Dispatcher

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Significant Points

Population growth and economic expansion are expected to spur employment growth for all types of dispatchers. Many dispatchers are at the entry level and do not require more than a high school diploma. Although there are no mandatory licensing or certification requirements, some states require public safety dispatchers to be certified.

Nature of the Work

Dispatchers schedule and dispatch workers, equipment, or service vehicles to carry materials or passengers. They keep records, logs, and schedules of the calls that they receive, the transportation vehicles that they monitor and control, and the actions that they take. They maintain information on each call and then prepare a detailed report on all activities occurring during their shifts. Many dispatchers employ computer-aided dispatch systems to accomplish these tasks. The work of dispatchers varies greatly, depending on the industry in which they work.

Regardless of where they work, all dispatchers are assigned a specific territory and have responsibility for all communications within that area. Many work in teams, especially dispatchers in large communications centers or companies. One person usually handles all dispatching calls to the response units or company drivers, while the other members of the team usually receive the incoming calls and deal with the public.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety dispatchers, monitor the location of emergency services personnel from any one or all of the jurisdiction’s emergency services departments. These workers dispatch the appropriate type and number of units in response to calls for assistance. Dispatchers, or call takers, often are the first people the public contacts when emergency assistance is required. If certified for emergency medical services, the dispatcher may provide medical instruction to those on the scene of the emergency until the medical staff arrives.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers work in a variety of settings: a police station, a fire station, a hospital, or, increasingly, a centralized communications center. In many areas, the police department serves as the communications center. In these situations, all emergency calls go to the police department, where a dispatcher handles the police calls and screens the others before transferring them to the appropriate service.

When handling calls, dispatchers question each caller carefully to determine the type, seriousness, and location of the emergency. The information obtained is posted either electronically by computer or, with decreasing frequency, by hand. The request for help is communicated immediately to uniformed or supervisory personnel, who quickly decide on the priority of the incident, the kind and number of units needed, and the location of the closest and most suitable units available. Typically, a team answers calls and relays the information to be dispatched. Responsibility then shifts to the dispatchers, who send response units to the scene and monitor the activity of the public safety personnel answering the dispatched message. During the course of the shift, dispatchers may rotate these functions.

When appropriate, dispatchers stay in close contact with other service providers—for example, a police dispatcher would monitor the response of the fire department when there is a major fire. In a medical emergency, dispatchers keep in close touch not only with the dispatched units, but also with the caller. They may give extensive first-aid instructions before the emergency personnel arrive, while the caller is waiting for the ambulance. Dispatchers continuously give updates on the patient’s condition to the ambulance personnel and often serve as a link between the medical staff in a hospital and the emergency medical technicians in the ambulance. (A separate statement on emergency medical technicians and paramedics appears elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Other dispatchers coordinate deliveries, service calls, and related activities for a variety of firms. Truck dispatchers, who work for local and longdistance trucking companies, coordinate the movement of trucks and freight between cities. These dispatchers direct the pickup and delivery activities of drivers, receive customers’ requests for the pickup and delivery of freight, consolidate freight orders into truckloads for specific destinations, assign drivers and trucks, and draw up routes and pickup and delivery schedules. Bus dispatchers make sure that local and long-distance buses stay on schedule. They handle all problems that may disrupt service, and they dispatch other buses or arrange for repairs in order to restore service and schedules. Train dispatchers ensure the timely and efficient movement of trains according to orders and schedules. They must be aware of track switch positions, track maintenance areas, and the location of other trains running on the track. Taxicab dispatchers, or starters, dispatch taxis in response to requests for service and keep logs on all road service calls. Tow-truck dispatchers take calls for emergency road service. They relay the nature of the problem to a nearby service station or a tow-truck service and see to it that the road service is completed. Gas and water service dispatchers monitor gas lines and water mains and send out service trucks and crews to take care of emergencies.

Working Conditions

The work of dispatchers can be very hectic when many calls come in at the same time. The job of public safety dispatcher is particularly stressful because a slow or an improper response to a call can result in serious injury or further harm. Also, callers who are anxious or afraid may become excited and be unable to provide needed information; some may even become abusive. Despite provocations, dispatchers must remain calm, objective, and in control of the situation.

Dispatchers sit for long periods, using telephones, computers, and twoway radios. Much of their time is spent at video display terminals, viewing monitors and observing traffic patterns. As a result of working for long stretches with computers and other electronic equipment, dispatchers can experience significant eyestrain and back discomfort. Generally, dispatchers work a 40-hour week; however, rotating shifts and compressed work schedules are common. Alternative work schedules are necessary to accommodate evening, weekend, and holiday work, as well as 24-hour-per-day, 7-day-per-week operations.

Employment

Dispatchers held 266,000 jobs in 2004. About 36 percent were police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, almost all of whom worked for state and local governments—primarily local police and fire departments. About 26 percent of all dispatchers worked in the transportation and warehousing industry, and the rest worked in a wide variety of mainly service-providing industries.

Although dispatching jobs are found throughout the country, most dispatchers work in urban areas, where large communications centers and businesses are located.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Many dispatchers are at the entry level and do not require more than a high school diploma. Employers, however, prefer to hire people familiar with computers and other electronic office and business equipment. Typing, filing, recordkeeping, and other clerical skills also are important.

State or local government civil service regulations usually govern police, fire, emergency medical, and ambulance dispatching jobs. Candidates for these positions may have to pass written, oral, and performance tests. Also, they may be asked to attend training classes and attain the proper certification in order to qualify for advancement.

Workers usually develop the necessary skills on the job. This informal training lasts from several days to a few months, depending on the complexity of the job. Public safety dispatchers usually require the most extensive training. While working with an experienced dispatcher, new employees monitor calls and learn how to operate a variety of communications equipment, including telephones, radios, and various wireless devices. As trainees gain confidence, they begin to handle calls themselves. In smaller operations, dispatchers sometimes act as customer service representatives, processing orders. Many public safety dispatchers also participate in structured training programs sponsored by their employer. Increasingly, public safety dispatchers receive training in stress and crisis management as well as family counseling. This training helps them to provide effective services to others, and, at the same time, it helps them manage the stress involved in their work.

Communication skills and the ability to work under pressure are important personal qualities for dispatchers. Residency in the city or county of employment frequently is required for public safety dispatchers. Dispatchers in transportation industries must be able to deal with sudden influxes of shipments and disruptions of shipping schedules caused by bad weather, road construction, or accidents.

Although there are no mandatory licensing or certification requirements, some states require that public safety dispatchers possess a certificate to work on a state network, such as the Police Information Network. Many dispatchers participate in these programs in order to improve their prospects for career advancement.

Dispatchers who work for private firms, which usually are small, will find few opportunities for advancement. In contrast, public safety dispatchers may become a shift or divisional supervisor or chief of communications, or they may move to higher-paying administrative jobs. Some become police officers or fire fighters.

Job Outlook

Employment of dispatchers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. In addition to those positions resulting from job growth, many openings will arise from the need to replace workers who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Population growth and economic expansion are expected to spur employment growth for all types of dispatchers. The growing and aging population will increase demand for emergency services and stimulate employment growth of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers. Many districts are consolidating their communications centers into a shared areawide facility. Individuals with computer skills and experience will have a greater opportunity for employment as public safety dispatchers. Employment of some dispatchers is more adversely affected by economic downturns than employment of other dispatchers. For example, when economic activity falls, demand for transportation services declines. As a result, taxicab, train, and truck dispatchers may experience layoffs or a shortened workweek, and jobseekers may have some difficulty finding entry-level jobs. Employment of tow-truck dispatchers, by contrast, is seldom affected by general economic conditions because of the emergency nature of their business.

Earnings

Average Dispatcher Salaries: 33,000 (In USD as of Apr 28, 2015)

Median annual earnings of dispatchers, except police, fire, and ambulance, in May 2004 were $30,920. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,480 and $41,040. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,820, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $52,440.

Median annual earnings of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers in 2004 were $28,930. The middle 50 percent earned between $23,060 and $35,970. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $18,710, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $44,520. Dispatchers usually receive the same benefits as most other workers.

Related Occupations

Other occupations that involve directing and controlling the movement of vehicles, freight, and personnel, as well as distributing information and messages, include air traffic controllers, communications equipment operators, customer service representatives, and reservation and transportation ticket agents and travel clerks.

Sources of Additional Information

For further information on training and certification for police, fire, and emergency dispatchers, contact

• Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, International, 351 N. Williamson Blvd., Daytona Beach, FL 32114-1112. Internet: http://www.apco911.org

• International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA), PO Box 359, 165 E. Union Street, Newark, NY 14513-0539. Internet: http://www.IMSAsafety.org

Information on job opportunities for police, fire, and emergency dispatchers is available from personnel offices of state and local governments or police departments. Information about work opportunities for other types of dispatchers is available from local employers and state employment service offices.

Related Occupation(s)

ALARM OPERATOR: Operates municipal fire alarm system, radio transmitter and receiver, and telephone switchboard. BUS DISPATCHER, INTERSTATE: Dispatches interstate or long-distance buses according to schedule and oversees bus drivers and bus attendants while they are at terminal. CAR CLERK, PULLMAN: Assigns and dispatches sleeping cars to railroad company requesting cars. DISPATCHER: Coordinates movements of haulage trips (trains) in underground mine to or from working force or dump area. DISPATCHER: Establishes and reroutes telegraph and submarine cable circuits to ensure flow of messages. DISPATCHER, MAINTENANCE SERVICE: Receives telephone and written orders from plant departments for maintenance service, such as repair work, machine adjustments, and renewals or installation of other plant property, and relays requests to appropriate maintenance division. DISPATCHER, MOTOR VEHICLE: Assigns motor vehicles and drivers for conveyance of freight or passengers. DISPATCHER, OIL: Directs and coordinates field activities of workers who route and control flow of oil and petroleum products through pipelines from point of origin, such as wells and storage tanks, to delivery points, such as terminals, carriers, refineries, and tank farms. DISPATCHER, OIL WELL SERVICES: Dispatches oil well servicing crews to service assignments and relays communications to crews and other field personnel, using telephone and radio communication equipment. DISPATCHER, RADIO: Receives complaints from public concerning crimes and police emergencies, broadcasts orders to police radio patrol units in vicinity to investigate complaint, and relays instructions or questions from remote units. DISPATCHER, RELAY: Compiles and transmits dispatching information and instructions between central office, pipeline terminals, tank farms, and pumping and compressor stations. DISPATCHER, SECURITY GUARD: Dispatches security personnel to client’s site for private, protective-service firm. DISPATCHER, SERVICE OR WORK: Dispatches workers, such as troubleshooters, line repairers, and street-light repairers, for normal maintenance or emergency repairs to electric-power transmission and distribution lines and related equipment. DISPATCHER, SERVICE: Dispatches customer service workers to install, service, and repair electric, gas, or steam-powered systems or appliances or cable television systems. DISPATCHER, SHIP PILOT: Dispatches ship pilot to ships entering or leaving port. DISPATCHER, STREET DEPARTMENT: Receives and records public requests for street maintenance services and relays work orders to maintenance crews, using telephone and two-way radio. DISPATCHER, TRAFFIC OR SYSTEM: Dispatches workers and equipment to prevent or rectify service disruptions of local transit system, using radiophone equipment. DISPATCHER, TUGBOAT: Dispatches tugboats to guide ships entering or leaving port and to tow barges and log rafts. ENGINE DISPATCHER: Assigns engines to locomotive engineers for train runs or for switching operations at railroad yard, industrial plant, quarry, construction project, or similar location. GAS DISPATCHER: Coordinates flow of natural gas throughout distribution system of public utility or pipeline to ensure volume and pressure of gas required for consumers demands. PROTECTIVE-SIGNAL OPERATOR: Reads and records coded signals received in central station of electrical protective signaling system. RECEIVER-DISPATCHER: Receives and records requests for emergency road service from automobile club members and dispatches tow truck or service truck to stranded vehicle. ROUTING CLERK: Determines truck routes involved and issues route slips to drivers to pick up donated clothing, furniture, and general merchandise for vocational rehabilitation organization. SERVICE CLERK: Receives, records, and distributes work orders to service crews upon customers’ requests for service on articles or utilities purchased from wholesale or retail establishment or utility company. TAXICAB COORDINATOR: Assigns taxicabs to taxi drivers and maintains record of assignments and trip data. Reviews report of meter readings taken from incoming cabs for accuracy or takes and records taximeter readings. TAXICAB STARTER: Dispatches taxicabs in response to telephone requests for service. TELECOMMUNICATOR: Operates communication equipment to receive incoming calls for assistance and dispatches personnel and equipment to scene of emergency. TRAIN DISPATCHER, ASSISTANT CHIEF: Assigns locomotives, cabooses, and crews to trains to obtain most efficient use of equipment and personnel within assigned railroad territory. WATER-SERVICE DISPATCHER: Dispatches service crews to repair water mains. WORK-ORDER-SORTING CLERK: Sorts and routes work orders for construction of gas or electric mains, service connections, or meter installations.

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