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911 Operator: Career Information and Requirements

Individuals responsible for handling incoming calls for police, fire and ambulance assistance and assessing the caller's needs are called 911 operators or emergency dispatchers. Dispatchers work in a high-energy environment and must be able to make quick decisions while communicating with callers who are in an emergency.

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Career Information for 911 Operators

A 911 dispatcher answers incoming calls pertaining to both emergency and non-emergency situations. A dispatcher needs to be able to multi-task and remain calm while communicating necessary information to a caller who may be in crisis. The emergency dispatcher evaluates the situation and then decides which services, as well as how many personnel, to send to the scene.

Other responsibilities may include filing reports of calls received and providing resources and information to callers in non-emergency situations. Dispatchers may work in police stations, firehouses, medical centers or general communication centers. Positions may also be available at universities or private businesses, such as security companies.

Requirements

Employers commonly provide specific training for new 911 emergency operators. Training covers the technical aspects of radio equipment and broadcasting as well as general communication skills and stress management. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that dispatcher training can generally take from 3-6 months to complete (www.bls.gov). CPR certification and completion of an emergency medical dispatch course may be a prerequisite for handling calls pertaining to medical emergencies.

Dispatcher training often includes the completion of a certificate program in emergency communications. Depending on the employer, this certificate program may constitute the entirety of the job training or may be required in conjunction with other training specific to the employer. Many universities and colleges offer certificate programs for 911 operators as part of their communications or criminal justice departments, and it may be possible to take courses online.

A high school education is usually required to become a 911 operator; however, prerequisites vary by employer. Other desired attributes may include relevant college coursework, previous experience operating broadcasting equipment or proficiency in a foreign language. Dispatchers are expected to have good people skills and to remain calm and reassure callers in crisis.

Employment Outlook and Salary

Job opportunities for police, fire and ambulance dispatchers were projected to increase by 12% between 2010 and 2020, per BLS figures. A growing population and the prevalence of cellular phones were expected to result in more calls to dispatchers. Employee turnover should also drive job growth.

The BLS reported that these dispatchers earned an average annual wage of $38,010 in 2012. The highest paying sectors included elementary and secondary schools, state governments and specialty hospitals, all of which paid average salaries of over $40,000.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics