Offer incentives to keep dispatchers
I’ve just returned from the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials conference, and I recently was at National Emergency Number Association show. This year, I spent a lot of non-rebanding time looking at the tools that dispatchers have at their disposal — tools that are becoming more robust.
I can’t imagine a more stressful job than being a 911 dispatcher. These folks are chained to their desks, dedicated to helping desperate people in dire circumstances. The recent release of additional recordings from the 9/11 disaster shows how dispatchers handled themselves beautifully in the worst of times.
While dispatchers are quite adept at sending first responders to help and using their own personal communication skills used when talking to the victim, they can’t go to the scene themselves to help. Instead they must listen to and advise victims in the worst of situations. I’m sure that those that worked during Katrina or on 9/11 in New York or Washington, D.C., endured the most horrific of situations.
Generally, the only time we hear about a dispatcher’s work (the 9/11 stories notwithstanding) in the general press is when a call goes wrong, and that’s unfortunate. It’s far too rare that we hear the stories of how dispatchers’ actions saved someone. When we do hear a good story (other than an OnStar advertisement), I imagine that every dispatcher says to their significant other, “Now you know what I do a dozen times a day.”
In fact, because most law enforcement- and fire department-related TV shows focus on the police officer or firefighter, I wonder how a show would do that focused on the person in the chair that got them to the scene. “Law & Order: The Dispatchers” has a nice ring to it. Dick Wolf, are you listening?
After doing a bit of research at the conferences, I thought I’d do a little Internet research as well. What I found was alarming. Starting dispatcher jobs pay $15.40 per hour in Champaign, Ill.; $2736 to $3298 per month in San Diego; and $21,729 annually in Fort Myers, Fla. How can we expect to recruit and retain good people for such a high-burnout position at these salary levels? You can start in Denver at about $45,000, but is that enough in a major urban area where we’re asking so much of a human being?
How does a dispatcher keep from being too emotionally wrapped up in the tragedy to which they must listen? How do they keep from going home every day crying about the horrible things they have heard? What can we do to make them understand that we appreciate their efforts?
I think that since 9/11, we collectively have been better about showing our appreciation to firefighters and police officers. Of course, we always can do more, but I do believe that the respect factor leaped quite a bit that day. Can we do the same for dispatchers?
Certainly, efforts such as APCO’s Project Retains are an important part of improving this situation. However, I believe that efforts should be made not only at the association and grassroots level, but also at the actual governmental administration level. Municipalities must recognize the importance of this job and the difficulty in performing it, and economically (and in other ways) encourage people to apply. Perhaps sticking city council members in that chair for a day, making them listen to a child’s cry for help and forcing them to talk someone off a ledge will increase their appreciation for the position. No matter what the best course of action is, what APCO calls a crisis can’t be allowed to continue.
Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at [email protected].