Wearing Many Hats

Josh McFadden

Josh McFadden


Josh McFadden

Emergency dispatcher. Emergency telecommunicator. Communication specialist. The men and women who handle emergency calls are known by different titles. But no matter what title you have at your agency, one thing is for sure: This job isn’t for the faint-hearted.

It’s not a position in which the average person can simply walk into and succeed without possessing and cultivating certain skills, talents, and attributes, either.

Unfortunately, many people in the public don’t realize this.

Uninformed individuals may think of emergency dispatchers as clerks or as workers in a common call center, answering the phone, pushing buttons, and quickly passing the matter off to someone else.

Whether you help desperate people with medical, police, or fire needs, your role is critical in the chain of patient care. In fact, as the first, first responder, everything begins with the emergency dispatcher. In the most recent edition of “Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch,” authors Jeff J. Clawson, M.D.; Kate Boyd Dernocoeur, EMT-P; and Cynthia Murray point out:

“The EMD is the sole authority over an emergency scene until the first responding crew can make initial assessments and establish scene control. (In essence, the ‘scene commander’ until someone physically reaches the scene.) Until that moment, the EMD knows more about the scene than anyone else in the emergency care pipeline. Through telephone interrogation, the EMD can continually access patient information. This information is then used to select the appropriate response for each call. Unsafe situations can be identified and relayed almost instantly to responding crews. Additionally, the EMD can provide directions to the caller about what to do, or what not to do, on the patient’s behalf.”1

The opening chapter of “Principles” also informs us of the numerous duties emergency dispatchers have and how they are critically linked to callers, ambulance services, air transport, fire and rescue services, and hospital and secondary care. Some of the many duties EMDs, EPDs, and EFDs have involve the following:

  • Telephone interrogation
  • Triage
  • Dispatch Allocation and Field Communication
  • Logistics Coordination
  • Resource Networking
  • Life-Impacting Via Telephone Instructions
That’s a lot of pressure.

It’s no wonder emergency dispatchers need a litany of skills to meet these expectations and demands. What are some of these specific skills? How can you put them to use in your work and keep them sharp? If you aren’t born with these talents, how can you develop them?


Merriam-Webster gives a simple definition for this term: “The ability to do several things at the same time.” Does that not fit with what an emergency dispatcher does?

You take phone calls, gather critical information from callers and patients, input the information into ProQA® and follow the Key Questions and instructions from the software and cardsets, coordinate efforts with responders, use mapping software to identify locations, and the list goes on. Sometimes, you must jump from one task to another at a second’s notice. Sometimes, you literally do more than one of these at a time without hesitating.

People who can’t focus on multiple duties simultaneously will struggle in this role.

If you want to get more comfortable with multitasking, there are some strategies you can try.

Writing for the popular business magazine “Entrepreneur,” Nadia Goodman suggests using downtime to review new information. You may not get much downtime in the comm. center, but she suggests taking the time to “review it later that day. Reread it while you walk between meetings or commute home, and explain it back to yourself to make sure you understand it.”2

“Business Insider” reports that only 2 percent of humans can excel at more than one task at the same time. Citing a study from psychology professor David Strayer, from the University of Utah (USA), the other 98 percent of people actually get worse at tasks when they try to multitask.3 Piggybacking off of Strayer’s study, a research team at the University of Queensland (Australia) found that people are destined to perform terribly at multitasking. Their study, which involved doing two tasks at the same time, revealed that while participants struggled initially, repetition for three days showed marked improvement at both activities.4 This suggests that at a job like emergency dispatching, where multitasking is inevitable and required, early failures don’t mean you’ll never catch up. Keep at it, and it should eventually become a strength.

Empathy, sympathy

Seasoned emergency dispatchers have heard just about everything over the phone: calls for ridiculous reasons, hysterical callers, inconsolable callers, combative callers, irrational callers, and so on. Regardless of what the caller is saying or doing on the other end of the line, the customer service skills of empathy and sympathy are essential.

Turning once again to “Principles,” we read that, “The provision of customer service during the difficult and challenging situations facing EMDs every day is the mark of an excellent telecommunicator.”5

Though callers’ attitudes and behaviors may frustrate you at times, it would be foolish to say things such as “deal with it,” “quit overreacting,” or “this isn’t a big deal.” As Art Braunschweiger taught in a Journal article from our March/April 2018 publication titled “Treating Callers Like Real People,” emergency dispatchers must “talk to people like real people … [a]ll too often the emergency dispatcher becomes impatient or irritated with the caller, and the call goes downhill from there.” He gave an example of a colleague who spoke with empathy to a caller whose baby was having a seizure and used the following words: “Listen—I know this is scary. Trust me, I know this is scary. But you have to calm down so we can help your baby, okay?”6

Emergency dispatchers must act quickly and efficiently under the most stressful situations imaginable. In the midst of it all, you must remain calm, polite, and sympathetic—putting yourself in the caller’s position. In the section “Caller Management Techniques” of “Principles,” the authors emphasize, “Remember that it is unprofessional to broadcast opinions about the caller, the caller’s problem, or anything else through inappropriate words or tone of voice. The EMD who sounds sarcastic or overburdened is prone to act on that frame-of-mind rather than on the basis of the situation at hand. Remember, callers aren’t usually the patients, they are customers. Treat them well. While we can’t save everyone, we can help everyone.”7

The question is, can you learn the skill of authentic empathy and sympathy? An article from NBC News explores this topic. In it, author and researcher Roman Krznaric says people can develop this skill. He points out that, “Fifty percent of our empathic capacities are genetically inherited, and the rest we can learn.” The same article quotes author Judith Orloff, M.D., who runs an empathy training program. She says improving empathy for others “can be as simple as getting people into the habit of asking others how they are and actually listening to the answer.”8

Bryan Kramer, a CEO and author, writing for “Forbes” magazine, acknowledges that becoming more empathetic doesn’t happen overnight. He said it has a lot to do with your attitude.

“Empathy is about acknowledging biases and genuinely imagining and trying to feel what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes,” he said. “You’re putting yourself right there, in the thick of the emotion. This can be incredibly difficult to do time and time again, but it gives a unique perspective that can lead to positive action-taking. Feeling empathy comes more naturally to some people, but mostly, it can be a choice. You can choose to start seeing things from other perspectives and seeing things with their eyes.”9

In-depth medical training

For many EMDs, it’s common to give instructions on how to help a choking patient, how to perform CPR, or how to stop bleeding. Does it matter much if the EMD knows how to do these lifesaving actions themselves?

Ruel Kapunan, an ETC Instructor and Advanced EMD Instructor from Pilipinas911 in the Philippines, says it’s absolutely critical that emergency dispatchers not only know how to relay these steps but to know how to perform them personally.

Kapunan oversees a Stop the Bleed Program in his community. Many emergency dispatchers take the course, which, among other things, teaches participants how to properly use a tourniquet, how to apply direct pressure, and how to pack a wound. He gives emergency dispatchers the course after they have taken the Emergency Telecommunicator Course.

“I think it’s a good skill for the emergency dispatcher to have,” he said. “I think it helps dispatchers become confident giving bleeding control instructions. Also, it gives students a better understanding of shock, which becomes the issue with uncontrolled bleeding.”

Kapunan even has a Facebook group for the program, which has been going strong for nearly a year and has around 1,200 members.

Stress management

Everyone feels stress at work or at home from time to time. Emergency dispatchers, however, bear much more of this than many people.

In 2013, “Business Insider” published a list of 600 different stressful jobs in the United States. Emergency dispatcher made its appearance at No. 13.10 This shouldn’t surprise anyone that works in the field. The job has grueling hours, often low pay, high turnover, and puts workers in constant contact with emotionally charged people on the worst days of their lives.

Calls such as the death or injury to a member of the EMS team, scenes with significant media coverage, death or injury to a child, or a call from a family member or friend can increase your already-heightened stress levels.

In other words, stress is inevitable in the comm. center.

Everyone handles stress in different ways and can cope with it in various doses. But there’s no doubt dealing with it in a positive manner is crucial for career success.

An insightful chapter in “Principles,” appropriately titled “Stress Management In Dispatch,” shares seven ways to relieve stress:11

  • Take time off
  • Take a vacation
  • Take time for yourself
  • Meditate
  • Increase exercise
  • Develop outside friends and interests
  • Apply self-programming and rebalancing
Trecia Hanna, Dispatch Manager at Medstar Ambulance Inc. in Sparta, Illinois (USA), said her center has a “Dispatch Cat” named Charlie. She said his presence can relieve tension and anxiety.

“I introduce him as ‘support services personnel,’” she said. “He provides therapeutic love when needed and often provides comic relief.”

Tresca Brown, and emergency dispatcher with Glynn Brunswick 911 in Brunswick, Georgia, USA, suggests that volunteering in health care facilities can help emergency dispatchers cope with stress overload. Specifically, she recommends spending time with little ones.

“Babies—holding babies, rocking babies, loving babies,” she said. “If you are in a large area, hospitals need volunteers in the NICU and pediatric units for that. Smaller areas can check with day care centers or church nursery volunteering. It reminds me that everyone started out sweet and innocent.”

Like other skills, cultivating the ability to cope with stress and anxiety requires simply doing something. In this case, commit to exercising, follow through with vacation plans, or go out of your way to reconnect with friends. Balancing your demanding work duties with personal time will go a long way toward helping you feel refreshed and rejuvenated at work.

Pre-dispatch education

Fortunately, comm. centers can do an amazing job of training new emergency dispatchers. Current staff members get valuable feedback as well as one-on-one communication and guidance. The IAED provides vast resources of training, certification, and continuing education.

Andre Jones, Assistant Executive Director of Communications at Hamad Medical Corporation – Ambulance Service in Doha, Qatar, said it’s also helpful if emergency dispatchers have a varied skillset before they even apply for their positions.

“The career needs educated people when they come in, and then they can receive training on agency-specific policies, procedures, and protocols,” he said. “We train them, but we make the assumption they have the skills based on an interview or a test, and it is only after they are hired that we learn they don’t have the skills necessary to succeed. Education comes first, in my opinion.”

Jones, who started his dispatching career at age 17 on a university campus, said this education largely comes from work history. He urges recruiters and comm. center managers to look for candidates who have previously worked in stressful environments and in places that demanded multitasking and strong interpersonal interaction. Then, the in-depth training comm. center management provides can augment what a new emergency dispatcher already knows and has learned.

“When we provide specialized training in our centers, it should be to focus or enhance those skills that already exist,” he said.

The best of the rest

The list of important skills for this profession could go on and fill the entire issue of this publication. Because every day—every call—presents a different scenario and a countless array of challenges, it’s impossible to have too many abilities in your repertoire. You may have found that skills such as listening, self-confidence, self-control, patience, integrity, and decision-making are indispensable in your daily roles.

Jones mentioned a handful of other skills that complement the robust training that an emergency dispatcher receives. These include:

  • Analytical skills
  • Communication skills
  • Coaching
  • Coordination
  • Collaboration
  • Basic computer skills
  • Emotional intelligence
  • Conflict resolution
  • Resilience
  • Adaptability
If you find that you’re lacking in any of the areas we’ve mentioned or discussed in this article, seek to improve. Talk to your manager, or look for resources from the IAED. Remember, too, that skill development is a lifelong pursuit, no matter what stage of your career you find yourself.


1 Clawson J, Dernoceour K, Murray C. Principles of Emergency Medical Dispatch. Fifth Edition. Priority Press; Salt Lake City, Utah. 2014.

2 Goodman N. “How to Train Your Brain to Multitask Effectively.” Entrepreneur. 2013; Feb. 25. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/225865 (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

3 Loria K. “Only 2% Of People Can Actually Multitask—This Test Will Tell You If You Are One Of Them.” Business Insider. Insider Inc. 2014; May 8. https://www.businessinsider.com/multitasker-test-tells-you-if-you-are-one-of-the-2-2014-5 (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

4 Loria K. “You can train your brain to multitask better.” Business Insider. Insider Inc. 2015; Oct. 19. https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-get-better-at-multitasking-2015-10 (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

5 See note 1.

6 Braunschweiger A. “Treating Callers Like People.” Journal of Emergency Dispatch. 2018; 22 (2): 11. https://iaedjournal.org/treating-callers-like-real-people/

7 See note 1.

8 Manning-Schaffel V. “What is empathy and how do you cultivate it?” NBC News. NBC Universal. 2018; May 29. https://www.nbcnews.com/better/pop-culture/can-empathy-be-taught-ncna878211 (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

9 Kramer B. “The Critical Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy.” Forbes. Forbes Media LLC. 2018; Aug. 13. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2018/08/13/the-critical-difference-between-sympathy-and-empathy/#2becb50516a3 (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

10 Early OJ. “Study Finds 911 Dispatchers Are Near The Top For ‘Stressful’ Jobs.” Greenville Sun. 2014; Feb. 15. https://www.greenevillesun.com/news/study-finds-dispatchers-are-near-the-top-for-stressful-jobs/article_bedebc8d-4809-5b18-929f-25e9ce4cc06c.html (accessed Oct. 24, 2018).

11 See note 1.