Shawn Messinger

Shawn Messinger

Story Vault

By Shawn Messinger

Is emergency telecommunications a “job” or a “profession”? To answer that depends some on how you define a profession. A quick Internet search will produce several definitions for a “job” and a “profession.” Here are a couple I found.

Job: “A regular activity performed in exchange for payment.”

Profession: “A paid occupation, especially one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.”

In the past, the role of a dispatcher was compared to clerical staff and to this day, their salaries still often suffer from the comparison. To be fair, this comparison did make sense 50 years ago. The emergency number 9-1-1 did not exist and callers generally dialed 7-digit numbers to request help. Dispatchers listened to the caller explain the problem, jotted down notes on a piece of paper or 3 x 5 card, and told the caller that they would send assistance.

Caller interrogations were limited, if done at all; providing any type of instruction to help the caller before help arrived was non-existent and there were no sophisticated diagnostic tools that could be used over the phone.

Today, we have Enhanced or E9-1-1 systems capable of routing emergency calls to the correct PSAP and providing a name and location of the caller. Many states are already using, or are migrating to, Next Generation or NG9-1-1 systems with the technical capability of providing not only name and location but also receiving text, video, and vehicle crash telematics, to name a few. Today’s telecommunicators answer multiple radio channels and phone lines, conduct thorough caller interrogations, provide lifesaving instructions to callers, and enter the data into a computerized CAD system in real time. They are highly trained and must continually refresh this training to maintain certifications.

Scholars agree that modernization of law enforcement in the United States began in the 1920s with Berkeley, Calif., Police Chief August Vollmer. Vollmer recognized the need for law enforcement to professionalize, adopt new technologies and strategies, and focus on the training of officers. This push was continued on by other police officers such as former Chicago Police Superintendent O.W. Wilson and former LA Police Chief Daryl Gates. Adding standards for performance and the conduct of officers, as well as standards for training, guided law enforcement into professional status. While the telecommunicator’s role has evolved, it has taken a back seat to field operations. This began to change in the 1970s, however, and this evolution from job to profession has reached an almost exponential pace in the 21st century. The public and the agencies relying on dispatchers have learned to respect the work they do.

Along with the adoption of new technologies, there is a growing expectation from the public for trained and certified telecommunicators to provide a higher standard of service. A major portion of this expectation can be tied to the structured calltaking movement pioneered by Dr. Jeff Clawson. Regardless of whether the public knew about protocols and structured calltaking or not, they did see a vast difference between the service provided by agencies using them and those that did not. TV shows and news stories highlighting actual 9-1-1 calls gave the public a preview of the type of service they could expect. As this public awareness has increased, so has the anticipation that 9-1-1 centers should provide this higher quality service.

The days of minimally trained, unscripted telecommunicators flying by the seat of their pants, with little or no interrogation, and the failure to provide lifesaving instructions are fleeting at best. Public expectations and court decisions in a litigiousness environment compel public service agencies to move their communications centers into the modern and professional world of emergency dispatch.

It’s not only the public demanding better service. The employees of these same centers want the tools—technology, education, certification, and training—to meet public demand. Dispatchers want to be viewed as professionals. They are an integral part of the emergency services system and are serious about their role in protecting the public and responders. They want training, they want continuing education, and they want certification. They pride themselves on providing a lifesaving, zero-minute response to callers in need, as the “first, first responder.” That sounds like a professional to me.