How to Become a Police, Fire, or Ambulance Dispatcher
Many states require dispatchers to be certified.
Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma. Many states require dispatchers to have certification.
Most dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma. In addition, candidates must pass a written exam and a typing test. In some instances, applicants may need to pass a background check, lie detector and drug tests, as well as tests for hearing and vision.
Most states require dispatchers to be U.S. citizens, and some jobs require a driver’s license. Both computer skills and customer-service skills can be helpful. The ability to speak Spanish is desirable in this occupation as well.
Training requirements vary by state. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) can provide information on which states require training and certification.
Some states require 40 hours or more of initial training and some require continuing education every 2 to 3 years. Other states do not mandate any specific training, leaving individual localities and agencies to conduct their own courses.
Some agencies have their own programs for certifying dispatchers; others use training from a professional association. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) have established a number of recommended standards and best practices that agencies often use as a guideline for their own training programs.
Training is usually conducted in both a classroom and on the job, and is often followed by a probationary period of about 1 year. However, this may vary by agency as there is no national standard of how training is conducted or the length of probation.
Training covers a wide variety of topics, such as local geography, agency protocols, and standard procedures. Dispatchers are also taught how to use specialized equipment, such as a 2-way radio and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. Computer systems that dispatchers use consist of several monitors that display call information, location mapping, relevant criminal history, and video depending on the location of the incident. They often receive specialized training to prepare for high-risk incidents, such as a child abduction or a suicidal caller.
Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations
Many states require dispatchers to be certified. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) has information on which states require training and certification. One commonly required certification is the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) certification, which enables dispatchers to give medical assistance over the phone.
Dispatchers may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as the National Emergency Number Association’s Emergency Number Professional (ENP) or APCO’s Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) certifications to prove their leadership skills and knowledge of the profession.
Dispatchers can become senior dispatchers or supervisors before advancing to administrative positions, in which they may focus on a specific area, such as training or policy and procedures.
Additional education and related work experience may be helpful in advancing to management-level positions.
Ability to multitask. Responding to an emergency over the phone can be stressful. Dispatchers must stay calm to simultaneously answer calls, collect vital information, coordinate responders, use mapping software and camera feeds, and assist callers.
Communication skills. Dispatchers work with law enforcement, emergency response teams, and civilians. They must be able to effectively communicate the nature of an emergency and coordinate the appropriate response.
Decision-making skills. Dispatchers must be able to choose wisely between tasks that are competing for their attention. They must be able to quickly determine the appropriate action when people call for help.
Empathy. People who call 9-1-1 are often in distress. Dispatchers must be willing and able to help callers with a wide range of needs. They must be calm, polite, and sympathetic, while also quickly getting information.
Listening skills. When answering an emergency call or handling radio communications, a dispatcher must listen carefully. Some callers might have trouble speaking because of anxiety or stress.