How to Become a 911 Dispatcher: The Essential Guide

Do you want to be the voice of reason during a time of crisis? Can you maintain a cool head under pressure? Do you have great communication skills? Are you able to multitask with ease? Do you have a desire to help not only members of your community, but other first responders? Are you ready to be fighting the good fight directly from the front lines? Then you may have a bright, rewarding future as a 911 dispatcher.

How to Become a 911 Dispatcher: The Essential Guide

How do I become a 911 dispatcher? The process is pretty straightforward, let’s line it out step-by-step:

  • Complete the required level of education for the agency that you would like to be a part of-most will only require a high school diploma or GED, but you’ll need to make certain that the agency you are wanting to join doesn’t require college hours.
  • Earn a bit of customer service or administrative support experience (I promise, the service industry can prepare you for just about anything!).
  • Develop the vital skills needed to be a great 911 dispatcher:
    • Calm in the face of adversity
    • Emotional control
    • Compassion and empathy
    • Organizational skills
    • Decision-making skills
    • Computer literacy
    • Communication, both verbal and written
  • Register, take and pass a civil service exam (your agency may not require this).
  • Submit your application for an open 911 dispatcher position.
  • Complete an interview with your desired agency.
  • Survive your background investigation:
    • Criminal history
    • Family history
    • Polygraph exam
  • Take and pass a drug screening.
  • Complete a psychological/medical/hearing exam
  • Accept your position as a 911 operator.
  • Get your nose in a book and complete your required training.
  • Become an angel on the line for those in need.

If a future as a 911 dispatcher is something you desire, this article has been designed to give you all the information you need to make that dream a reality.

How to become a 911 dispatcher:

If you feel like you can be the angel on the line for those in need, all you need to do to begin your journey is to contact your local emergency response services center to inquire about any employment opportunities that may be available to you as a 911 operator and what requirements you will have to meet for their specific department.

Becoming a 911 operator normally involves more than a simple application and subsequent interview. Many departments will require prospective 911 dispatchers to undergo an extensive pre-employment process that may include a skills assessment, polygraph testing, medical/hearing/psychological examinations, drug screening, and a background check.

Once you have been hired, most states and agencies will require you to complete a comprehensive training program specifically for 911 dispatchers. Many of these programs will include classroom hours as well as on-job training. Every agency will have its own set of standards for training, but will always follow its state standards.

What qualifications do you need to be a 911 dispatcher?

Before you begin the application process for 911 telecommunicator jobs, you’ll need to make certain that you already have or can obtain the necessary qualifications. Each state will have varying requirements and some may be a little more strict than others. I’ll get a little more into that as we move forward.

General requirements that you will need are:

  • A high school diploma or GED
  • Be at least 18 years of age (some states require you to be 21, so be sure to check your specific state statutes)
  • Basic computer literacy skills: the ability to utilize word processing software, various email platforms, database entry, etc.

In some states, like Texas, you will also have to obtain specific certifications, like the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Telecommunicator Certification, within a limited time frame. Of course, your hiring body will aid you in preparation for your state licensing exam, but only you will be responsible for knowing the necessary material and obtaining your state certification.

How to Become a 911 Dispatcher: The Essential Guide

You may also need to become certified in emergency medical dispatch, Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD), Texas Crime Information Center/National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System (TCIC/NCIC), and other aspects of the 911 system.

Many agencies will require polygraph testing, drug screenings, hearing/medical/psychological exams, and background checks before becoming a 911 operator.

What skills will set me up for success as a 911 dispatcher?

So, you meet all the requirements for your state to become a 911 operator, but you want to know what skills will set you apart from the rest of the applicant pool. A few of these are glaringly obvious, but a few characteristics of a great 911 dispatcher may just surprise you!

Steadiness

No, you won’t have to walk a tightrope with a bucket of water on your head, but you will have a heavy yoke of responsibility when working as a 911 telecommunicator. As a 911 operator, you will be required to manage multiple monitors displaying a host of information from officer locations, traffic patterns, and weather alerts to the address and phone number of incoming calls. And that’s all before you ever pick up your headset to take a call. If handling multiple responsibilities simultaneously isn’t a skill you think you can handle, then a career in emergency communications may not be right for you.

Customer service

No, you aren’t serving drinks or ringing up items in the grocery store line, but the members of the community you serve are much like customers in many ways. (And NO, the customer is not always right!)

911 dispatchers must maintain a level of professionalism even when dealing with rude, distressed, or hostile callers. Generally speaking, most callers don’t dial 911 to discuss the new flower pot they picked up at the market yesterday. They’re likely going through one of the worst days of their lives and may not be thinking clearly or acting as though they normally do. As a 911 operator, you will be yelled at, cursed, and possibly ignored by a panicking caller.

It is your job, however, to maintain a level of calm to gain the necessary information from the caller, ensure the safety of the caller, and relay all pertinent information to the appropriate first responders regardless of the circumstances on the other end of the line.

Accurate typing ability

As a 911 operator, it is your job to obtain vital information in a time of crisis. This means that your typing abilities have to be better than par. Inaccuracies in information and typos could put not only the caller at risk but the first responders as well.

Most 911 dispatchers are required to type between 45 and 55 words per minute without any errors.

Self-awareness

Be wholly honest with yourself before applying to become a 911 operator. Emergencies don’t take vacations, naps, or days off. You’ll be required to work nights, weekends, and holidays.

Most 911 dispatchers work in 10 to 12 hours shifts. Many start in dispatching believing that shift work is easy and manageable, but soon realize that it impacts not only their lives but the lives of their friends and families. You have to possess a degree of self-awareness that allows you to accurately weigh the costs and benefits of being an emergency management communications specialist.

Resiliency

Being a 911 operator is a tough job. You’ll be a witness to people enduring trauma and difficulties every day and have to maintain a level of calm while talking them through the emergency at hand.

You will be their light in the darkness, the faceless voice on the line that keeps everything together until first responders can arrive.

A resilient person will excel as a 911 dispatcher, as burnout is listed as one of the leading reasons that an individual leaves the field.

Emotional control, empathy, and compassion

As a 911 dispatcher, you will have to maintain complete control of your emotions at all times, regardless of the situation at hand. You may have to walk someone through CPR over the phone, speak calmly and rationally to people who are reporting horrific tragedies, and even talk a caller out of suicide. Your ability to show compassion and empathy can aid those in tragic situations.

Other skills you will need as a 911 operator are:

    • Strong comprehension of the English language, in both written and spoken word, which includes the meanings and spelling of words, composition, and even grammar
    • Have a basic knowledge of administrative and clerical procedures
    • Possess basic knowledge of laws, legal codes, regulations, and rules specific to your agency
    • Proficiency in computer programs, applications, hardware, and software
    • Be knowledgeable of your geographical area, including highways, streets, county roads, and other routes of travel
    • Effective communication skills
    • Ability to use logic and reasoning to assist callers with solutions to emergencies or offer alternative approaches to the problem at hand
    • Be able to identify problems, develop and evaluate all available options, and implement solutions, all while maintaining composure

What are the responsibilities and duties of a 911 dispatcher?

Even though 911 is a universal system found throughout the United States, the duties of a 911 dispatcher may be different depending on the PSAP (public safety answering point) that they work for.

How to Become a 911 Dispatcher: The Essential Guide

Public safety answering points (PSAPs) are the primary points of contact for people who call 911. PSAPs may be found throughout the U.S. in dedicated emergency call centers, fire departments, police departments, and other law enforcement offices, like public safety departments. Depending on your state, your local PSAP may be organized at the county or city level, and in many states, public safety answering points may be a consolidated center that covers several counties, cities, and towns.

The general duties and responsibilities of a 911 operator include the following:

  • Answering incoming calls about police, fire, or medical emergencies
  • Determining the best response to the situation at hand and prioritizing the needs of callers
  • Gathering information from callers to determine their location and the nature of the emergency
  • Detailing the information obtained during calls, dispatches, and messages via the 911 operating system
  • Retrieving and inputting data from computerized data systems, like NCIC, and teletype networks
  • Contacting first responders to determine availability for dispatch
  • Dispatching the appropriate first responders after determining the needs of the caller (Is it a fire? A medical emergency? A break-in?)
  • Assist law enforcement by performing driver’s license and wanted-persons inquiries
  • Assign case numbers and record case notes
  • Monitor police/fire/EMS radio traffic
  • Use computers and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) programs efficiently and effectively

Where do 911 dispatchers work?

911 operators can work in a variety of situations referred to as public safety answering points (PSAPs). These PSAPs can range from dedicated call centers to police or fire departments. In some areas, 911 operators can even work from their homes by utilizing the same computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software that they would when sitting in their agency’s dispatch center.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regularly updates a master list of PSAPs located across the United States.

What kind of training do 911 dispatchers receive?

Typical training courses for 911 operators will include:

  • Advanced first aid/CPR/AED
  • Basic telecommunications
  • Critical incident stress
  • Domestic violence
  • Emergency medical dispatch
  • Hazardous materials (HAZMAT) training
  • Suicide intervention
  • Terroristic threats and acts of terrorism
  • TTY (TeleType), TDD (telecommunications device for the deaf), and TT (text telephone) training
  • Professional ethics
  • Radio technology
  • Radio codes
  • Phonetic alphabet use

Most states will require around 40 hours of training, as well as completing ongoing, continuing education courses. As an emergency telecommunications professional, you can elect to join one of many professional associations, such as the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), or the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), where you can receive access to specialized training opportunities, continuing education, and other resources.

Are 911 dispatchers sworn officers?

911 operators are normally civilian positions that provide support services to sworn first responders, like law enforcement and firefighters, and those members of their community who find themselves in a time of crisis. Although as an emergency telecommunications professional, you will have access to law enforcement databases, like NCIC, it does not promote you from the title of the civilian.

Are 911 operators first responders?

Yes, yes, and, once more, a resounding YES! As a 911 dispatcher, you are the first line of defense for those who find themselves in a crisis. It wasn’t until recently, however, that states began to recognize the faceless voices of reason as such.

Recent legislation passed by numerous states, including Texas and California, now officially list 911 dispatchers and other public safety telecommunication specialists as first responders, as they certainly should be.

What are the hours like for a 911 dispatcher?

Emergency call centers are open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred and sixty-five (three-hundred and sixty-six in a leap year) days a year. In other words, emergencies don’t recognize holidays, birthdays, or weekends, neither do public safety answering points.

Most 911 operators work in eight to twelve-hour shifts, although some departments will require you to work longer shifts. Since emergencies do not take note of a time clock, as a 911 dispatcher, you will likely work evenings, weekends, and holidays.

How stressful is it to be a 911 operator?

If you have ever had to deal with the public in any capacity, you know how stressful it can be. When you add an emergency to the mix, the level of stress skyrockets. 911 dispatchers regularly interact with people who are in the worst moment of their lives and must maintain their composure regardless of the interaction on the line.

How to Become a 911 Dispatcher: The Essential Guide

911 operators can experience vicarious trauma, also more commonly known as compassion fatigue, as a direct result of helping callers and first responders who may be experiencing the most horrific day of their lives. When answering a call and hearing nothing but silence on the line or hearing gunfire or the screams of the injured, a 911 operator is the first responder. Many dispatchers hear the last breaths of callers or the first cry of a newborn baby.

Most departments offer support systems that aid 911 dispatchers in dealing with the trauma they encounter. It is up to you, however, to take advantage of those systems to ensure that you are coping with job-related stressors appropriately.

The stress of being a 911 dispatcher can be great, but the rewards can be even greater.

What is the salary like for a 911 dispatcher?

As an emergency telecommunications specialist, your salary will vary depending on your location, level of experience, education, certifications attained, and other factors.

According to the United State’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median annual salary for 911 operators is $40,660 per year ($19.55/hour), with the top 10% of reported earnings at more than $63,930 annually ($30.74/hour) and the bottom 10% at less than $26,590 yearly ($12.78/hour).

In addition to competitive salaries, 911 dispatchers who work for local or state governments will receive benefits, like health insurance, retirement contributions, and paid time off.

Remember, these are just statistical averages. Your rate of pay will be determined by several factors and most departments offer ample opportunity to increase your salary by advancing your position within your agency.

Are advances in technology phasing out 911 operators?

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, jobs for first responders, 911 dispatchers included, will see about an 8% increase in growth through 2026. Although advances in emergency technology are slowly encroaching on some aspects of the job of an emergency telecommunications professional, high turnover due to burnout results in frequent openings for employment as a 911 operator.

Is there any way that I can experience what it is like to be a 911 operator before applying?

Many emergency call centers offer what is called a “sit-along.” It’s kind of like a police “ride-along” but Kevin Hart isn’t there making you laugh until your stomach hurts.

With a sit-along, you will have the opportunity to sit alongside an emergency telecommunications professional and experience what a general shift is like. This is one of the best ways to determine if becoming a 911 dispatcher is a path you’d like to follow.

The best thing to do is contact your local emergency call center and ask if they offer this type of opportunity.

More about 911 dispatchers HERE.

What else should I know about becoming a 911 dispatcher?

Just know, it is difficult to receive a call from someone who is experiencing the worst moments of their life. Their pain, fear, or anger can be projected onto the person on the other end of the line, meaning you. Many callers will be hesitant to speak with you, which is the reason having strong communication skills is imperative. Learning to properly communicate in a helpful, non-judgmental, and non-defensive manner is critical to having success as a 911 operator.

Like your first responder brothers and sisters in arms, as an emergency telecommunications professional, you will work around the clock. Long hours and overtime are commonplace for 911 dispatchers.

A career as a 911 dispatcher can be both incredibly taxing and rewarding. You are held in the highest of regard by fellow first responders. As a 911 operator, you are the true front line to helping your community and public safety officials stay safe and out of harm’s way.

Related Questions

What types of jobs will give me the best experience to put on my application to be a 911 dispatcher?

Any job that gives you customer service experience will aid you in your quest to become a 911 operator. According to zippia.com, the top two careers before becoming an emergency telecommunications professional are cashier and customer service representative.

What areas are the best to be employed as a 911 operator?

Some regions are markedly better than others when it comes to beginning your career as a 911 dispatcher. According to zippia.com, the top areas based on job availability and pay are Idaho, Oregon, Alaska, and Maine.

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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.