Becoming a 911 Dispatcher: Job Description & Salary Information

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Get the truth about a 911 dispatcher's salary, training requirements and career prospects. Read the job description and learn the pros and cons of becoming a 911 dispatcher.
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Pros and Cons of Becoming a 911 Dispatcher

911 dispatchers field phone calls from people who need urgent assistance and then direct the police, firefighters or paramedics, to the location of the emergency. Read on to to see if becoming a 911 dispatcher is a good match for you.

Pros of Becoming a 911 Dispatcher
Get the job with just a high school diploma*
Enjoy career stability**
Make a difference in people's lives***
Work in a fast-paced environment where every day is different****

Cons of Becoming a 911 Dispatcher
Face tremendously stressful situations*
Earn a low salary (median annual wage in May 2014 was about $37,410)*
Might experience eyestrain and back pain from sitting at a computer for long periods of time**
Might need to work long and irregular hours*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **California Employment Development Department, ***City of Seattle, ****Chesterfield County Government.

Essential Career Info

Job Description and Duties

As a 911 dispatcher, you'll work in a telecommunications center and answer the phone when someone dials 911 for emergency assistance. You'll listen to the caller's description of the situation, ask critical questions and determine the appropriate emergency response. You'll then relay the information to the police, firefighters or paramedics, coordinate the dispatch of the responding agencies and keep track of them while they are out on assignment. You'll also provide callers with instructions on what to do while they wait for help to arrive, possibly even life-saving medical interventions.

Some 911 dispatchers concentrate solely on answering the 911 calls, while others focus on communicating information to the emergency responders, but many do both. Regardless, you'll need to keep detailed records about the emergency calls and, most likely, enter that information into a computer system.

Most 911 dispatchers work 8 to 12-hour shifts, and some work 24-hour shifts. Since emergencies are unplanned events, you'll most likely work weekends and holidays. Additionally, the work is physically taxing, and dispatchers often experience back pain and eyestrain as a result of sitting and looking at computer screens for hours on end.

The biggest hazard of the job, however, might be the emotional stress. Emergency calls can be traumatic and distressing, and you will be under pressure to respond to life-threatening emergencies quickly and accurately. Dispatchers have a high level of responsibility, yet little control over the outcomes, which can lead to extremely high levels of stress. According to a report published by ABC News in 2012, many dispatchers display signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Salary Information and Employment Outlook

In May 2014, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported a median annual wage of about $37,410 for 911 dispatchers, such as police, fire and ambulance dispatchers. The salary range for most 911 dispatchers was around $23,790-$58,870 in the same year.

Emergencies occur regardless of economic fluctuations, so 911 dispatcher careers are relatively stable. The BLS predicts an 8% increase in emergency dispatcher jobs between 2012 and 2022, which is about as fast as all occupations. The increasingly larger and older population should spur demand for emergency response services. Employment opportunities for 911 dispatchers should be plentiful due to jobs opening when people leave this occupation for other careers.

Education Requirements

Training and Education

You can get a job as a 911 dispatcher with a high school diploma or equivalent, although the requirements might vary by state and agency. Some employers might not specify any educational requirements, while others might require a 2- or 4-year degree in a relevant field, such as criminal justice or communications. Either way, you'll probably need to take a basic training course that covers such topics as local geography, agency protocols and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. In many states, training to become a 911 dispatcher takes 40 or more hours, followed by a 1-year probationary period.

Top Skills for 911 Dispatchers

Two essential skills for being a 911 dispatcher are the ability to multitask and the ability to stay calm under pressure. In this job, you'll be answering calls, collecting information, organizing responders and helping callers. It's critical that you act decisively and swiftly. There might not be any down time before the next call comes in, and you'll need to clear your mind and quickly move on to the next emergency. Dispatchers also must be able to solve problems, demonstrate leadership, show empathy, listen carefully and take initiative.

What Employers Are Looking for

To get hired as a 911 dispatcher, you'll most likely need to pass a typing test. Many employers also require new hires to successfully complete an emergency response training program before or soon after their start date. To give you a better idea of what employers are looking for, the following are a few job openings that employers posted in May 2012:

  • The city of Phoenix, AZ, sought a fire emergency dispatcher with at least a year of experience working with the public, clerical skills and the ability to type at least 35 words per minute. The ideal candidate would demonstrate superb communication skills, the ability to efficiently multitask and sound judgment under pressure. Once hired, the recruit must pass the city's emergency medical dispatcher (EMD) program and cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training course within three months of hire.
  • A city government in California advertised for a police/law enforcement dispatcher with a high school diploma, at least one year of experience working with the public in stressful situations and the ability to type at least 45 words per minute. To be considered for the job, applicants had to complete an online dispatcher pre-employment test.
  • A staffing agency sought an emergency medical dispatcher for its client in Florida. Requirements included a high school diploma or equivalent, at least one year of radio dispatching experience (preferably in an emergency services setting) and EMD certification or the ability to obtain EMD certification by the end of a probation period. The employer was willing to consider comparable training and experience in lieu of the requirements.

How to Stand Out

Take Continuing Education

While experience is probably the best education, the BLS states that getting additional education can help you get ahead in this field. Professional organizations, such as the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) and the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED), offer several continuing education opportunities for 911 dispatchers, some of which lead to certifications.

You might consider additional training to become an emergency medical dispatcher (EMD), which would allow you to provide 911 callers with medical advice over the phone. Other optional certifications for 911 dispatchers include the Emergency Number Professional (ENP) and the Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL). To maintain such certifications over the course of your career, you'll probably need to take continuing education courses.

Learn a Second Language

Some employers appreciate 911 dispatchers who can speak languages other than English. For example, according to the California Employment Development Department, employers in California value Spanish-speaking skills. In March 2012, The Galveston County Daily News reported that county agencies in Texas were hiring bilingual dispatchers in response to an increase in the number of Spanish-speaking residents.

Get Computer Skills

The BLS also states that those with technology and computer skills will have the best job prospects. The technology that 911 dispatchers use to manage emergency calls is constantly evolving, and those who keep up will have the best chances of advancing to a supervisory level.

Other Careers to Consider

Emergency Medical Technician or Paramedic

If you prefer to have direct contact with the people you help, becoming an emergency medical technician (EMT) or paramedic might be for you. In this job, you'll get to provide medical care to people at the scene of the accident. In addition to a high school diploma, you'll need to complete CPR and EMT or paramedic training courses. Basic and advanced EMT training programs are generally about 100 and 1,000 hours long, respectively, and a paramedic training program can take up to two years to complete. You'll also need a state license.

You'll probably earn less than you would as a 911 dispatcher. According to the BLS, the median annual wage for EMTs and paramedics was about $31,000 in May 2011. However, the number of EMT and paramedic jobs should increase 33% between 2010 and 2020, much faster than average for all occupations.

Customer Service Representative

If you like the idea of helping people, but you don't want the stress of a 911 dispatcher career, you might consider becoming a customer service representative. Job duties might include helping customers get information about products and services, taking orders, processing returns and handling complaints. Although your stress level would probably be considerably lower than if you worked as a 911 dispatcher, you'll most likely earn a lower salary. According to statistics reported by the BLS in May 2011, the median salary for customer services representatives was only about $31,000.

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American University

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Saint Mary's University of Minnesota

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The George Washington University

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