The Importance of Doing a Sit-Along with a Dispatcher

No so long ago, I was eating lunch with my brother at our favorite Mexican food restaurant.  We were in the middle of eating when his cell phone unexpectedly rang.  He pulled it out from his back pocket and answered the incoming call.  I could see his demeanor immediately change as there was suddenly a serious tone in his voice.

“Yes, everything is alright”, he said.  “From this number?  Are you sure?  Oh no no, I’m fine thank you.  It must have been an accident.”

Instantly, I knew exactly who my brother was talking to and I could not help but start to laugh.  I have made thousands of calls to unsuspecting people just like my brother over the course of my career as an emergency police dispatcher.  My brother starts to tell me it was the local police department that called him because he called 9-1-1.  I play along, as if I do not know what he is about to say.

“Why did she call me back?  And she sure did sound a little rude when I told her I did not call.  Here, look at the call log on my phone… I didn’t call 9-1-1”, he says as he puts his phone in his back pocket again.

“She called you back because she has to”, I replied.  I went on to tell him, “If you call 9-1-1 and hang up, then the dispatcher automatically assumes you have some type of emergency, so the dispatcher calls back to confirm.  And most cell phones do not display outbound calls to 9-1-1 in the call history log.   You could have very well called 9-1-1 by accident because you have your phone in your back pocket while you’re sitting on it!  The ‘rude’ tone you heard in her voice was just frustration.  You’re probably the 100th person today that dispatcher has spoken with who has made an accidental call.  Imagine how frustrating that is for dispatchers getting all those 9-1-1 calls, but an overwhelming majority of those calls being accidental hang-ups.”

Call-taking dispatcher

I could see the light come on in my brother’s mind, as if that knowledge I had just shared with him awakened him from a deep trance.  I went ahead and further shocked him by inviting him to do a sit-along with me while I was at work sometime.

Most people are familiar with a ride-along: the opportunity for a member of the public to “ride along” with a police officer during a patrol shift responding to calls for service.  You have probably seen popular television shows, like COPS for example, where you see the excitement of police officers driving with lights and sirens activated to go help someone.  But what about the dispatcher who first answered the 9-1-1 call before the officer was even sent to help?  Unfortunately, few people know about a sit-along.  A sit-along is the opportunity for a member of the public to “sit” with a dispatcher during a shift and listen to incoming calls while watching the dispatcher work.  It is all the same excitement but without responding anywhere.

My brother took me up on the invitation and met me at work one evening.  He sat with me and watched me work for about 4 hours.  During that time, we answered about 80 incoming calls on a busy night.  The experience rocked his world.  First, he had no real concept of what actually happened when people called 9-1-1.   He was amazed at the way in which dispatchers handled calls, prioritized complaints, and sent available resources to help.  He listened to me call back several people who had accidentally called 9-1-1 on their cell phones, some knowingly and others without realizing it.  And he laughed when I called back one person who admitted the accidental 9-1-1 must have been a “butt-dial”.

Emergency communication centers operate like well-oiled machines.  There are few things that come together and work so well under the most intense stress of exigent circumstances.  But it is important to remember that dispatchers are not robots; they are just regular people who feel and experience the same full range of emotions that you do.  My brother got to see that first-hand during his sit-along as I answered calls.  Some callers would yell and scream at me, as if I was the cause to blame for their unfortunate situation, all while being uncooperative and refusing to provide information or answer questions for the greater public safety.  My brother heard many people call 9-1-1 from their cell phones asking for help, but they did not know the specific address, location, or even the cross streets to where they were at.

Photo courtesy of John Carter.

Photo courtesy of John Carter.

The overall sit-along experience had its intended effect on my brother.  He realized that a larger part of emergency preparedness and reporting was the caller’s responsibility. He met some of the professional men and women who tirelessly work to answer those emergency calls, even when some of them are accidental and false.  It gave him a greater understanding of the work dispatchers do and why there job is so imperative to public safety.  The next time he calls 9-1-1 because really does have an emergency, he will be prepared to provide the dispatcher with important information so he gets the help he needs.

Most agencies have sit-along programs that allow citizens to sit with dispatchers.  Take advantage of the opportunity to meet dispatchers who handle emergency calls in the city where you live.  They can give you tips for emergency preparedness and personal safety so you are knowledgeable of reporting procedures to better serve your family and neighbors in the event of an emergency incident in your area.  Please contact your local police or fire agency and inquire about a sit-along opportunity.


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