The Voice Behind the Radio

The Voice Behind the RadioIn May 2010 a woman who had been sexually assaulted by an acquaintance managed to call 911 as the suspect attempted to drive her out to a desolate area west of Utah Lake.


The femal e was able to have a 18 minute cryptic conversation with an alert Utah county dispatcher who was able to guide officers to the suspect, and prevent any further harm to the victim. This situation could have ended in tragedy, but it didn’t, because the dispatcher, and victim, worked together using resources and dispatcher training perfectly. Every day dispatchers play a critical role in both officers and the public’s lives, and majority of what they do behind the scene tends to go unnoticed. How many officers understand the complex nature of the dispatcher’s job, or even realize that their very own behavior and practices can have a large impact on the working relationship between them and communications.

Over the many years that I have worked in communications, officers have expressed to me the same four concerns that they have with dispatch I know dispatchers have concerns, but they rarely voice those concerns outside the communication door. I am hoping that by addressing these concerns I can give officers a better understanding of the challenges dispatchers face, and why they do the things they do. The truth is, both of our jobs are very different but they need to blend perfectly in order to keep the system functioning effectively. When you’re in the business of saving lives, being anything less than a highly effective team is unacceptable.


Dispatchers truly are the very first responder to every horrible crash, traumatized victim, hostile complainer, or scared and lost traveler. It takes a great deal of skill to get fast and accurate information from an emotionally compromised caller.


“They don’t seem to take my radio traffic very serious, I feel depending on which dispatcher is working, I might have an emergency and get no response.”


During a typical shift in dispatch, radios are buzzing with activity and multiple phone lines ring persistently. Depending on the time of day, the work load can go from calm to a meat grinder pitch in seconds. Dispatchers have to split their attention between the sobbing mother, confused accident driver, multiple service requests, and razor in on the one officer not answering his code checks. When long pauses or breaks in transmissions occur, even when radio traffic is at its lightest, chances are the dispatcher is dealing with something that is taking first priority. A lot of centers do not have staffing for call takers. This means the dispatcher could be handling other emergencies that will be affecting other centers or dispatchers working other channels in the room. This doesn’t mean they are in any way ignoring the radio. They know they are the officers’ lifeline, and are ready in a heartbeat to break away for any emergency radio traffic.


“Are they really asking all the right questions? Sometimes when I get on scene nothing matches up. I don’t feel I’m getting all the correct information.”


Dispatchers know what to do, how to do it, and what to ask. They are already working the scene until field units can arrive and take over. Dispatchers truly are the very first responder to every horrible crash, traumatized victim, hostile complainer, or scared and lost traveler. It takes a great deal of skill to get fast and accurate information from an emotionally compromised caller. Because of the very specialized training they receive in multiple fields from POST to Emergency Medical Dispatching, they have the ability to be the eyes of the officer or the hands of the medical responder before either have arrived on scene. The down side to this is that people are not always going to be honest with them, or even be willing to give them critical information needed to relay to responding units. This can cause dispatchers a lot of stress because they are fully aware that every call they send an officer to can potentially place the officer in harm’s way.


“Why is it taking so long to get back to me with this information? I know they are busy but this is a simple request.”


Most Officers either work alone or ride with a partner. Dispatchers can be partnered with sixty to a hundred officers all shift long. They work multiple details in various stages of completion all at once, coordinate resources, making notifications, performing record checks, or simply tracking the officer’s daily activity. Even dispatchers need backup at times. Some centers do provide service channels so the dispatcher working the main channel is not over loaded with officer request, but this is not always the case. All requests are going to be placed in the order of necessity; as dispatchers are prioritizing requests they will always place safety issues at the top of that list. It is important to advise dispatch of any potential safety issues, such as being out with multiple suspects or vehicles, possible narcotics, warrants or suspicious behavior. This way the dispatcher will have enough information to prioritize properly, thus insuring officer safety and efficiency.


“I honestly don’t think they care about me or my safety.”


Officers and Dispatchers can work together for years and never meet face to face. A lot of officers treat communications as a place to be avoided at all cost, so it’s easy to understand how the dispatcher becomes this abstract voice in the sky. Officers don’t know the person behind the mic. They only know how the person sounds when they come across the radio. The job of an emergency medical dispatcher is incredibly stressful. They are under enormous pressure to control their own emotions while extracting pertinent information that is needed to secure the scene and communicate with multiple agencies, and officers. It’s important to know there is a human being working the other end of the radio, and in no way dull witted or insensitive. They absolutely do care about every officer under their watch. The men and woman that work as communication specialist are amazing and unique individuals who honestly cannot relate their job with any other field out there. Take the time to get to know the person behind the voice. I feel it is important for officers to meet and get to know their dispatchers. That way they become a person, a part of the family, and not just the voice behind the radio.