What it takes to be a 911 dispatcher: Perfection, or as close as you can get
A couple days ago, somebody called Charleston County 911 to report a fire.
The operator went through the standard questions — What’s wrong? Where are you? — before getting into the more detailed queries that are supposed to be part of any emergency call.
The caller got frustrated and said, “You won’t send anybody anyway.”
That’s how long it takes for people to lose faith in the system.
Glenn Smith reported this week that, in August, a Mount Pleasant couple called 911 twice to report burglars at their neighbor’s house. The police never showed.
The police didn’t come because the operator who took the calls never forwarded the information to a dispatcher.
County officials say the source of the problem with the Mount Pleasant call — and several others — was one call taker at the Consolidated Dispatch Center.
But the entire 911 system is taking the hit.
The Consolidated Dispatch Center — which handles 911 calls for the whole county — takes about 2,200 calls a day.
Out of the 800,000 calls the center received last year, there were fewer than 100 complaints. A fair number of those concerned the rudeness of the operator who took their call.
Sorry, but Southern courtesy goes out the window when there’s an emergency. Dispatchers are required to ask specific questions, and most of them do not deviate from that script.
Don’t get your feelings hurt. It’s all about getting information, and it’s how they are trained.
Jim Lake, director of the dispatch center, says applicants go through 18 weeks of training, not including the mandatory annual training they need to remain certified.
Before they are hired, potential dispatchers are tested on their ability to listen and type and handle two or more things at once. They have to understand geography and, perhaps most important, show that they can handle stress.
If a person doesn’t score in the top 10 percent on those tests, they aren’t considered.
Then it is seven weeks of classroom training, which includes simulated calls and more tests from a variety of certifying agencies. For the next 10 weeks, they take calls with a certified dispatcher sitting next to them, writing daily critiques.
In the last week of training, an operator works alone, but a supervisor monitors all their actions every day. It’s a lot of work — the average call taker answers 150 calls in a shift.
It’s a labor-intensive set-up. Lake says the system works well, but because people are part of the system, there is always the potential for trouble.
“We work hard to make sure it doesn’t happen,” Lake says, “but from time to time, something happens.”
The dispatcher who answered the call about Mount Pleasant burglars last month deviated from the script — her training, and her two years of experience.
She did not ask the standard questions, she wandered off the normal 911 information-gathering formula and — worst of all — she did not alert dispatch.
There is no doubt taking 911 calls is a stressful job. All night long, these folks talk to people who are scared, mad or distraught. It’s like being a social worker, except perhaps with a greater feeling of helplessness. The county brings in professional stress managers to help these people cope and do their jobs.
This one person did not do hers. Luckily, no one was hurt as a result.
Whatever the Sheriff’s Office investigation finds, the Consolidated Dispatch Center will likely have to fine-tune its system. One mistake is human, a series of them from one person is a problem they can’t afford.
Rest assured, county officials know all this. They want you to have faith in the system. A business might consider a 99.98 percent satisfaction rate great, but 911 center officials are aware that they don’t have that luxury.
Not when every call is potentially a matter of life or death.
Reach Brian Hicks at firstname.lastname@example.org