To get an idea of the day-to-day life of a 9-1-1 dispatcher, I interviewed Derek Down, a full-time student and 9-1-1 dispatcher for Oregon State University. Down told me about the challenges and rewards of working in an unpredictable environment.
A dispatcher’s work schedule is set three months in advance with four consecutive days of 10-hour shifts and three days off, but they must check their e-mail on their days off to stay in the loop. There are usually two dispatchers covering eight general lines and four emergency lines.
Being a dispatcher never gets boring. Every day is different since you never know what kind of calls you will get. Weekdays are busier than weekends due to the increase in student traffic, but these days run smoothly because there are more resources available during regular business hours. The night shift is slower, but “You have to be ready for anything” because it usually contains more criminal calls such as MIPs, DUIs, and bike theft. It’s generally busier during various OSU events such as “Battle of the Bands,” but the busiest days are football games since there is a lot more radio communication between security.
Some of the most common calls dispatchers get are: needing to jump start a vehicle, professors getting locked out of their office, updating callers on power outages, and people locking their keys in their car. There are, however, those bizarre calls every once in a while. “A woman actually locked herself in her car and used Post-it notes to tell strangers walking by to call for help.”
OSU dispatchers surprisingly don’t get any prank calls. They do, however, get unruly calls when someone accidentally hits the blue light phones that are scattered throughout campus or the emergency button in the elevator.
As you can imagine, this job can be stressful at times. It’s annoying when dispatchers try to contact someone that cannot be reached, which is especially hard during the night shift since most people are asleep. It can definitely get hectic in instances where there are too many things happening at one time, such as listening to a building alarm going off when there are already four calls on hold and someone at the front desk is waiting for you. It’s also frustrating when callers treat dispatchers like their own personal information line or private security force, but Down says that in those cases dispatchers are still courteous and try to help point those callers in the right direction.
Although OSU dispatchers only cover campus, they still get many calls from people off-campus. An example of this was when a student locked his keys in his car on Monroe Street. Down would have sent someone out to help him if he was on the south side, but since he was on the north side of Monroe, Down had to give him the number for a towing company since that side of Monroe Street is outside of OSU’s range. Down says that these instances are upsetting because he wanted to help the student, but the dispatchers must follow OSU policies. This policy sometimes causes arguments callers try to have with dispatchers like, “Well, if I push my car to the other side of Monroe will you open it for free?” but the answer is no. (I’m not sure how you would be able to do that if you locked your keys in your car, anyway).
All in all, there are certain characteristics a 9-1-1 dispatcher should have in order to do the job right. The first is being able to multitask such as being able to read, type, talk, and listen at the same time. You must be able to listen and process all of the information very carefully so that nothing is overlooked because “timing is everything.” You must also be able to stay calm in tragic situations.
What I found most interesting is that these dispatchers go above and beyond to help people. If Brown hears that there’s a car that will be towed, he uses his resources to contact the owner of that vehicle in hopes that that student can move it before that happens. He’s even gone as far as contacting the parents of that student if the student cannot be reached.
So even though 10-hour shifts can be long and some days can be overwhelming, Down says that being a dispatcher is rewarding. “It’s satisfying to know that I did something right. I’m very happy with the people I work with and I’m proud of my job. It’s a great feeling to provide a service that people need.”
by Jennifer Smith