelled the profession forward along with some states that adopted their own standards.
Beginning in the 1980s and progressing into the 1990s, stand-alone dispatch centers had become their own agency or their own taxing district to fund the growing costs of emergency communications. Radio systems have evolved from simple line-of-sight transmitters to digital and encrypted systems that can link multiple agencies together during natural or man-made disasters. But the key link in this evolution and operation remains the human telecommunicator.
Today, there continues to be a mixture of statewide or regional dispatch centers for state agencies, along with regional or countywide and a few agency-specific centers serving first responders across the U.S.
Sitting in an air-conditioned communications center may sound a little cushy, right? Think again.
Remember that there are roughly 18,000 law enforcement agencies with nearly one million law officers in the U.S. Yet, the average police agency is comprised of just 25 officers. While 90% of the police agencies in America have less than 50 officers. Of the nearly 30,000 fire departments in the U.S., the over 1.3 million active firefighting personnel are housed in 51,811 fire stations across the country. Career firefighters make up 34% of the workforce — 54% are volunteer firefighters, and 12% are paid-per-call firefighters. Telecommunicators are charged with getting the bulk of emergency resources dispatched and monitored day in and day out.
Not all dispatch centers are spacious; they can be as small as 1,000 square feet for just one or two dispatchers and scale up to thousands of square feet with dozens of call takers and telecommunicators working police, fire or EMS duties.
Independence makes sense
There continue to be discussions in areas across the country about consolidating centers along with creating more stand-alone regional intergovernmental agencies for emergency communications. This can assist in shared oversight by member agencies, an equitable cost-sharing system and the potential for an independent taxing authority. As communications become more technology-driven, it calls for new specialization in the workforce. It also requires competitive compensation for telecommunicators.
Some of these dispatch centers across the land have adopted a “one-stop shop” that brings 9-1-1 services, dispatching and computer and other technology and radio needs used by emergency agencies under one roof to increase efficiency while reducing overall costs.
Central radio maintenance, bulk purchases of vehicle and portable radios, as well as the data terminals require computing software and data storage — it makes sense to bring all these fragmented, duplicated purchases and services under one roof. Having radio technicians in-house offers further savings instead of relying upon expensive vendors who can be slow to make repairs and change out equipment.
The one-stop shop concept has been the trend for many years in regions across the country. It is cost-effective, accountable and just makes sense, especially during these tight economic times.
A telecommunicator has one of the most challenging (and noble) jobs. Just like any other industry, the public safety sector has seen significant changes thanks to technological advancements. And emergency dispatch centers are no exception. Evolving technological changes have made the emergency dispatcher’s role much more efficient, allowing citizens to get the help they need faster.