Dispatchers are communications personnel responsible for receiving and transmitting pure and reliable messages, tracking vehicles and equipment, and recording other important information.[1] A number of organizations, including police and fire departments, emergency medical services, motorcycle couriers, taxicab providers, trucking companies, railroads, and public utility companies, use dispatchers to relay information and coordinate their operations. Essentially, the dispatcher is the "conductor" of the force, and is responsible for the direction of all units within it.[2]

Types of dispatchers

Public Safety Telecommunicator

"Public safety dispatchers" (also known as emergency dispatchers, Telecommunications Officers, Telecommunicators or 9-1-1 dispatchers) receive calls from individuals who need assistance from Firefighters, Police Officers, and Emergency Medical Services. Once information is obtained from the caller, these dispatchers activate the services necessary to respond to the nature of the call for help. Dispatchers are an integral part of the organization's success. According to the U.S. Labor Statistics, about 10% of all dispatchers employed in the United States in 2004 were public safety dispatchers.[3]

Many 911 dispatchers are certified Emergency Medical Dispatchers, or EMDs. Using preapproved protocols, the EMD can talk a caller or bystander through lifesaving medical procedures such as CPR, childbirth, and bleeding control. This specialized expertise and training makes them an integral, but often overlooked, part of emergency services.

Similarly, many dispatchers are Certified Fire Dispatchers or Certified Police Dispatchers.

A dispatcher also operates as the eyes and ears for responding units before they get to the scene, obtaining the pertinent information to relay to field units to help ensure the safety of the responders.

Transportation and service dispatchers

A number of other organizations use dispatchers to respond to service calls, coordinate transportation schedules, and to organize the delivery of materials. Truck dispatchers are employed by trucking companies to monitor the delivery of freight over long distances and coordinate delivery pickup and drop-off schedules. Bus dispatchers monitor the schedules of their bus fleet and address any problems that arise during their operations. Tow-truck dispatchers respond to calls for emergency roadside assistance. Gas and water service dispatchers monitor their respective utilities and receive calls for emergency assistance that involve gas lines and water mains. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26% of all dispatchers employed in the United States in 2004 worked for transportation and warehousing industries.[3]

Railroad dispatchers

A train dispatcher is employed by a railroad to direct and facilitate the movement of trains over an assigned territory, which is usually part, or all, of a railroad operating division. In Canada the train dispatcher is known as the rail traffic controller (RTC). In New Zealand and Australia they are known as Train Controllers. The dispatcher is also responsible for cost effective movement of trains and other on-track railroad equipment to optimize physical (trains) and human resource (crews) assets.[4]

Train dispatchers are required to be intimately familiar with the physical characteristics of the railroad territory for which they are responsible, as well as the operating capabilities of the locomotive power being used. An efficient train dispatcher may use the rule book, timetable, train orders, and knowledge of track conditions to move a large number of trains safely over the assigned territory with minimal delay to any train, even in single-track territory.

A crew dispatcher is also employed by the railroad to keep track of train crews and their assignments. The crew dispatcher is responsible for assigning train crew to trains, based on a crew book that shows scheduled rosters but also making real-time adjustments as necessary based on rail traffic conditions and delays. The crew dispatcher is normally assisted by a crew caller whose responsibility is to telephone the train and engine crews to advise them of time to report for duty. The crew dispatcher is also responsible for checking that each train and engine crew are properly qualified for their assignments and have had proper rest pursuant to relevant hours-of-service regulations.

Airline or flight dispatchers

A flight dispatcher (also known as a flight operations officer) assists in planning flight paths, taking into account wind speed, storms, aircraft performance and loading, and other conditions. Some dispatchers provide a flight following service and advise pilots if conditions or paths change. They usually work in the operations or control center of the airline. In the United States and Canada, the flight dispatcher shares legal responsibility with the Commander (joint responsibility dispatch system).

Working conditions and environment

Dispatchers are responsible for monitoring all of the communications within a specific geographic area. Public safety dispatchers are responsible for all emergency communications that occur within the jurisdiction of their department. These workers receive and document incoming calls, transmit messages to appropriate personnel, and keep logs of the daily activities of their personnel. Public safety dispatchers usually work in a police station, a fire station, or a hospital.[3] Other dispatchers work in centralized communication centers associated with their specific company or service.

All types of dispatchers work with telephones, radios, ACARS, and computers on a routine basis. They also monitor traffic patterns or other outside activity via video surveillance. As a result of sitting for long periods and using such equipment, dispatchers can develop eye strain and back problems. Many dispatchers must also work irregular hours to provide 24-hour service, which includes night, weekend, and holiday hours.[3]

Public safety dispatchers are usually the first point of contact between emergency services and the public. When receiving incoming calls for help, these dispatchers must ascertain the nature, location, and extent of the emergency. The working conditions of a public safety dispatcher may be particularly stressful compared to others because handling a call in an inappropriate manner may delay or misdirect other emergency personnel, which could result in serious injury or even death.[3] A dispatcher error in a San Juan County, New Mexico vehicle crash, for example, may have cost lives in May 2006. The dispatcher in San Juan County was criticized for not using GPS tracking to locate a van that crashed with six people inside. The dispatcher received eleven calls from the trapped crash victims. By the time rescuers located the van four hours later, all six people were dead..[5] Callers requesting emergency assistance are often in a state of heightened emotional distress, which makes it difficult to obtain the information needed to handle the call appropriately. In the San Juan County incident, the crash victims did not know where they were.

Human error can also produce deadly results for other types of dispatchers. A train dispatcher in Spain was found guilty of negligent homicide for a head-on train collision that occurred in June 2003.[6] Nineteen people died and forty-eight were injured in a crash where the dispatcher allowed a passenger train to leave a station when a freight train was approaching the station on the same line.[6]

Like very similar controlling jobs, such as air traffic controllers, dispatcher positions can be notoriously stressful and full of non-stop work.

Training and employment

Employment as a dispatcher does not usually require a level of education higher than a high school diploma, but many that work in the field hold liberal arts degrees. Employers prefer candidates with computer and clerical skills, communication skills, and the ability to work fast under pressure.[3]

Candidates for employment as public safety dispatchers may be required to pass written, oral, or performance tests and are governed by state or local regulations. Public safety dispatchers may also have to obtain certifications and attend additional training before or after they are employed by state or local governments to dispatch for police, fire, or emergency medical services. The level of training required for these dispatchers is typically the most extensive in comparison to other dispatch positions.[3]

A standard certification requirement for public safety dispatchers is Terminal Operator certification for access to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database system. Access to this database system often allows additional access to the state-level system comparable to NCIC which allows public safety dispatchers to access motor vehicle registration and drivers license information as well as wants or warrants by various law enforcement agencies both statewide and national.

In addition to certifications, specialized training is also required or appropriated to public safety dispatchers. As public safety dispatchers are the first contact made between the public and emergency services, public safety dispatchers need to be able to extract a vast array of information out of the caller. Such specialized training for 911 dispatchers can include: suicide intervention, hostage negotiation, bomb threats, tactical dispatching (for SWAT teams), domestic violence and domestic and foreign terrorism countermeasures. Many are also trained as Emergency Medical Dispatchers, able to give first aid instructions to victims or families prior to EMS arrival.

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 266,000 people were employed as dispatchers in 2004.[3] Employment for dispatcher is projected to grow as fast as the average (an increase of 9 to 17 percent) through the year 2014. In addition, it is expected that a number of current dispatchers will either transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force, which will result in an increase of openings.[3]


The primary tool of the dispatcher is the dispatch console. A dispatch console is a system that interfaces to a private or public radio system, allowing the dispatcher to communicate directly with all field workers, police officers, EMS personnel, and others in order to coordinate their activities. Dispatchers use various hardware and software to create dispatch.

Emergency communications infrastructure

An initiative aimed at updating the 911 service infrastructure in the United States and Canada to improve public emergency communications services in a growingly wireless mobile society. The implementation of NG911 enhances emergency number services to create a faster, more resilient dispatcher system that allows voice, photos, videos and text messages to flow seamlessly from the public to the 911 network.[7]

See also


  1. Grier, Robin. "Dispatch". Dispatch Solutions. Catalyst Communications Technologies, Inc. Retrieved 28 May 2011.
  2. Grier, Robin. "What are Dispatch and Interoperability?". Catalyst. Catalyst CommunicationsTechnologies. Retrieved 24 May 2011.
  3. www.bls.gov Occupational Outlook Handbook 2006-07 Edition. URL accessed on April 6, 2006
  4. "Career Choices - Rail Traffic Controller". irtcanada.net. Archived from the original on 17 January 2011. Retrieved 18 February 2010.
  5. "Dispatcher error may have cost lives". KRQE News 13 - Dispatcher error may have cost lives. Retrieved 2006-06-07.
  6. "Train dispatcher sentenced to two years for negligent homicide". Train dispatcher sentenced to two years for negligent homicide. Retrieved 2006-06-07.
  7. "Next Generation 911". 911.gov. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
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