So, You Wanna Be a Dispatcher?

By Barry Furey

As it originally appeared in 9-1-1 Magazine

I often field questions from candidates wanting to know how to get a job at 9-1-1. This month I decided to address this issue, because having a pool of potential employees ought to be one of our greatest management concerns. During my career, I have participated in and overseen hundreds of hires and promotions, both for my agency and others. While it’s impossible to include every piece of advice in a single article, here’s my top ten recommendations for those who are seriously seeking employment. Pass these along, if you’d like, and please share with me any other hints you may have.

1.Know what you’re getting into.  Public safety is a 24 x 7 x 365 commitment. You will work holidays, miss celebrations, and your social life will suffer. The pay is not commensurate with the level of responsibility assigned. Although overtime is usually available, this further reduces your interaction with friends and family, and increases your level of stress. Recent studies indicate that 9-1-1 workers are impacted by the emergencies they handle in a similar fashion to those at the scene. Emerging technologies will likely increase this exposure by delivering videos and photos of the mayhem to the communications center. Training never ends. You can literally be the last person a caller talks to before death, and be the first to hear a newborn’s cry.  You will learn that even “good” neighborhoods can be “bad” and that most of the calls you handle are relatively mundane. Periods of extreme boredom will give way to bedlam at the ring of a phone. Unless you are mindful, you’ll be at risk to become sedentary and a slave to food. You’ll meet the best and worst people on earth on the phone, radio, and in the seat next to yours, and develop a gallows sense of humor as a means of protection from the madness that surrounds you. This is not a job; it’s a calling.

2. Know your local qualifications and application process. These can vary from community to community and state-to-state. There are typically minimum age and educational requirements, and some crimes may exclude you from hire. Don’t try to slip something by in this regard, as background checks are fairly thorough, and false statements are typically grounds for immediate disqualification. There will obviously be forms to fill out, and some supporting documents needed. Many agencies now handle much of the process online, but some still require paperwork to be picked up and filed in person. Your town may advertise in the local paper, on their own home page, or on another municipal website. and similar clearing houses may also be utilized. Certain departments have a continuing application process, while others have limited filing windows. A formal test may or may not be required, and civil service jobs often generate an eligible list from which the top names are given first consideration.  Regardless, a number of processes such as drug, typing and hearing tests, reference checks, and an oral interview can also be included. Find out what applies.

3.Keep a clean online presence.  Social media accounts that indicate an abundant use of alcohol, or worse yet, illegal substances will not get you hired. Hate speech, and membership in pages advocating violence and the like will also slam the door. Understand that the public sector and private sector are very different places, and your conduct on the web can also be cause for dismissal after you are hired. Managers are not looking for party animals or problem children.  Get a respectable email address. You may well be StudMuffin1 or FreakintheSheets69 @ whatever provider you, but you won’t be doing it on my watch.

4. Do a little research. Before you apply, and especially before you interview, do a little research. Check the department’s website, as well as news stories about the agency. Do they have a Facebook page? Any Youtube videos? If nothing else you’ll get a feel for their core values, and be better prepared in case you’re asked, “What do you know about us?”

5. If you are offered an interview, show up on time.  Make sure you confirm the exact time and location, then travel the route the day before, at about the same time if possible, to properly gauge traffic. Find out where to park, if applicable, including an alternate, just in case. Some centers will reject late arrivals unless there is a compelling excuse. If you rely on public transportation, keep in mind that 9-1-1 centers, especially in rural or suburban areas, may not have reliable service, if any.

6.Dress appropriately. Suits and formal wear are probably overkill, and shorts or sweatpants typically out. T-shirts of any kind are also off limits, especially those promoting naked co-ed anything, or displaying larger than life drawings of marijuana leaves or socially offensive images. The same goes for jewelry, pins, or any other wearable form of display. Business casual is generally accepted, however regional standards may apply. Dress for success not to impress. Remember, you’re looking for a job, not a date.

7. Be your best. This means getting enough sleep and being ready to put your best foot forward when the interview time arrives. Despite the current shortage of employees, the hiring process remains competitive, and if you really want the job you need to show it. It’s understandable that coming directly from working all night to a screening can place a strain on your performance. However, participating in an all-you-can watch Netflix marathon or dollar shot competition prior to arrival is probably not a winning strategy.

8. Be an attentive and active participant.
As with any hiring process, you’re going to get asked questions. While there is not master list, anticipate the usual. Why do you want this job? Why are you the best candidate? What are your long-term goals? Where do you see yourself in five years? Also expect some that are more public-safety related. How do you work in a team? Describe a situation where you have had to follow orders. What emergencies have you handled in your own life? Tell us about a stressful situation you encountered. How did you manage it? These and others will probably come your way. Answer them truthfully and directly. Not too short, but also without embellishment, either. If you don’t understand a question, ask for it to be repeated or explained. However, if you’re constantly asking for clarification, it might be taken as an indication of a serious disconnect. More than anything, make eye contact. This connection can improve your chances of success.

9. Make your questions count. 
As the saying goes, you have one chance to make a first impression. Having no questions at all makes you appear disinterested. Having too many, especially inappropriate ones, can suggest that you’ll be a high-maintenance employee. You have a limited amount of time to interact. Keep a balance, and make the questions count. What training is provided? What is the shift schedule? What are the chances for future promotion? These show interest. You can ask about benefits, but at an appropriate time and in an appropriate manner. Leading off with, “When can I take my first vacation day,” probably won’t do you any favors. If you’ve read any positive news about the agency, mention it or ask for further details. If it hasn’t already been explained, ask about the next steps in the process, and when you might hear back. When the interview is concluded, be sure to thank all of those involved, and shake hands, if appropriate. I’ve had many candidates send follow up notes as a courtesy. These won’t save you if you are clearly not a good fit, but probably won’t hurt if you are.

10.Be yourself! Many people have similar skills and experiences. Let the hiring authority see who you really are. Don’t force answers. Don’t say things simply because you think it’s what the panel wants to hear. This is a chance to get to know one another. If you are uncomfortable with the questions being asked and the description of the job, then believe me, you’ll be uncomfortable with the job itself.  When we say 24 x 7 x 365 we mean just that. Except during leap year. Then it’s 366. We need good people, but we need the right people. Are you one of them? So, You Wanna Be a Dispatcher?