Who should train dispatchers?

Who should train dispatchers?


A fter my presentation on Dispatcher-Added SafetyR (see the article by the same name in the December 1996 issue of Fire Engineering) at the Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC) in Indianapolis in April, a participant asked me, “Who do you think is best suited to train dispatchers?” This question requires a second, clarifying question, “Train dispatchers for what?” There are many different trainers from relevant disciplines and experiences who can and should be used appropriately to train dispatchers. Public safety dispatching (PSD) involves the coordination of so many different agencies and has such significant liability potential that multidisciplinary training should be the norm, not the exception. Here are some of the different types of training and trainers you should use for your dispatchers.


To be sure, representatives from the various field units with whom the dispatcher communicates can provide useful training. Time invested in familiarizing dispatchers with the specialty units` tools, capabilities, protocols, and especially operating conditions is well-spent. In addition to firefighting education, field medical unit education is also a good idea. It is far better for dispatchers to be introduced to medical terminology in the classroom than on the radio. This avoids a lot of embarrassing and time-consuming phonetic spelling in an emergency. Any training from field medical personnel should complement the emergency medical dispatch (EMD) training I will address later.


Anyone who has ever tried to explain to a computer technician over the phone at 3 a.m. why “that little green shiny squarish gizmo that sits behind the display” isn`t doing what it usually does will appreciate fluency in computer jargon, too. It is obviously in the computer technician`s interest to have the dispatcher singing from the same page when discussing operational glitches. Sometimes the problem can be fixed over the phone, bringing the system back to normal faster and saving the technician a trip to the office.

Similarly, basic troubleshooting skills for radio and telephone systems can prove valuable. While dispatchers are expected to communicate effectively using both these systems, they are generally not expected to have any technical expertise in these areas. Training in this area would be for describing problems concisely and accurately and, in the case of a service loss, for using backup systems until the primary systems can be restored. It would not be to do the technician`s job.


Training from attorneys on liability issues will often tune up dispatchers` attentiveness and documentation. If you have ever seen a videotape of a dispatcher deposition, you will likely realize the value of training to testify as well! These are becoming more commonplace as citizens and their lawyers become aware of standards of care for PSD. This is usually done on a case-by-case basis, but the exposure is good for any dispatcher. Looking at relevant case law is helpful, since this moves concepts such as standard of care and vicarious liability from the theoretical to the very real.

In cases where I have been an expert witness, the plaintiff`s attorney has always asked to see the training records of the people involved in the litigated incident. Another benefit of training from attorneys is that it usually drives home the idea that dispatcher training is not a luxury–it is as much a necessity as the training of field units.


Dispatcher stress has gotten a lot more well-deserved attention since I first wrote about it 16 years ago as more and more jurisdictions realize that job stress is costly in many ways (operational mistakes, absences and the resultant overtime for coverage, workers` compensation claims, and personnel turnover) and largely controllable. While this increased awareness is generally good, it has given rise in some instances to training offered by vendors who are either unfamiliar with dispatching or lack clinical expertise in stress management. In this area you want to use instructors who know the dispatcher`s job inside and out and understand the psychology and biology of stress. While it is always possible to benefit from any training, with limited education dollars in your budget you want to get the most bang for your buck.

I have conducted dispatcher stress seminars that were attended by dispatchers who had gone to generic stress management training in the past. Invariably, they found the job-specific seminar more useful because it offered them strategies and tools to use in their daily working lives. Stress management theory is nice to know, but practical theory application to the working world of the dispatcher is where the payoff on training investment is seen, for the individual and the department. As for finding qualified trainers for dispatcher stress courses, combined dispatch experience and strong clinical knowledge is not uncommon. I know dispatchers who are nurses and EMTs and who have trained to gain the knowledge base needed to make a dispatcher stress presentation both relevant and clinically sound.


Basic public safety dispatcher training includes the following:

telephone and radio communication techniques;

handling callers under stress;

eliciting relevant information;

giving prearrival instructions;

developing productive working relationships with field units; understanding the effects of job-related stress on oneself;

becoming familiar with a department`s resources, mission, chain of command, SOPs, and response protocols;

learning the basic elements of prioritizing and dispatch deci-sion making;

understanding department policies regarding public and media relations; and

enhancing responders` safety and knowing the tools of the trade (operation of the various computers, telephone consoles, and other supporting technology).

There are numerous subheadings to the above categories. Prearrival instructions, for example, are not limited to medical emergencies. In terms of Dispatcher-Added SafetyR, the lifesaving potential of prearrival instructions in fire dispatching can be as great as or greater than in emergency medical dispatching (EMD). The advanced communications techniques sometimes employed in giving prearrival instructions and getting prearrival information are not acquired casually, and working as a firefighter will not enable you to learn these skills. Firefighter experience alone does not qualify you to teach fire dispatching. It is a different job, requiring similar knowledge but different skills. Firefighters have a lot of useful information to offer dispatchers and should be involved in many parts of their training, but dispatchers need to train dispatchers.

Think of the plaintiff`s attorney asking the question in front of the jury: “Tell us, will you, Captain Brennan, just how much fire dispatching have you actually done?”

“Well, I haven`t done any actual dispatching, but I`ve been on the job for 23 years.”

“What? None?”

“No, sir. But I use the department radio every day.”

“Well, I`m sure you do, Captain,” says the attorney, strolling past the jurors. “But would you want your appendix taken out by a nurse who has been in the operating room every day for the past 23 years or by a surgeon who has been trained by other surgeons?”

Likewise, for EMD it is not necessary that the instructor be an EMT. Rather, it is necessary that the instructor have some measurable amount of medical knowledge (EMT, RN, MD, and PA are all acceptable). What is equally important is that the instructor be or have been a public safety dispatcher, because EMD is quite different from the disciplines of EMT, RN, MD, or PA. All of those disciplines have a strong element of “look, listen, and feel” in their training. EMD is done solely by phone, relying on the caller, with all his potential limitations, to provide the descriptions of the victim. Many EMTs I have taught in EMD classes report that they find it extremely difficult to fill in as EMDs. “I know what I would do if I were there on the scene,” they often say, “but being limited to the phone is very frustrating.” That is because EMD is a different job, requiring a similar basic understanding about the way human bodies work but different skills.

There is also a danger in getting too fancy with regard to EMD. Some jurisdictions are adopting the rule requiring EMD instructors to be advanced cardiac life support (ACLS) certified. Considering what little connection there is between ACLS certification and EMD, there is no good reason to do this. What has happened is that in a commendable quest for quality–and in the absence of a widely accepted, nonproprietary EMD instructor certification–rule makers borrowed an advanced certification from another discipline to apply to EMD.

In a conversation with an EMD trainer at a conference in Tennessee recently, I was introduced firsthand to an unintended consequence of this misapplication of the ACLS certification as a standard for EMD instructors. This trainer had successfully been teaching EMD for more than six years, and his graduates did well and had many “saves” to their credit. However, he would no longer to be able to teach EMD since the ACLS certification requirement was going into effect. “I don`t have the time, money, or inclination to take an ACLS course,” he said. “But I am definitely going to miss teaching EMD.” Avoid losing a resource like this veteran; don`t unnecessarily “price him out of the market” with irrelevant instructor requirements.


The bottom line is that PSD has its own set of standards of care and its own liabilities. Since it is intrinsically a profession that coordinates the use of other professions, multidisciplinary training is indicated. However, since it is just as intrinsically a separate profession from those it coordinates, basic PSD should have its core training done by public safety dispatchers. That a firefighter, police officer, or EMT has some radio fluency does not qualify that person to teach dispatching. Furthermore, such training is likely to be less defensible should the need to defend it arise.

An indication that the lingering “Rodney Dangerfield Syndrome” of getting “no respect” still attaches to dispatching is the presence of the folks out there who are arrogant enough to think they can approach the dispatcher training with the philosophy, “I`ve never done your job, but let me tell you how to do it.” There is no surer way to turn your dispatchers off to training than to have somebody approach them this way. I have seen books written by well-meaning folks whose backgrounds were in education, law, and other fields in which they try to tell the reader what it takes to be a dispatcher. There is no questioning their intelligence, but I certainly question their motivation and philosophy. I asked one author what her PSD credentials were. She had visited one communications center and was on a committee! This, she reasoned, was more than enough to qualify her to write about what she viewed as a fairly simple and straightforward job. Some of these books are published because the publisher knows so little about dispatching that it accepts the author`s views. There are a number of good dispatching books on the market that are written by people who have done the job. If you want some idea of what it takes to train dispatchers, read these books. For an even better idea, ask your dispatchers.

Growing trainers from the ranks of dispatchers is something departments should consider. It provides another career pathway for dispatchers and provides the department with another avenue for quality improvement and liability reduction. It also provides you with the added benefit of always having around the people you need to train dispatchers: dispatchers! n

n FRANCIS X. HOLT is the author of Emergency Communications Management (Fire Engineering Books, 1991) and more than three dozen articles on public safety issues, a registered nurse, and an expert witness in dispatcher liability cases. He has trained dispatchers from and consulted to hundreds of fire, EMS, and police departments throughout the United States and Canada. He is the president of FXH Consulting of Wolfeboro Falls, New Hampshire.

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