A Day In The Life of A 911 Dispatcher
Vol 36, number 2
SFPD's silent partners
By Laura O'ReiIly-Jackson
Emergency Communications Department
Grab your headset, summon lots of patience, and get ready for a work shift full of interesting situations and tons of stress. A police/public safety dispatcher in San Francisco is all about being the vital lifeline to emergency services for help and the SFPD's silent partners.
Dispatchers in San Francisco receive between 3,500-4,000 calls per day. Ninety percent of the calls are for Police. The other 10% are for Fire/Medical services. Approximately half of all calls are 911 calls, and the other half are non-emergency police calls. Many of the 911 calls in San Francisco are wrong numbers, misdial, or just are not emergency. It has been over a year since dispatchers have begun taking and processing Medical and Fire calls. After screening those calls, they are forwarded for now to real firefighters and paramedics who are still dispatching the ambulances and fire trucks and equipment. Eventually they will be back on the street doing their job and Public Safety Dispatchers will be doing it all, taking, processing and dispatching Police Medical and Fire calls.
There has been no additional compensation or pay raises since we have taken on additional responsibilities. Dispatchers have been trained and given these added responsibilities at a time of extreme economic hardship for every city in the state and especially emergency services. Like many other city employees, we have not had a raise in a year and a half, and are now paying for our own retirement.
Dispatchers are currently classified by the City at a clerical benchmark although we are, in fact, emergency workers who triage police, medical and fire calls as well as dispatch police assignments and provide life-saving post dispatch instructions on medical calls. We are currently formulating a plan to bring to the City regarding a change in classification.
It takes over seven months of training to become a dispatcher. If a class starts out with twenty students, we might get ten full-fledged dispatchers from it if we are lucky. It takes a certain kind of person who is very detail oriented (everything that is typed into calls and runs are court documents) and someone who is very courteous and calm during emergencies. A candidate must have the ability to multi-task (we call it "multifunctional dexterity"). An example on telephone call taking would be handling a 217 (Shooting) or a major 519 (Injury Accident) or an 801 (Suicidal Attempt). A dispatcher must process these calls rapidly and get pertinent information sent up to the channel dispatch. While interrogating a caller with police questions, these type of incidents also require a 408 (Ambulance) to respond immediately. Nowadays, a dispatcher has to change gears after obtaining the most pertinent police information, clear their entry screen and start over to send a separate call up to the Medical Fire dispatchers. We used to transfer the Medical Fire calls to their dispatch for processing; we are now doing it all.
On a very busy radio channel, especially PIC service channels, a dispatcher can have anywhere from fifty to one hundred officers on that channel. Our job is to service all of them when needed. That can be a bit much when there is only one dispatcher and several units asking for different requests at the same time. "Dispatch, I need an ambulance out at ... I have .
"Headquarters, I need a case number."
"Dispatch, can you run two subjects for me?"
"I need a callback to this premise, Headquarters, I can't get into the building." "Dispatch, code four this "
All of these transmissions are coming over the air one after another while the dispatcher is on the phone calling the paramedics to get the ambulance rolling for the initial request. When you are on the telephone making a callback for a unit, or getting an ambulance or the fire unit to respond, you also have to be able to answer your units on the air, (radio and officer safety is first priority). A dispatcher must be able to type information and key your microphone all at once. Picture this multi-tasking situation, it happens every hour of every single day.
San Francisco was one of the premiere cities in California to receive 911 wireless cell phone calls directly. Currently in San Francisco, approximately six thousand cell calls to 911 are routed directly to ECD (Emergency Communications Department). Previously all such calls went directly to CHP (California Highway Patrol), then were transferred to the appropriate city and agency. CHP is dealing with a lot less emergency calls in San Francisco now since those calls are directly coming to us.
With this comes 911 information. Whereas when CHP used to transfer calls to us from a cell phone and no one was speaking on the line, that was it, you could just hang up. Now we receive information that shows a general cellular site from where the caller is located. The caller usually is in a one-mile radius of that cell site. We also retrieve their complete cell phone number including various area codes and their cellular company name. When an open line comes in now on 911 from a wireless cell phone, and no one speaks directly to us, we have to hang up, call back the phone number, speak with the caller, or leave a message on a voicemail. Then, we log the call in CAD. That is a lot more work for us. It is better service for the public and it equates to approximately 150-200 more calls a day for us to process.
ECD is involved in a lot of community outreach. We participate in various job fairs in the Bay Area and public events in San Francisco. We also attend police station community meetings where we teach the public about the proper use of 911. We instruct on when to call 911 and what information will be needed from the caller.
This encompasses most of what we do as San Francisco Police/Public Safety Dispatchers. In our hearts, we know that we have helped many people during some of the worst or most stressful times of their lives. We are the voice and ear on the other end of the phone. We are proud to assist SFPD's finest when they are out on the street, we are the calming voice in their ears and their helpline on the other end of their microphones.