Emergency Dispatch Education
April 11, 2023
Vocational education is making a strong comeback. Maybe you never knew it went away or that it existed prior to your own high school experience. Well, it never actually disappeared, but it went through multiple iterations until its surge as an integrated part of high school curriculum.
Right on the tail of its revival is emergency dispatch education and training. It is emerging as a “hot” profession in Career Technical Education (CTE) and follows a long history of debate over the merits of alternatives to academia. Vocational education is finally finding equity.
Vocational education dates to the early 20th century, and its direction has changed considerably over the decades. In the 1960s and 1970s, for example, high school shop class was sandwiched between the reading, writing, and science curriculum. Shop class gave a break to academic rigor while providing hands-on experience in many trades.
After a period of togetherness in the schoolhouse, vocational and academic studies in the U.S. went their separate ways. Vocational education was increasingly seen as preparation for careers not requiring a bachelor’s degree. Over time, vocational programs became sort of a dumping ground for students failing in the traditional academic environment.1 A predominant percentage of the students were from low-income families.
Considerable debate and more progressive thinking changed its course once again over the past several years.
A good academic foundation was determined necessary regardless of the path a student chose, and most vocational programs were not building that foundation. Consequently, vocational training took a turn. In several parts of the country, vocational programs were overhauled to integrate academics into career classes and add academic classes to vocational curriculum. The hybrid programs allowed students to develop technical, academic, and professional skills.
The initiative caught on.
During the 2016–17 school year, 98 percent of public school districts in the U.S. offered CTE programs to students at the high school level.2 Depending on the CTE program, students could earn both high school and postsecondary credit for the classes, and several programs featured online CTE courses.
Emergency dispatch emerged as a hot CTE program, taking its position among the more traditional courses, such as welding, culinary arts, HVAC, cosmetology, medical and dental assisting, and plumbing. Two of the following three examples highlight emergency dispatch education and training during high school, while the third opens opportunities for people who never finished high school and are seeking both a diploma and a career option.
Lori Henricksen, 911 Emergency Dispatch/Emergency Telecommunications Instructor, Veterans Tribute Career & Technical Academy, Las Vegas, Nevada (USA)
Classroom and lab
There’s more than one way to grow—or at least stabilize—the emergency dispatch profession for the generations to come. Although opinions and advice may vary, the key seems to hinge on a perspective of value added to the community and personal fulfillment.
And a dedicated leader.
If you ask Lori Henricksen, emergency dispatch is the best job in the world for those reasons, plus some. “This is an amazing job you can do the rest of your life and make a difference every day in other lives.”
Henricksen personifies the perspective. At age 16, while in high school, she was a radio dispatcher for the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and United States Forest Service. By age 19, she was full time with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. In 2010, a Las Vegas high school specializing in public safety was set to open, and the school’s supervisor, Tammy Bosselli, knew exactly who to contact for the 911 program.
“We had worked together at the police department; she trained under me,” Henricksen said. “I never thought I’d be a dispatch teacher, but here I am.”
Henricksen built the program from scratch.
The program commences with introductory public safety coursework during their freshman and sophomore years and ends with graduating seniors earning their emergency telecommunicator certification tri-certified in the Medical, Fire, and Police Protocols. Henricksen developed the curriculum, readied the classroom and lab, and created thousands of emergency dispatch scenarios. She continually updates curriculum, including criminal and civil law pertinent to public safety and communications. The 29 consoles in the lab and the six in the classroom are CAD equipped and loaded with ProQA® software (EMD/EFD/EPD).
That’s just for starters.
“We’re unique,” she said. “When students leave, they are fully prepared. Certification. Coping skills. Training in QA. Managing the suicidal caller and using the Active Assailant Protocol. They can handle it all and make a difference.”
Developing stress management techniques is a huge part, Henricksen said. She challenges them to do something fun each day. The students carry journals (pen and paper), and each class opens with writing a positive thought, something that inspires constructive thinking.
The program is so popular that she limits student numbers to the available classroom and lab resources. The lab replicates the real world. “It’s awesome for students to see what happens in a communication center,” she said. “Few people understand what goes on in there.”
About 70% of students go on to public safety careers, either in 911 or in the field (such as police officers). They are hired for positions nationwide.
She attributes their success to preparation and early exposure to the profession. “Realizing I’m a true example of someone who can do this at an early age builds their confidence.”
- Start training before the day the candidate first walks through the communication center door. (Let them know what they’re getting into.)
- Approach the less positive aspects, such as holidays, overtime, and the stress potential.
- Teach skills lost through generational and electronic changes, such as typing and map reading. (The ease of an app that maps a route over the phone has replaced actual map reading skills in giving directions.)
- Go outside the classroom and bring in public safety speakers.
Henricksen keeps in contact with her former students, and several are guest lecturers in her classroom. One of her former trainees worked the Route 91 Harvest Festival mass shooting (Oct. 1, 2017) and provided insights on the experience. No matter the event, she told them, you can handle from what you learn in this course.
Henricksen’s expertise is in demand. Requests she has received to assist other schools led her to opening an emergency dispatch training and consulting service (BX3). “We live in a different world from when I started, but my goal hasn’t changed,” she said. “I want them excited about public safety and the difference they can make every day.”
James Tabron, Senior Fire Equipment Dispatcher, St. Louis Fire Department, St. Louis, Missouri (USA)
St. Louis Earn and Learn initiative
James Tabron realized he had to do something to create interest in the emergency dispatch profession. From his own experience came the reality that a misconception of personal sacrifices in emergency communications was turning away a lot of potential applicants. “Some people hear it’s a job in which they’re always giving so they never apply. Others say they don’t have the stomach for trauma. The stress discourages them.”
Tabron decided to counteract the negative aspects keeping younger people out of the profession. True, emergency communications is not for everyone, but the benefits—such as helping the community—outweigh the disadvantages for those looking for public service careers. He also realized that the profession was struggling. “If you don’t have dispatchers, you make them. You shape them into what you need.”
In 2021, he made his move. The powerful influences of being an Emergency Dispatcher and an instructor at the St. Louis Fire Department communication center converged.
“I believe in what we do, so I bit the bullet,” said Tabron, who transferred 25 years ago from firefighting into emergency communications after a gunshot to his spine off-duty left him paralyzed from the waist down. “I felt good about it and still do. I’ve always believed if you can’t find it, you make it.”
Tabron’s timing for the dispatch program was spot on. The fire department and school system accepted the proposal the first time it was introduced. Classes are held at the fire station.
St. Louis Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson hailed the broader perspective of fire service provided to students through the program. “It’s not all about guys or women riding on the truck and rushing to put water on a fire. There’s so much more.”3
The course is offered through the St. Louis Learn and Earn initiative. Learn and Earn provides education and paid internships to qualified high school seniors made possible by STL Youth Jobs in partnership with St. Louis Public Schools. Participants apply to the program during the first semester of their senior year. If accepted, seniors can choose from a variety of internships based on their interests and skills.
STL Executive Director Hillary Frey said they do not push students in any one direction. Internships range from local small businesses to large Fortune 500 companies as well as nonprofit and government organizations and public services. “It's all about figuring out what they want to do and helping them get there,” Frey said.4
St. Louis Fire Department communications uses the Medical Priority Dispatch System™ (MPDS®), and Tabron thought to contact Chris Bradford, Public Safety Specialist, Public Relations & Quality, Priority Dispatch Corp.™ (PDC™), for help setting up his dispatch program. He got people on board and developed curriculum that includes the basics (ETC), mapping, and scenarios. He modifies as he goes along.
Tabron is in the second year of teaching the program and calls it a success if even one out of seven students enters the emergency dispatch profession. “We can replenish our centers at that rate. We can get a pipeline to keep the centers afloat.”
Eva Williams, Lead Life Coach, The Excel Center, Hammond, Indiana (USA)
Open to ages 18 and up
Free Indiana Core 40 high school diploma
College and industry-recognized certification pathways
Eva Williams is all about giving people a second chance and, if necessary, multiple chances complementing their education and career bucket list delayed by any number of factors.
Williams guides students 18 and older through steps to achieve high school diplomas and develop skills necessary for a career. She doesn’t judge individuals for the reasons they didn’t graduate from high school nor does she expect them to put personal issues on the back burner. Student success hinges on choice. There is no forcing them to be there.
For some, fulfilling what they hoped to achieve can take years if not decades. Students in their 70s and 80s have crossed the stage at graduation to pick up their long-awaited diplomas.
“They want to be here,” Williams said. “We provide a second chance. We meet them at the door, discuss what might get in their way of attendance, and help them work through their struggles.”
Operated by Goodwill Industries of Michiana Inc., Excel Centers offer free college credit and industry-recognized certifications while students earn their diplomas. Since opening in 2010, Indiana’s Excel Centers serve students in 15 locations in central and southern Indiana.
In 2013, The Excel Center expanded nationally and is now also found in Arizona, Arkansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C. Education requirements vary by state. The Indiana State Board of Education requires completion of a Core 40 curriculum for high school graduation.
Not everyone makes it in a traditional school setting. Williams said the reasons can be generational (education was not a priority), attendance (they missed too many school days), failing grades, or they do not like school. Academics do not drive them.
This is where The Excel Center excels.
Students can choose an academic or non-academic path. They can decide to go on to college once they have received their diploma or pursue non-degreed industry-recognized certifications (such as welding, dental assistance, and pharmacy technician). The year-round schedule is offered in five, eight-week terms.
Resources are tailored to fit student needs. Weekday scheduling is flexible, public transportation can be arranged, and parents may drop off children in the free day care while attending class. Life Coaches are similar to high school counselors—geared to improve student outcomes—although they carry a lighter student load and focus on creating a supportive environment.
Emergency dispatch was introduced to the Hammond Excel site in April 2022. “It’s a hot job in the area,” said Williams, who teaches the ETC certification course. ETC is a 40-hour program developed by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED™) and designed as an introductory course to emergency dispatching. Three other Indiana Excel Centers plan to incorporate ETC in their curriculum within the next year. Communication centers take a graduate’s career from there in providing center specific requirements, such as EMD/EFD/EPD certifications.
While Williams’ background does not include emergency dispatch—she holds a bachelor’s in business administration from Indiana University-Purdue—she has always gravitated to the customer service side of management. She likes to help and encourage, making things work toward reaching personal goals. She dived into learning about communication center operations and the profession’s preferred skill sets.
She also has empathy from personal experience. Williams was raised in foster homes and knows what it’s like to be abused, forgotten, ignored, and told success was beyond her means. She has coached students through divorce, child custody battles, domestic abuse situations, homelessness, and drug alcohol recovery. It’s not everybody’s story at the Excel Centers, but it does hit a chord. Students hear her story and realize if she can do it, so can they.
“No one is less worthy; everyone deserves a chance,” Williams said. “We take different journeys through life, and I am so grateful that these students allow me to be part of theirs.”
1 Hanford E. “The Troubled History of Vocational Education.” 2014; Sept. 9. https://www.apmreports.org/episode/2014/09/09/the-troubled-history-of-vocational-education (accessed Nov. 22, 2022).
2 “Career and Technical Education.” National Center for Education Statistics. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=43#:~:text=During%20the%202016%E2%80%9317%20school,at%20the%20high%20school%20level (accessed Nov. 22, 2022).
3“Learn and Earn: Paid Internships for High School Seniors.” Saint Louis Public Schools. 2022; April 4. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o3RtYIiIqxs&t=21s (accessed Nov. 15, 2022).
4 See note 3.
Here’s what shop class—or career and technical education—can give you:1
- Hands-on training that is directly applicable to careers upon graduation
- Work-related and internship-style experiences
- Training in the “soft skills” necessary in the workforce (e.g., teamwork, adaptability, problem-solving, conflict resolution, leadership, communication, etc.)
- Motivation to attend school more frequently and be more engaged by integrating academic skills with real-world context (If you’re a “When are we really going to use this?” type of student … well, you’ll get your answer!)
- The ability to improve academic skills
1 “Where Did Shop Class Go? The Value of Teaching Trades in School.” Hub and Spoke. 2020; April 17. https://hubandspoke.works/where-did-shop-class-go/ (accessed Nov. 22, 2022).
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