Reach For The Sky

Becca Barrus

Becca Barrus


When someone mentions career growth or personal development, you probably envision some kind of corporate ladder. Perhaps you’ve been influenced by the TV show “Succession” and think of people doing whatever it takes to become the CEO of a billion-dollar company.

Envisioning career growth at a personal level might feel less exciting. You might be thinking that the structure in your center goes like this: You start as a line calltaker/Emergency Dispatcher, then get promoted to shift supervisor or chief training officer (CTO). After that, you might become a floor manager, ED-Q, or even the center director. In that model, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of variation, and much like in “Succession,” there aren’t very many spaces at the top.

What if you’re not interested in being in a leadership position? Or your center is small enough that everyone plays every role? Does that mean you can’t develop in your career?

Of course not!

Did you know that trees grow in three places? They grow at the roots, shoots, and trunk. The roots grow relatively unnoticed underground, looking for water and other essential nutrients in the soil. The shoots are the most visible, sprouting buds on branches that turn into leaves that in turn gather sunlight for the tree’s growing process. And the trunk grows from the inside out, creating rings that can tell you how old the tree is.

Sometimes a tree grows in all three places at one time, and sometimes only one part of the tree is growing at a time. Sometimes the growth is noticeable, like when flowers are blooming on the branches or a stubborn root busts through a sidewalk. Mostly, though, trees grow at such a steady, slow pace that most people take for granted that growth is happening at all.

Personal growth is like that, too, both inside and outside the dispatch center. Your big accomplishments, like receiving a promotion or taking your 10,000th call, are your shoots and buds. Everyone can see them and celebrate with you. Every call you take and every CDE course you complete are your roots, experiences that keep you grounded that might go unnoticed. Any training or courses you take beyond that are adding strength to your trunk.

This article will help you find the best place to work on growth for yourself, whether it’s at your metaphorical roots, trunk, or shoots.

Seeing the whole forest

Why does career growth matter? If you’re doing your continuing education and maintaining high compliance scores, shouldn’t that be enough? And if you are in a leadership role, isn’t that all you can ask of the people who report to you?

Completing CDE courses and maintaining high compliance scores are a great starting place for personal growth! There have been a fair amount of studies recently about employee satisfaction, and it turns out that 83% of employees say one of their top priorities is improving their skills.1 Unfortunately, though, most employees don’t believe they have the right conditions for career growth within their current organization. Only 26% say their organization challenged them to learn a new skill, and a mere 15% say their organization encouraged them to move to a new role.2 This presents a missed opportunity for centers who may never realize their team’s full potential.

There’s evidence that opportunities for growth and employee engagement help with recruitment and retention too, which as we all know is a priority for most emergency dispatch agencies right now. A recent study conducted by the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch® (IAED) and the National Association of State 911 Administrators (NASNA) suggested that the average vacancy rate in 911 centers across America was about 25%—and there are definitely places where 25% is modest. One center reported an 83% vacancy rate.3

NENA: The 9-1-1 Association and Carbyne conducted a similar survey about the challenges currently facing the emergency response community in North America. They found that “a staggering 82% of centers reported being understaffed and struggling with hiring and retention.” Additionally, fewer than 50% of respondents felt “adequately equipped to handle every incident type,” including active shooter situations, mental health calls, and civil disturbances.4

A Pew Research study showed that, among other important reasons, 63% of respondents quit their jobs in 2021 because they didn’t have any opportunities for advancement in their workplace.5

Now that you’ve seen the stats about why training and development opportunities are important, where should you go—or rather grow—from here? Let’s break the advice down into personal growth, leadership growth, and growth opportunities that encompass both.

Personal growth

If leadership isn’t something you’re interested in doing right now, there are still plenty of ways for you to strengthen your roots and trunk.

Certifications from accredited organizations are a great way to keep your brain engaged while deepening your understanding of the profession. The following programs are provided by reputable organizations within the emergency response community:

The Emergency Number Professional (ENP) program from NENA is a way to demonstrate a mastery of the wide range of knowledge you need to be the best Emergency Dispatcher possible.6 If you are intimidated by the test, there are ENP study groups provided by the IAED and 911der Women that you can join to make the task seem less daunting.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) provides a handful of courses on trending topics, including one on Telecommunications Best Practices.7

In addition to offering ENP prep retreats, 911der Women provides virtual workshops and in-person trainings on finding your voice and creating your own career path in 911.8

The 911 Training Institute’s overall goal is to aid Emergency Dispatchers in their development and growth. They provide courses on peer support, how to cultivate resilience, and how to handle a caller in crisis.9

Further afield, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) free trainings include topics like “Schools Multihazard and Mass Casualty Planning,” “Emergency Management Professional Program (EMPP),” and the “Professional Development Series (PDS).” You will have to register for a FEMA Student Identification Number (SID), but if you qualify, you can access many lessons free of charge.10

If you aren’t necessarily looking for a formal course that comes with a certificate of completion, it’s always a good idea to stay up to date on the State of 911 in general. Provided by 911.gov to highlight subject matter experts and current issues, these webinars are broadcast bimonthly and contain a backlog of videos going all the way back to 2012 if you’re interested in learning about the evolution of a certain topic.11

If you aren’t currently in a leadership role and would like to show your capability and go-getter nature, consider taking either the NENA Center Manager Certification Program12 or the Fitch & Associates Communication Center Manager (CCM) Program.13 Both courses will teach you different models of effective communication, as well as put you in touch with a network of like-minded professionals to whom you can reach out with questions or for support.

While several of the resources on this list are free, there are others that cost money you may not have available to spend on your personal development. Check with your center management to find out if there are any funds set aside for training costs. You can also apply for scholarships! 911der Women has the Firework Scholarship,14 NENA has the Gold Line Scholarship,15 and FEMA provides Continuing Education Grants.16 Funds can be used to attend conferences and/or cover traveling and course costs.

Leadership growth

If you’ve fostered personal growth to the point where you’re ready to share it with someone else but aren’t quite confident about sharing it with a lot of people, becoming a mentor might be for you! Many Emergency Dispatchers are already doing this whether or not they realize it. Mentoring is about more than just imparting sage advice—it’s a real opportunity to create lasting relationships with people who are new to the profession. It’s sharing the things you wish you’d known when you first picked up the headset. It’s identifying and encouraging a new Emergency Dispatcher’s talent and providing coaching and answers when they’re at a loss.

If your center already has a mentoring program, apply today! If they don’t, the Academy provides an EMD Mentor Course to help bridge the gap between new and experienced Emergency Dispatchers, while also encouraging retention. You can learn more about it on emergencydispatch.org.17

There are of course the more standard opportunities for growth—becoming a supervisor, a CTO, an ED-Q, or an operations manager. You can apply the tips from the previous section to your own growth, but as a leader, you’ll also have the opportunity to help other people grow.

Again, cost might seem prohibitive in your journey to strengthen the trunks and roots of others. You might feel hampered by your budget, whether it’s low or virtually nonexistent. Here are some options that won’t break the bank:

Recognition. The reason that recognition is at the top of this list is because it has invaluable impact on the people receiving it, and it doesn’t have to involve a star-studded event where you roll out a literal red carpet. Consider putting up a lifesaver wall that memorializes lifesaving calls like CPR and baby deliveries. You can also have a certificate template on hand for good teamwork during a multiagency event. With the design already taken care of, all you’ll have to do is fill in the name and what they successfully achieved.

It only takes a few clicks to post those wins on social media—don’t forget to tag us so we can see it! You can also email stories about individual or agency achievements to us directly at editor@emergencydispatch.org to be featured in the Journal. If privacy is a concern, you can of course still recognize good work by displaying certificates on your center’s announcement board or in a closed social media group.

Receiving and implementing regular feedback. Another Pew Research study showed that 80% of those who receive regular feedback are also extremely satisfied with the amount of feedback.18 In other words—it’s pretty difficult to overdo it! Everyone likes to hear they’re doing a good job, especially when you can highlight a specific call or action. If they aren’t doing such a great job, consider using strengths-based feedback, which encourages recipients to look forward to getting the next call right.19

Ride-alongs. Who doesn’t love a good field trip? In addition to getting out and about in the community and building stronger relationships with other first responders, a good ride-along can also help Emergency Dispatchers understand the “why” behind some of the protocol principles to see how their actions and words impact the other end of the call.

Guest lecturers. If getting your Emergency Dispatchers out on the roads isn’t possible, bring the education to them. Ask around to see if your fire or police chief will come explain their perspective on calls you take often, like alarm calls, or ones that are rare, like structure fires or active assailants.

This article couldn’t possibly cover all of the resources and ways you can grow in your career, but it’s a good place to start. Hopefully you’ll take some of these principles and add to them, watching your buds blossom and feeling your trunk get stronger. After all, you’re more than “just a dispatcher.” Reach for the sky, happy little trees!


1 Schawbel D. “Upskilling Study.” Workplace Intelligence. 2022; Oct. 27. http://workplaceintelligence.com/upskilling-study/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

2 “Building the agile future.” LinkedIn Learning. 2023; Feb. 14. https://learning.linkedin.com/content/dam/me/learning/en-us/pdfs/workplace-learning-report/LinkedIn-Learning_Workplace-Learning-Report-2023-EN.pdf (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

3 “More than Half of U.S. 911 Centers Are Facing Their Own Emergency.” IAED. 2023; Feb. 28. https://www.emergencydispatch.org/in-the-news/press-releases/64632133-7f9f-4d77-8013-d59c445fdb88 (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

4 Nussman C. “New Report Reveals 9-1-1 Profession Stressed & Stretched to Its Limits.” NENA: The 9-1-1 Association. 2023; July 25. https://www.nena.org/news/646775/New-Report-Reveals-9-1-1-Profession-Stressed--Stretched-to-Its-Limits.htm (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

5 Horowitz JM, Parker K. “Majority of workers who quit a job in 2021 cite low pay, no opportunities for advancement, feeling disrespected.” Pew Research Center. 2022; Mar. 9. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/03/09/majority-of-workers-who-quit-a-job-in-2021-cite-low-pay-no-opportunities-for-advancement-feeling-disrespected/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

6 “ENP Certification.” NENA: The 9-1-1 Association. https://www.nena.org/page/ENP_Certification (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

7 “Training.” National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. https://www.missingkids.org/education/training (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

8 “911der Women Training: Developing You.” 911der Women. https://www.911derwomen.com/training (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

9 “Registration & Class Schedule.” 911 Training Institute. https://www.911training.net/class-registration (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

10 “Apply.” FEMA. https://training.fema.gov/apply/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

11 “State of 911 Webinar Series.” 911.gov. https://www.911.gov/webinars/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

12 “Center Manager Certification Program (CMCP).” NENA: The 9-1-1 Association. https://www.nena.org/page/CenterManagerCert (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

13 “Communication Center Manager (CCM) Program.” Fitch & Associates. https://fitchassoc.com/communication-center-manager-program/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

14 “Firework Scholarship Program 2024.” 911der Women. https://www.911derwomen.com/firework (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

15 “Gold Line Scholarships.” NENA: The 9-1-1 Association. https://www.nena.org/page/goldlinescholarshipprogram (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

16 “Homeland Security National Training Program, Continuing Training Grants.” FEMA. https://www.fema.gov/grants/continuing-training (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

17 “Emergency Medical Dispatcher Mentor Course.” Priority Dispatch. 2023. https://prioritydispatch.widen.net/content/rxp0zjnz5s/original/Mentor-Course-Info-Sheet.pdf (accessed Oct. 12, 2023).

18 Horowitz JM, Parker K. “How Americans View Their Jobs.” Pew Research Center. 2023; March 30. https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2023/03/30/how-americans-view-their-jobs/ (accessed Sept. 14, 2023).

19 Caiazzo R. “Getting Feedback ‘Write.’” The Journal of Emergency Dispatch. 2022; Nov. 2022. https://www.iaedjournal.org/getting-feedback-write (accessed Oct. 13, 2023).