What It Takes To Be a 911 Dispatcher

Posted at 10:46 PM, Feb 04, 2014
and last updated 2014-02-05 05:49:18-05

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (Feb. 4, 2014) —  They’re the first responders you never see.

When seconds save lives, every move an emergency dispatcher makes is crucial. FOX 17 went inside the dispatch center in Grand Rapids and got a first hand look at what it takes to do the job.

On holidays, nights and weekends, operators are always there, spending time away from their families to protect yours.

Kristen Simon has been training since December. After time in the classroom, she has moved out onto the floor, where she took an urgent call while our cameras were rolling. “Does he have any weapons with him?” Simon asks the caller. Simon’s supervisor stepped in to pass along added information.

On the other line was a woman saying her daughter had just been assaulted. “Okay, he has threatened to shoot her and anyone that goes there?”

“So, he’s not in the house anymore,” Kristen’s instructor said. “That’d be good, because then we don’t have to worry about her safety.”

Simon is just one of several people training at the dispatch center. It’s a process that starts in the classroom and one that takes time before trainees can ever be on their own, responsible for the safety of their callers, said communications manager Karen Chadwick.

“It can take about a year to get a dispatcher trained,” Chadwick said. “It’s a lot of information to take in.”

Chadwick said applicants should memorize maps and review flash cards to stay on top of the process. Even then, she said not everyone will succeed.

“If you hire 10 people, it’s likely you’re going to lose at least two of them,” Chadwick said. “Our hiring process is very, very arduous.”

In 2013, the dispatch center received more than 350,000 calls, Chadwick said.

“Our goal is speed and accuracy. On priority calls, what we try to do is hit it in a two-minute mark from the time the phone rings to the time we have an officer enroute.”

It’s a job that is not always easy. Chadwick remembers working on one of Grand Rapids’ most horrifying days: A mass shooting that went on for several hours that left seven victims dead in the summer of 2011,

“The phones were just going crazy that day,” Chadwick said. “It was quite chaotic. Afterwards we did debriefing with everybody that worked that day, which is another thing; this can be a very difficult, emotional job.”

Grand Rapids dispatchers gained statewide recognition as ‘Team of the Year’ for the professionalism and dedication they displayed that day. But, Chadwick admits, those types of days are rare.

“We train for the big incidents, because we know if they can handle the big incidents they can certainly handle the small incidents.”

Daryl Recker, a level III communications operator, is responsible for training the newest batch of candidates and offers some advice.

“One of the hardest things about our job, at least when you’re starting out, is not getting sucked into the excitement of the moment,” Recker said. “Your caller is going to be excited, it’s very contagious. It’s not always going to be a good end result, but the times that we can help, the times we can make a difference, that’s what makes our job special.”

As for Simon, while she said she’s excited to start helping the community, she admits she’s not quite ready to take those calls on her own yet.

“Every time you go and reach for the button to hit 911 you’re still kind of like ‘What am I going to get?'” Simon said. “You’re the one responsible for getting them help so you kind of have to be on your game to get them there as fast as you can.”

And it’s a responsibility that makes all the difference.

“Dispatchers save seconds and seconds save lives,” Chadwick said.