During National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, we honor the men and women who answer our calls for help. As a former 9-1-1 call taker, I feel compelled to share what being a 9-1-1 professional has grown to mean to me over the years, as a way to say, “Thank You 9-1-1.”
When hearing someone express their gratitude to a telecommunicator, I have witnessed a genuine display of humility. He or she simply responds in turn with “No problem. That’s my job.” Being a 9-1-1 call taker isn’t just a job, it’s a profession. It carries the traits and the highest of expectations as other highly visible, highly trusted industry occupations.
Everyone knows 9-1-1
While the public rarely sees the face of the man or woman that answered their 9-1-1 call, we hear their voices play over the TV, radio, and passed along in social media any time a high profile event takes place. Sometimes, it is the call taker who is the center of attention. In most cases, the public interest is in knowing about the pop star that overdosed or the heroic efforts of a child performing CPR to save their mom or dad.
Every 9-1-1 call taker action is recorded and subject to public scrutiny. Scanners and smartphone apps allow anyone to listen to their radio transmissions, 24/7. And, we, the public, expect only the highest level of professionalism, compassion, and performance from call takers on the other end of the call recording. Unlike most other professions, 9-1-1 call takers can never have an off day.
Emergency call handling is measured not in minutes, not hours, but seconds. While it may feel like an eternity for help to arrive when you are scared, injured or sick, telecommunicators who answer your call and coordinate response, act with efficient and effective precision.
Telecommunictors, like most professionals, are held to an industry standard, to gather critical information necessary to send the right type of help to the correct location, often under a minute. This requires the ability to make quick decisions, an extensive knowledge base, and great skill.
A 9-1-1 professional needs to listen to multiple conversations at one time, scan for information on several computer screens, type at lightning speed, all while providing reassurance to a distressed caller that “help is on the way.”
9-1-1 professionals need to know how to use all of the communication tools at their disposal, and continue to develop their unique knowledge base. A seasoned dispatcher knows exactly where “Old Thompson’s Farm” is when a panicked caller doesn’t know what road they’re on. Try finding that in your smartphone navigation app! 9-1-1 professionals remain in a constant state of professional development – they continue their education, receive specialized training, and maintain certifications in a variety of fields, ranging from helping a suicidal caller to performing CPR on an infant.
The 9-1-1 professional rises with grace when faced with constant change. When a “quiet” Sunday morning turns into triaging dozens of 9-1-1 calls after a mass casualty incident on the freeway, these men and women go from 0 to 360 in less than the 2 seconds it took to answer the first call and say “This is 9-1-1, where is your emergency?” And honestly, as the public, we expect nothing less.
On average, a person calls 9-1-1 once or twice in their lifetime, and in most cases, it is on the worst day of their life. In addition to being leaned on by so many in crises, 9-1-1 call takers receive verbal abuse from people under stress –those highly intoxicated or simply lashing out because they are afraid.
9-1-1 professionals work holidays, difficult hours and unplanned overtime, often sacrificing time with their family and loved ones. These men and women spend 8-12 hours a night being pumped full of adrenaline yet are physically tied to the same desk, plugged in, answering calls and radio traffic which provides no outlet to burn off the effects to that fight or flight response. They must develop resiliency and make extra effort to take care of themselves or risk burning out. They play a role in the unconceivable, the tragic and sometimes, horrific events that happen in the world and often receive no closure to the outcome. Yet their sacrifices are the reason the public trusts 9-1-1.
When I was a telecommunicator and someone I just met learned that I worked for 9-1-1, they would share the most intimate details of the time they had to call 9-1-1. While sometimes it could be awkward, it was a reminder that I represented a symbol of trust.
We teach our children that when they need help, to call 9-1-1. Why? Because we trust these amazing men and women who stand at the ready. They make personal sacrifices and accept these challenges for the personal reward of serving a public safety mission. We trust them with our lives and the things we hold most precious to us. They are heroes truly worthy of our recognition.
To the 9-1-1 Professional reading this, thank you. Not for just doing your job, but for being the 9-1-1 professional who answers our nation’s lifeline. Thank you for your dedication to excellence, your integrity, and professionalism.