What is working for 911 really like?
March 23, 2011 3:58 PM   Subscribe

I am thinking of becoming a 911 operator. I am in Louisiana if that helps. What is working for 911 really like?

I can type (60 wpm), and I also have dispatching experience, although not on THAT level. I know it is a very stressful job and training varies from state to state. So, what's the scoop? Has anyone on here done it and liked it, or was it terrible?
posted by iabide79 to Work & Money (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think you may want to work at bringing up your typing speed; 60 wpm doesn't sound like enough, particularly given that your speed is likely to be compromised when you're trying to listen, talk and type at the same time.
posted by Dasein at 4:09 PM on March 23, 2011

Well, you know what, the Toronto police only ask for 30 wpm, so what do I know?
posted by Dasein at 4:11 PM on March 23, 2011

Usually, you are trained really well, starting out with listening in on calls, then call recieving, and over time moved to dispatch. You need to be able to detatch yourself from the caller and stay calm, when you are yelled at or cussed out. Typically the work is in a darkened room, very quiet, unusually calm, given the job. You may be able to tour the local 911 center to see it for yourself. Hiring/testing can take a long time, so be prepared to wait and you'll go through an intense background investigation and polygraph. It can be fun and rewarding work, those who I know are 911 operator really enjoy their jobs. I tested recently for 911 and 60 wpm is way higher than what I needed. Good luck!
posted by jennstra at 4:18 PM on March 23, 2011

Well, but those are Canadian minutes....

I would say that the prime job requirements would be the ability to think fast and stay completely calm, while under significant pressure. Is that a good match for you personality?
posted by purenitrous at 4:20 PM on March 23, 2011

I was a 9-1-1 operator for years. Each agency will expect different things, but in my experience, typing speed isn't as important as accuracy. Whatever software they use will have a preset form that you fill out, which makes it less likely that you'll forget to ask something important, but you'll receive months of training before you're turned loose on your own.

Basically, it's periods of high stress and the blackest of comedy interspersed with periods of disbelief and boring routine. The trick is that you can't allow any of that to show through. People will scream at you, curse you, threaten you and beg you, but you must be calm and professional. You're the first point of contact in what may be the worst day of their lives - and in some cases, the last day of their lives - and that calm and professionalism will help determine how quickly they calm down to the point they can give you useful info.

You'll need to reconcile yourself to having little closure on the calls you work. The officers, paramedics, firefighters all go to the scene, so they get to actually do something physical. You just move on to the next call. It can be terribly frustrating but also very rewarding.
posted by jessian at 4:23 PM on March 23, 2011 [14 favorites]

I know two former 9-1-1 dispatchers, and they both quit because of frustration with how little control they had over how situations were handled - stuff like not being able to get a police car to a domestic violence incident. Especially since they would sometimes run across negative outcomes in another call or in the newspaper later on.
posted by momus_window at 4:54 PM on March 23, 2011

IPhone has a scanner app for $0.99. Buy it and listen in for a while. We got it last week to find out wtf was going on down the street and it has provided hours if entertainment since.
posted by fshgrl at 5:17 PM on March 23, 2011

You say you have dispatch experience, but have you ever worked in a call center? I ask because though I've never done 911, I have done tech support and I currently work in a job connected to a 311 call center, and the burnout/turnover/frustration/stress is incredible when the stakes are no higher than a pothole or a router needing to be reset: when I did tech support, the average person stayed in the job 57 days, according to our statistical reports.
posted by SMPA at 5:32 PM on March 23, 2011

I was a 911 dispatcher for about seven months. This was in small town Alaska in a jail/police/dispatch station.

I liked jessian's assessment, "Basically, it's periods of high stress and the blackest of comedy interspersed with periods of disbelief and boring routine. " I used to describe it in much the same way, as long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of focused panic.

First of all, make sure you are okay with sitting for long periods of time. This was non-optional where I worked. You need to be in that room next to the computer at all times. Of course, you could stand up and stretch all you wanted, but you can't leave the room.

We worked two to a shift. The people I worked with were all ladies. Some of them I liked, some of them were annoying and I hated sitting in the room with them for 12 hours.

I worked a variety of shifts during training. Daytime shift from 8-7, the swings, and the graveyard. The new people are usually put on the graveyard , so make sure you are okay with working late nights/sleeping all day. Make sure you are okay working weekends. New people work weekends.

They give you a book to read from when someone calls in with a 911 emergency. Be it health, crime, etc, there is a tab in this book for most every emergency. If something doesn't fit exactly, you have to make your best guess. You have to be comfortable reading from a script but being dynamic enough to fit each unique situation. I hear they have the book in computer form in a lot of states now.

I had to pat down any women who got arrested. A lot of them were DUIs, so they were drunk. Most of them were passive. We did have some men who just sat in the drunk tank and shouted.

I assisted the public with questions and basically acted in a clerical fashion, as well. I answered the phones. You get a lot of weird calls.

One 911 call I got was from a girl whose phone was shut off and she could not call anyone except 911. She was distraught and just kept calling even after I advised her 911 is not just for calling when your parents shut off your phone. I actually got MANY calls like that. Most 911 calls were not actual emergencies, just people with problems.

I loved helping people and I liked helping them at their darkest times. But in the end, I could not take the sitting in the same room late at night on the weekends stuff. I didn't like having to work so closely with another person. I didn't quite mesh with the other dispatchers, although I did get along with the police officers pretty well.

Every place will be different, but this was my experience.
posted by amodelcitizen at 5:40 PM on March 23, 2011 [3 favorites]

You do have to be able to type pretty quickly, because when an officer pulls someone over, you have to use the computer to look up their info. Their driving status, make sure they aren't wanted, etc. As long as you can type fast enough to keep up with the information they are giving you, you will be cool. Some ladies wrote the info down and then typed it in, but this obviously takes longer.
posted by amodelcitizen at 5:46 PM on March 23, 2011

amodelcitizen, in larger municipalities, those tasks are handled by the police dispatcher instead of the 911 dispatcher, or managed in the cruiser by the officer on their computer. I can see things varying dramatically depending on the size of the region you're in, though, for sure.
posted by disillusioned at 7:13 PM on March 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: These are all great answers, thanks!
Where I would be working at is a building that is seperate from the police station/jail, so I don't have to worry about dealing with the drunkards or whatever in person.
I am at a job now where I sit for eight hours, mostly by myself most of the time, so I am used to the boredom and sitting and working on weekends and holidays.
I put in my application yesterday, so I'm hoping I will get on! The only thing I worry about is the stress of getting something wrong in a life and death situation. I know the training is extensive, but I think I might be good at it if I get it. :)
posted by iabide79 at 7:39 PM on March 23, 2011

Answering 911 by Caroline Burau is about this. Well, a lot of it is more about the author herself. But I thought it was interesting enough and IIRC there is a fair amount of detail about the day-to-day of the job.
posted by lakeroon at 8:38 PM on March 23, 2011

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