The police out in the public eye frequently catch news headlines for dramatic rescues, tense standoffs and human interest pieces in which cute puppies, kittens or ducklings are rescued from their escapades. Much like the old saying “behind every successful man is a woman”, truth be told, behind every successful officer is a great dispatcher. Too often unsung heroes, a Police Dispatchers duties play a vital role in ensuring officer safety and enhancing public safety in an incredibly demanding environment.
Police Dispatchers Duties – Behind the Scenes
In most cases, dispatchers report to work in an emergency center designed to remain operational through natural disasters and other events that threaten continuity of service. This necessitates a well-insulated facility, windowless, with a bank of computers and communications equipment. Headsets help reduce the noise during high activity. Depending upon the size of the agency, there are call takers that filter the non-emergency calls to allow dispatchers to focus their attention on the more critical calls that come in. This is important when considering the information dispatchers must keep track of.
As dispatchers check in for duty, information from what officers are on duty, where they are assigned, specialized units engaged in operations and information to disseminate on wanted persons is just a small portion of beginning their day ensuring a seamless transition from one shift to another. Once a call comes in, they are responsible for gathering information from the caller to provide the officer in that area sufficient information to safely respond to the call. Often, there are a multitude of calls that come in at the same time, some prank calls, some from lonely individuals needing someone to talk to and then there are the dramatic calls entailing a crime in progress or medical emergencies with often hysterical callers screaming into the phone.
Through all this, dispatchers must keep track of officers on service calls, traffic stops and back up officers responding. Once officers arrive on scene to a potentially dangerous call or pulls a vehicle over, the dispatcher must keep track of the location, remember to check on the officer and be ready to respond if the officer is in trouble. This is done without being able to see what is going on and relying on information obtained by callers and the officers. As frustrating as it is for officers to be sent on false alarms, complaints about fast food restaurants getting an order wrong and other misuses of the emergency system, dispatchers have weeded out multitudes of frequently obnoxious, frivolous callers that would test the patience of the most saintly of us.
The Art of Dispatching
Dispatchers are the conduit between the public, police and emergency responders, as well as the lifeline for the boots on the ground. It requires considerable patience and professionalism to calmly transmit to an officer while dealing with an irate or hysterical caller on the phone at the same time. Effective people skills and diligence in eliciting as much information as possible from a caller to ensure that the officer can identify a suspect, safely handle an armed homeowner responding to an alarm or send additional back up to where it is most needed while remembering where the officer was that pulled a vehicle over and remembering the lower priority calls is truly an art.
Information gathering, disseminating information to officers, remembering officer locations and continually adjusting priorities is at heart of effective emergency services. Break downs in any of these areas can potentially mean life or death consequences for officers or the public. Additional skills, such as being able to talk a parent through infant CPR or the Heimlich maneuver or a frantic father through the emergency delivery of his child add to the vital role dispatcher’s play in emergency services.
A recent news report demonstrated the quick thinking and creativity of dispatchers. Raedyn Grasseth, a Washington state dispatcher received a call of a kayaker in need of rescue, she quickly realized her mother lived close and could provide help well before rescue crews could arrive. Her familiarity with the area and quick thinking ensured the kayaker was rescued from extremely cold and dangerous water before life threatening hypothermia could set in.
My Field Experiences
As part of my academy training, as well as officer survival training, listening to recordings of radio traffic when everything goes wrong for an officer on the street was a critical part of developing both a greater understanding of what happened, as well as a greater appreciation of the lifeline that a dispatcher can be for an officer. Some of those audios were of officers that were killed; others were of officers that although injured, lived to tell their stories. Listening to the remarkably calm voices connecting with the officers, verifying their location to send help and most significant reassuring the officers dealing with life threatening injuries or dying. The comfort and reassurance provided in those situations made a deep and lasting impression lingering to this day.
The most significant personal experience during my career was working an extra job for a nightclub dealing with drug trafficking and violence, including drive by shootings in their parking lot. One night, while checking warrants on a potential suspect, another individual began agitating the crowd as the club was closing.
After warning the person to stop and leave the premises according to the owner’s policy, the crowd became more agitated as I placed him under arrest. Other officers working with me helped deal with the crowd and when the arrestee began fighting, everything broke loose. I had requested back up on the alternate channel for warrant checks, as I didn’t have time to switch the channel, so it didn’t go out over the main channel for officers in the area to hear us.
As one officer was keeping the crowd off of us, the rest of us were trying to gain control of the arrestee after he’d slipped one hand free, striking me in the face with the open ratchet of the handcuffs. Though he had a greater reach than I did, I fought my way in to grab him and was kicked up against the patrol car. My vest kept my chest from caving in from the force of his feet on the front and the side of the car against my back.
The dispatcher had put the call out for help on all channels and there was help coming from every local agency, including Corrections officers running to us from the jail half a block away. Though I received what would end up being a career ending injury, the confidence and relief I felt during the riot hearing the dispatchers putting the call out and the sound of the sirens coming to assist was of immense help in personally keeping it together when the outcome was questionable. Dispatchers help us all hang on just a little longer.
The uninformed do not see the incredible courage and fortitude dispatching requires. Most of the time, it is perceived as simply taking calls and telling officers where to go. It was never lost on me the significant mental and emotional toll on dispatchers that hearing officers fighting for their lives, listening to people being unmercifully attacked and screaming for help and feeling helpless while waiting for the help that was dispatched to arrive, sometimes too late. The too often unsung heroes in dispatch are a vital cornerstone in the safety of their officers and the public. They have my utmost respect and gratitude.
Dispatcher Raedyn Grasseth’s story:
What are your perceptions of the role that a police dispatchers duties play in public safety? If you have had to call emergency services, do all the questions that are asked make more sense? Do you think dispatchers deserve more recognition? I welcome your thoughts and comments below.