What happens if you call 911 and no one picks up?

Here's how two dispatchers are working to ensure that there are no shortages of EMS workers in every community

Content provided by CentralSquare Technologies via GovThink.com

The hiring and retention of qualified dispatchers across the country have become a serious problem. Many centers are staffed at half the target number of employees, prompting an unfathomable question – what happens if you call 911 and no one picks up?

Two former dispatchers are working hard to ensure that doesn’t happen. Lori Henricksen and Nanci Tatum, who introduced emergency dispatch-training programs in their local high schools, are training the next generation of dispatchers. Lori Henricksen teaches emergency dispatch at the Veteran’s Tribute Career and Technical Academy, a magnet high school located in Las Vegas, Nevada. Nanci Tatum teaches emergency dispatch at Warren Tech, a career and technical education center for eleventh and twelfth graders in Jefferson County, Colorado. Students in both programs graduate fully certified to start their careers in emergency dispatch.

Hiring and retaining qualified dispatchers has become a serious challenge over the years.
Hiring and retaining qualified dispatchers has become a serious challenge over the years. (image/Getty)

Lori and Nanci sat down with GovThink to answer some of the most pressing questions concerning the dispatchers today, including how technology has changed the dispatch environment and the importance of how these training programs can introduce positive change for the future of dispatching.

Dispatching is facing a nationwide staffing shortage, sparking potential new solutions such as combining centers and restructuring rules of employment. What are some common challenges dispatchers face as a result?

Lori Henricksen: One challenge dispatchers face is the shift work. A dispatch center has a certain number of phone consoles that require someone to operate – if someone calls in sick, there’s no one else to do it. This puts a lot of strain on dispatchers, who are working longer hours and on their days off.  The attrition rate is really high in that respect. I’ve seen quite a few agencies that have combined centers or are currently merging. For some centers where there aren’t enough employees, some calls are rerouted to another center. Technology allows us to be able to do that.

But while combined centers can be beneficial, it does put more strain on the dispatchers because they still have to be familiar with the areas in which they work. You can take a phone call and dispatch responders, but you still have to know how to help the caller. If you’re on the phone with a person and she says, “I don’t know my address, but here’s a landmark,” the call taker still has to know that landmark in order to help her. It puts a lot more responsibility on the call taker, but it can be done. There are a lot of benefits of a combined center, mostly with how it helps agencies overcome these staffing shortages, but again, it’s harder for the actual employees.

Nanci Tatum: The technology we have available today, combined with things like Google Maps, has helped dispatch operations immeasurably. When I began my career in dispatch, we had to do pretty extensive research because we didn’t have Google Maps or anything like that. We were the Google back then because we had to pull up information from maps and other sources. However, with so many advancements in technology happening so quickly, our society has become accustomed to instant gratification.  That means the public expects instant help. This puts additional pressure on dispatchers.

Additionally, I think another major challenge facing the industry today – especially in a state where marijuana is legal – is that fire, EMS and law agencies test prospective employees for marijuana as part of the hiring process. Agencies in some parts of the country are having a hard time finding suitable people.

LH: We’re also facing new challenges with Next Generation 911, cell phones and texting. And now video may enter into the equation as well. Many people come into this job thinking we just answer phones, but it’s so much more than that. All of these new data inputs and requirements combine to further the attrition rate, in addition to making it harder to find people.

Next Generation 911 (NG911) is expected to be a major new development within emergency response. NG911 will replace circuit-switched 911 networks to support more modern communications, allowing citizens to text to 911, send video and other multimedia to dispatchers to give a more comprehensive picture of the emergency. What are your thoughts?

LH: NG911 puts a strain on the call centers to handle more calls. Cell phones, though they are not exactly next generation, did change the way people interacted with 911. We receive many more phone calls now. On an accident, for example, it used to be that someone would see an accident and have to go to a business or payphone to call. Now, anyone who witnesses an accident can just pull out a cell phone to make the 911 call, which results in many more incoming calls. And texting has more recently become an option, so even more people likely will report that same accident.

As a former dispatcher, what are your concerns with NG911?

LH: I’m more personally concerned about video. It’s a good thing for evidentiary purposes and officer safety in many ways. But during a phone call, dispatchers don’t have to see what is actually going on at an event. We can still take control of the call, handle the situation and send it out to the officers. My concern is about dispatchers having to see some of the things that may be taking place during the call. That could be really tough. I’ve taken some horribly tragic calls, and I know how challenging it is to maintain the professionalism and courage to get through the call. Adding video to that mix would require strong support mechanisms for dispatchers to mitigate potential stress or trauma.    

NT: I think about NG911 often and have asked different agencies for their take. For example, one of our neighboring cities said that their dispatchers will receive the video prompt, but will forward the prompt to the sergeant or whomever is in charge. The person in charge can then view the video prompt and decide if it’s something that is relevant for dispatchers to view or forward it on to the responding officer. Although some agencies haven’t yet decided their policy on the video portion of NG911, many dispatchers are voicing their concerns. They say, “I don’t want to see what’s happening, that’s why I’m in dispatch.” I understand that because we already have so much going on just by hearing what’s happening at the other end of the line. I’m not sure we need to see an incident unfolding.

Recruiting is a challenge for any industry. What are some ways agencies can recruit more effectively for dispatchers?

NT: Getting the word out about the profession is critical. Emergency dispatch is a profession that still does not get a lot of attention even though there’s a huge demand for dispatchers.  We were out of sight, out of mind for years, but now I often hear from agencies who want to know when my students will graduate and when they’ll be ready to recruit. So many people, including parents, came into my class and said, “I didn’t even think of this as a profession.” Even today, the public doesn’t understand the professionalism required for this job. They call 911, and a fire truck appears; that is what’s prominent in their minds. The person at the other end of the line is rarely something they think about.

How do high school emergency dispatch programs help?

LH: The school is one way to build the profession. I receive quite a few calls from agencies and schools around the country that have heard about our program and want to start one of their own. I think agencies and schools are seeing the impacts of the attrition rate and understanding we need to do something. If we introduce students to dispatch when they’re relatively young, they have more opportunity to learn about the challenges and opportunities, then decide if they want it as a career. Because a large majority of high school students haven’t started their families yet, they’re more adaptable to change, which is helpful in a dispatch center. They have more flexibility to do shift work and might be open to different days off.  Also, they’re more used to technology, so this is the ideal time to introduce dispatching as a potential career.

NT: I have so many students come to my class who are unaware of careers in emergency dispatch. They’re surprised they can get a job right out of high school with no college required.

What is it like teaching the next generation of dispatchers?

LH: One of the things I prioritize is stress management because I know it will help with attrition rates, NG911-related issues and things these students will be seeing and hearing over their careers as dispatchers. Whether at the beginning or end of every class, we practice some type of stress relief techniques, and we also have lessons on it. Representatives who work with crisis intervention come in from different agencies to speak to the kids.

I want our students to be confident and know whether this is the job for them or not when they complete this program. I would rather they understand the full scope of the work now rather than start a job in dispatch and realize later that it isn’t the best fit for them. My biggest priority is stress management and prepping these kids for the things they will see and hear.  With this training and support, I believe they’ll be ready and capable. No one is ever fully prepared for the stress of a tragic call, but I think these kids are very well prepared and far ahead of anyone who comes into this career without this type of training.

Dispatching has gotten increasingly sophisticated when it comes to technology. Veteran’s Tribute uses CentralSquare software in class so students become familiar with using the CAD that real-world dispatchers use. How has that experience been?

LH: Partnering with CentralSquare has been amazing because our students are learning on the same CAD they would be using in the real world. The students love it. When we first opened, we had a small, basic training system. It was fine, but the kids knew it wasn’t real, and I knew it wasn’t real. It allowed us to do basic dispatch functions, but actually having the real thing and being able to visit our local agencies to see how real dispatchers use the CentralSquare system really excites the kids and gets them engaged. It makes them feel more confident about their skills. The students come back to class and learn on the same CAD, so it feels very real to them. In their career, if they transition to a different agency that also uses the CentralSquare CAD, they have an advantage because they already know how to use it. The agencies love that their new employees know how to use the software, too. It means they can accelerate training because these kids are ready to start the job sooner.

What are your hopes for the future of dispatching?

NT: My hopes are that these agencies be more proactive in the health of their employees. That’s the biggest resource they have. I try not to let my students sit for more than an hour without taking a break. I give them a handout about the statistics about sitting disease because in dispatch, we’re there for eight or 10 hours at a time – some dispatchers even more. We’re sitting that whole time or only getting up for short breaks and then sitting again. It can be very unhealthy and can lead to circulatory problems or clot problems. Physical fitness for an agency’s staff would really do good because it does affect their insurance rates. I think for dispatch in general, if we establish good self-help habits, I think it would help the industry tremendously.

A final word on dispatchers?

LH: Dispatchers are amazing multitaskers who have hearts of gold. That’s how to succeed in this job which is very challenging. We listen and try to help people on their worst days. Through it all, we do this because we really care about the public.

Personally, I love this job, and I love training people to do this job because I want to make sure that officers, like my husband, and the people he works with go home safely at the end of the day. 

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