A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

16 Secrets 911 Operators Won’t Tell You

Updated: Jan. 13, 2023

The stress and demands of constantly managing emergencies can take a toll on 911 dispatchers—which is why they might not reveal these secrets.

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They answer more calls than you can imagine

An estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 in the United States each year. That works out to about 650,000 calls every single day, according to Chris Carver, operations director for the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). It’s a tough job, as you’re about to learn, but let’s lighten things up, if only for a moment, with these outrageous tales of the most hilarious 911 calls ever placed.

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Every call requires at least seven tasks

For a full understanding of what it takes to be a 911 dispatcher, take a look at the Education Overview information on the NENA website. But every time an operator picks up a call, they must:

  • Question caller regarding emergency
  • Help caller to remain calm
  • Prioritize other calls
  • Provide instructions to the caller, including about life-saving emergency medical interventions
  • Contact proper emergency personnel
  • Dispatch emergency personnel
  • Record details of the call, information provided, and resources dispatched.
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They take a lot of verbal abuse

“For every moment that I felt I was making a difference to a grateful community, there were ten calls where I was cursed at, called terrible names, or turned into an outlet for venting civilians (mostly for issues I had no control over),”—911 dispatcher Brooklyn Stabile told the Washington Post. Find out the 45 things police officers want you to know.

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The hiring requirements are stringent

A 911 dispatcher must meet the following job requirements:

  • Be an excellent speaker and writer of English
  • Have office skills such as word processing, stenography, and transcription
  • Have a working knowledge of laws, legal codes, government regulations, and agency rules
  • Know the geographical area, including the names of highways and roads
  • Be an excellent communicator
  • Be an excellent problem solver
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CPR First Aid Training Concept

The training is grueling

Getting hired is just the first hurdle. After that, most states require about 40 hours of initial training, as well as the completion of ongoing, continuing education that may include the following courses:

  • Advanced First Aid/CPR/AED
  • Basic Telecommunications
  • Critical Incident Stress
  • Domestic Violence
  • Emergency Medical Dispatch
  • Hazardous Materials
  • Suicide Intervention
  • Terrorism
  • TTY Training

Here are 8 signs you might be cut out to be a 911 dispatcher.

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The pay is not great

The average 911 dispatcher earns around $36,300 a year; the top 10 percent make about $56,580, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Education and experience both tend to play a large role… with higher salaries and advanced positions going to those professionals with more,” say the folks at 911dispatcherEDU.org, a resource dedicated to providing aspiring emergency dispatch personnel with information on how to become competitive candidates.

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No, they don’t know your location

Many folks believe that when you call 911, the person on the other end of the line knows your location. But it’s not true, according to Quora contributor, Curtis Darnell, who worked in emergency services for nearly three decades. That’s why the first question most dispatchers will ask is “What’s the location of the emergency?” What’s more, the location of the caller isn’t always the location of the emergency. The more information you provide, the better your dispatcher can serve you.

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What other info they need from you

To get the help you need as quickly as possible, here’s what you should be prepared to answer as calmly as possible:

  • Your precise emergency—for example, “My child fell down the stairs.”
  • The precise location of the emergency, with a cross street.
  • A call-back number—in case the call is disconnected or responders can’t find the location).
  • The condition the victim is in—for example, “She’s conscious, but bleeding from her leg and not moving.”
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They’re good lie detectors

Being a trained 911 dispatcher means you can pick up when people are lying… not just on emergency calls but in life in general, according to Quora contributor, Cathy Looper, a retired dispatcher. “If you lie to a 911 operator friend and they don’t call you out on it… trust me, they are just being nice to you.” Here are 10 everyday emergencies you need to know how to manage.

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They’re extremely observant listeners

Emergency services dispatchers are trained not just to listen to the caller but to the context, including what’s going on in the background, Looper adds. This makes them very good listeners. “So if you’re out with your 911 friend and they laugh for no reason, rest assured that the couple in the next booth over said something funny.”

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You don’t want to ask about the awful things they’ve heard

“I’ve talked to parents who found their children dead, to kids who watched their parents die,” Stabile told to the Washington Post. “It takes a toll.” These 14 mnemonic devices could save your life.

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Coping is tough

After a particularly grueling call, your supervisor might ask, “Are you OK?” according to Ricardo Martinez II, a dispatcher for over 13 years and the host and creator of the podcast Within the Trenches—True Stories from 9-1-1 Dispatchers.

“Yeah I’m good,” you may respond, except you’re not, Martinez tells Reader’s Digest. “You’re rocked and everything echoes in your head.” Sometimes there’s a debriefing after the shift is over, he says, but not necessarily. Some dispatchers seek clinical therapy.

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Most people who call are first-time callers

When someone is faced with a true emergency, it’s often their first call to 911 and they’re frantic. They don’t realize all the coordination that has to happen to send the needed help, Stabile explained to the Washington Post. According to EMS1.com, an emergency medical services resource site, callers should begin by taking a deep breath while trying to focus and calm yourself and then listen carefully to whatever the dispatcher asks and advises.

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Never hang up on a 911 dispatcher

Every second counts, so even if you called by mistake, it’s important that you do not hang up until you’re told to do so, according to 911.gov, the national program behind the emergency services system. If you end a 911 call abruptly, the dispatcher has an obligation to investigate and your misdial can end up taking time away from actual emergencies. To minimize that time, always remain on the line until the dispatcher tells you it’s OK to disconnect.

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Never ever call 911 without an emergency

“The conversation always starts out with, this is not an emergency but… and they’re calling for parade times, firework show times, or to complain their power is out.” The dispatcher must deal with the call as if it could be an emergency—and that could delay life-saving treatment for someone in a real emergency. Here’s how to create an in-case-of-emergency file and plan.

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Medical-alert devices are worth it

If you live alone and are elderly or have a condition that might leave you vulnerable, these devices can save your life, according to Quora contributor and emergency medical dispatcher, Logan Hendrickson.  Here are 10 things you should always keep around in a home emergency kit.