Nature of the Work [About this section]  Index

The work of dispatchers varies greatly depending on the industry. Dispatchers keep records, logs, and schedules of the calls they receive, transportation vehicles they monitor and control, and actions they take. They maintain information on each call and then prepare a detailed report on all activities occurring during the shift. Many dispatchers employ computer-aided dispatch systems to accomplish these tasks.

Regardless of where they work, all dispatchers are assigned a specific territory and have responsibility for all communications within this area. Many work in teams, especially in large communications centers or companies. One person usually handles all dispatching calls to the response units or company’s drivers, while the other members of the team usually receive the incoming calls and deal with the public.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety dispatchers, monitor the location of emergency services personnel from any one or all of the jurisdiction’s emergency services departments. They dispatch the appropriate type and number of units in response to calls for assistance. Dispatchers, or call takers, often are the first people the public contacts when they call for emergency assistance. If certified for emergency medical services, the dispatcher may provide medical instruction to those on the scene until the medical staff arrives.

Usually, dispatchers constitute the communications workforce on a shift. A dispatcher is responsible for communication within an assignment area, while the call takers receive calls and transfer information to the dispatchers. During the course of the shift, personnel will rotate such that the assignment responsibility of the dispatcher will be shared with those in the call taker role.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers work in a variety of settings; they may work in a police station, a fire station, a hospital, or a centralized city communications center. In many cities, the police department serves as the communications center. In these situations, all 911 emergency calls go to the police department, where a dispatcher handles the police calls and screens the others before transferring them to the appropriate service.

When handling calls, dispatchers carefully question each caller to determine the type, seriousness, and location of the emergency. This information is posted either electronically by computer or, with decreasing frequency, by hand, and communicated immediately to uniformed or supervisory personnel. They quickly decide on the priority of the incident, the kind and number of units needed, and the location of the closest and most suitable ones available. Typically, there is a team of call takers who answer calls and relay the information to the dispatchers. Responsibility then shifts to the dispatchers who send response units to the scene and monitor the activity of the public safety personnel answering the dispatch.

When appropriate, dispatchers stay in close contact with other service providers—for example, a police dispatcher would monitor the response of the fire department when there is a major fire. In a medical emergency, dispatchers not only keep in close touch with the dispatched units, but also with the caller. They may give extensive pre-arrival first aid instructions while the caller is waiting for the ambulance. They continuously give updates on the patient’s condition to the ambulance personnel, and often serve as a link between the medical staff in a hospital and the emergency medical technicians in the ambulance. (A separate statement on emergency medical technicians and paramedics appears elsewhere in the Handbook.)

Other dispatchers coordinate deliveries, service calls, and related activities for a variety of firms. Truck dispatchers, who work for local and long distance trucking companies, coordinate the movement of trucks and freight between cities. They direct the pickup and delivery activities of drivers. They receive customers’ requests for pickup and delivery of freight; consolidate freight orders into truckloads for specific destinations; assign drivers and trucks; and draw up routes and pickup and delivery schedules. Bus dispatchers make sure local and long distance buses stay on schedule. They handle all problems that may disrupt service and dispatch other buses, or arrange for repairs to restore service and schedules. Train dispatchers ensure the timely and efficient movement of trains according to train orders and schedules. They must be aware of track switch positions, track maintenance areas, and the location of other trains running on the track. Taxicab dispatchers, or starters, dispatch taxis in response to requests for service and keep logs on all road service calls. Tow truck dispatchers take calls for emergency road service. They relay the problem to a nearby service station or a tow truck service and see to it that the emergency road service is completed. Gas and water service dispatchers monitor gas lines and water mains and send out service trucks and crews to take care of emergencies.

Employment [About this section]  Index

Dispatchers held 248,000 jobs in 1998. About one-third were police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, almost all of whom worked for State and local governments—primarily for local police and fire departments. Most of the remaining dispatchers worked for local and long distance trucking companies and bus lines; telephone, electric, and gas utility companies; wholesale and retail establishments; railroads; and companies providing business services.

Although dispatching jobs are found throughout the country, most dispatchers work in urban areas where large communications centers and businesses are located.

Job Outlook [About this section]  Index

Overall employment of dispatchers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2008. In addition to job growth, job openings will result from the need to replace those who transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Employment of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers is expected to grow more slowly than the average for all occupations. Intense competition for available resources among governmental units should limit the ability of many growing communities to keep pace with rapidly growing emergency services needs. To balance the increased demand for emergency services, many districts are seeking to consolidate their communications centers into a shared, areawide facility, thus further restricting opportunities in this industry. Individuals with computer skills and experience will have a greater opportunity for employment as public safety dispatchers.

Population growth and economic expansion are expected to lead to average employment growth for dispatchers not involved in public safety. Although the overall increase will be about average, not all specialties will be affected in the same way. For example, employment of taxicab, train, and truck dispatchers is sensitive to economic conditions. When economic activity falls, demand for transportation services declines. They may experience layoffs or a shortened workweek, and jobseekers may have some difficulty finding entry-level jobs. Employment of tow truck dispatchers, on the other hand, is seldom affected by general economic conditions because of the emergency nature of their business.

Related Occupations [About this section]  Index

Other occupations that involve directing and controlling the movement of vehicles, freight, and personnel, as well as information and message distribution, are airline dispatchers, air traffic controllers, radio and television transmitter operators, telephone operators, customer service representatives, and transportation agents.

Sources of Additional Information [About this section]  Index

Disclaimer: Links to other Internet sites are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement.

For further information on training and certification for police, fire, and emergency dispatchers, contact:

  • National Academy of Emergency Medical Dispatch, 139 East South Temple, Suite 530, Salt Lake City, UT 84111. Internet: http://www.naemd.org
  • Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, 2040 S. Ridgewood, South Daytona, FL 32119-2257. Internet: http://www.apcointl.org
  • International Municipal Signal Association, 165 East Union St., P.O. Box 539, Newark, NY 14513-1526. Internet: http://www.imsasafety.org

For general information on dispatchers, contact:

  • Service Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC, 1313 L St. NW., Washington, DC 20005-4100. Internet: http://www.seiu.org
  • American Train Dispatchers Association, 1370 Ontario St., Cleveland, OH 44113.

Information on job opportunities for police, fire, and emergency dispatchers is available from personnel offices of State and local governments or police departments. Information about work opportunities for other types of dispatchers is available from local employers and State employment service offices.

(See introduction to the section on material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing occupations for information on working conditions, training requirements, and earnings.)

An industry employing dispatchers that appears in the 2000-01 Career Guide to Industries: Trucking and warehousing

O*NET Codes: 58002 and 58005 About the O*NET codes

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