What It’s Like to
Be a 911 Operator

in ,

In Short: Frustrating and rewarding.

Read on Medium
Read Time: 3 minutes

You don’t want to call 911 but you have to. The first voice you hear is the 911 operator who asks you what the location of your emergency is. But you are freaking out and start yelling and screaming that you need help now. The fastest way to get help is to listen, give quick answers to our questions, and don’t hang up until we tell you.

People usually think of first responders as the police officer, medic or fireman who shows up in person when you call for help. But the people behind 911 are really the first responders and will help guide you through what may be the worst day of your life.

Everybody reacts to an unexpected situation differently, and most people will never have to call 911 in their lifetime. When you do have to call 911 be ready to provide the location/address of the emergency, and a phone number that you may be reached at. No matter what those two pieces of information are vital to getting you the assistance you need.

Four dispatch consoles in a cluster.
It’s not at all unusual for each position to have six computer monitors (or more!) to watch, plus multiple phonelines, and multiple radio channels in their headsets. (Photo: David Martin)

A lot of 911 centers in the U.S., and around the world (though the phone number may vary), use a set of protocols to determine the type of response that should be sent for medical emergencies. Protocols also exist for police and fire emergencies, but the medical protocols are most commonly used.

When going through the questions it may seem like we aren’t really helping but, in most cases, someone has already dispatched medical personnel to assist you. The questions are designed to get to the root of the problem and make sure that the right resources are sent to you.

We have people yell and cuss at us on a regular basis, but we will always strive to maintain our composure and be professional while handling your call. We may go outside and yell and scream to the sky after a call like that, but you are only going to hear calm, cool and collected.

Being a 911 operator, or telecommunicator as we are sometimes referred to as, is not simply a job. The hours are long and the stress level is through the roof. But it is rewarding, frustrating and infuriating all at the same time.

You see a side of people that nobody else likely will. On the worst day of their lives you will be there to comfort and help them. On the calls where you help deliver a baby there will be high fives all around, and the mood in the communications center will be upbeat.

In the blink of an eye the next call could be a cardiac arrest, and someone may need guidance to give their loved one CPR. Or it could be the wife who just discovered her husband who is deceased and is already cold and stiff.

From elation to sorrow, the mood can swing in seconds. You never know what the next call that you answer will bring. PTSD in emergency communication centers is very real. Being a 911 operator is not for everyone, and the amount of training required can be daunting.

The accolades are few and far between, and you may be working in a darkened location without windows for 12 hours at a time. It will feel like you spend more time with your co-workers than your family. The highs from the good calls may be quickly offset by the lows of a bad call.

David Martin is a programmer, 911 telecommunicator, and long-time computer person trying his hand at writing for public consumption.

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6 thoughts on “Be a 911 Operator”

  1. I have over 20 years as a 911 operator. The stress and PTSD got to me and I got no assistance from my employer. I had to leave a career I loved.

    The reality of long hours, no recognition for a job well done, missed family time and holidays adds up quickly.

    The job is not for everyone, but can be very rewarding.

    THANK YOU for what you do.

    • Thank you for your 20 years of service! I have only done it for a total of 6 years so far but you are spot on about the stress, PTSD and, for the most part, employer apathy. Hopefully 911 telecommunicators will be recognized as first responders in the near future which should help get them the assistance they need and deserve.

      There has been a movement to reclassify dispatchers, most of which have had a job classification akin to clerk. Not many clerks end up with PTSD and other stress illnesses. Colorado hasn’t accomplished this statewide yet, but several counties have reclassified them, so not all employers are apathetic. -rc

  2. Only twice have I had to call 911, but both times I really appreciated the operator and how well she handled things. Helped me through a tough time. Thanks for all you do!

  3. I’ve had to call 911 more than a few times. The most recent was just last week. I woke up in the middle of the night in extreme pain from what I was pretty darn sure was a kidney stone. I was sobbing on the phone cause I was in so much pain but the operator was awesome, she calmly asked me the questions she needed to know, repeating herself when I didn’t hear her cause of my crying. How I managed to crawl out of bed and go unlock my front door for the paramedics, I don’t know. Maybe it was because of her. Before we hung up, she told me that they would be there shortly but if they didn’t come within x amount of time, to call again. But I didn’t need to. They were there minutes later. And I was right. It was a kidney stone. Quite a large one too.

  4. I worked for a few years as a telecommunicator, starting with our county 911 PSAP then moving to my local municipality which still ran its own emergency communications center dispatching police, fire, and EMS for our town. At the time, E911 was this fancy new thing that only well-funded locations around big cities had. The 911 console I worked at had rows of buttons, each identifying a telephone exchange in the county. That was as much as I knew about the caller location when answering the call. At the time, training was more or less here is how to operate the console. Have at it. Computers consisted of two terminals, one hooked into a state-wide network that also tied into the national network (NLETS), the other a small, regional network. Calls were hand written on dispatch cards and carried to the appropriate operator position — we had 2 police, 1 fire, and 1 EMS dispatch position. 1 primary 911 console, 1 secondary 911 console (the fire dispatcher would man that if necessary and there was nobody else on that console). There was also a supervisor console that had access to all the radios of the other consoles.

    My worst call while in the 911 center was a suicidal caller. I had no formal training and handled the call largely on gut instinct, with the supervisor coaching me in one ear while I had the phone receiver held to the other ear. When I answered the line and was greeted with ‘I want to blow my brains out’, the first, fleeting, thought that went through my head was ‘f– me’. I knew I could not just pull a ‘can you hold a moment?’ to figure out what to do. Got my supervisor’s attention, and we went from there. Of the 6 of us in the center at that time, 4 were working on the call — myself, both police dispatchers, and the supervisor. Fire took over the 911 calls, and EMS was…well EMS. They tended to be one of the busiest positions. We had no idea where this guy was, other than a pay phone (he told me that) and the exchange (which was one of the larger ones in the county) he was in. That at least let us know which police dispatcher would cover the area. While I am trying to keep him calm (learned he had no weapons), the others were trying to figure out where he was. A trace was started on the call — which at the time was literally someone from Bell Telephone looking in each of the CO switches and following the connections from one to the next. He gave the name of a pizza place, which of course there were two possibilities. After we figured out exactly where he was, the police surrounded and rushed him. The longest and worst part of the whole call was when he dropped the receiver and it was swinging and hitting the side of the phone booth. I heard muffled sounds and a steady ‘thunk…..thunk’ as the receiver swung. It seemed like an eternity until an officer got on the phone to let us know all was well and they had the guy. Of course, EMS was sent and the guy went to the hospital. Never heard what happened.

    After I left that center and went to my local center, my worst call there was an infant in respiratory arrest. New father, fed his child and put the baby down for a nap. Baby spit up and aspirated some of it. I broke protocol a bit and dispatched a specific police officer at the same time as I hit the EMS dispatch — our SOP is to only notify the PD. I knew this officer was also a volunteer EMT, and that he had a jump bag in his car at all times. I also knew that he would likely be able to be first on the scene. Sadly, the infant did not make it. We did send a condolence card from the comm center to the parents.

    With the state of the world today, I cannot imaging what it must be like for the professionals that are, indeed, the true first responders — those that answer the call, night and day, every day, when we dial those three digits. The police, fire, EMS, and others are just as important — but without the thin gold line to send them our to our aid….not something I really want to think about.


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