Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers

Summary

police fire and ambulance dispatchers image
Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers receive calls for emergency and nonemergency assistance.
Quick Facts: Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers
2014 Median Pay $37,410 per year
$17.99 per hour
Typical Entry-Level Education High school diploma or equivalent
Work Experience in a Related Occupation None
On-the-job Training Moderate-term on-the-job training
Number of Jobs, 2014 102,000
Job Outlook, 2014-24 -3% (Decline)
Employment Change, 2014-24 -3,000

What Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers Do

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety telecommunicators, answer emergency and nonemergency calls.

Work Environment

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers work in emergency communication centers called public safety answering points (PSAPs). Dispatchers must be available around the clock, so they often have to work evenings, weekends, and holidays. Overtime and long shifts—sometimes 12 hours—are common. The pressure to respond quickly and calmly in alarming situations can be stressful.

How to Become a Police, Fire, or Ambulance Dispatcher

Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma. Many states require dispatchers to become certified.

Pay

The median annual wage for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers was $37,410 in May 2014.

Job Outlook

Employment of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2014 to 2024. Consolidation of emergency communication centers, enabled by advances in technology, is expected to reduce the employment of dispatchers. Still, job prospects should be good because the stressful nature of the job results in many workers leaving this occupation.

State & Area Data

Explore resources for employment and wages by state and area for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers.

Similar Occupations

Compare the job duties, education, job growth, and pay of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers with similar occupations.

More Information, Including Links to O*NET

Learn more about police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers by visiting additional resources, including O*NET, a source on key characteristics of workers and occupations.

What Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers Do

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Upon receiving a call, dispatchers contact the appropriate emergency responder.

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, also called public safety telecommunicators, answer emergency and nonemergency calls.

Duties

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers typically do the following:

  • Answer 9-1-1 emergency telephone and alarm system calls
  • Determine the type of emergency and its location and decide the appropriate response on the basis of agency procedures
  • Relay information to the appropriate first-responder agency
  • Coordinate the dispatch of emergency response personnel to accident scenes
  • Give basic over-the-phone medical instructions before emergency personnel arrive
  • Provide advice to callers about how they may best stay safe while waiting for assistance
  • Monitor and track the status of police, fire, and ambulance units
  • Synchronize responses with other area communication centers
  • Keep detailed records of calls

Dispatchers answer calls from people who need help from police, firefighters, emergency services, or a combination of the three. They take emergency, nonemergency, and alarm system calls.

Dispatchers must stay calm while collecting vital information from callers to determine the severity of a situation and the location of those who need help. They then communicate this information to the appropriate first-responder agencies.

Dispatchers keep detailed records of the calls that they answer. They use computers to log important facts, such as the nature of the incident and the caller’s name and location. Most computer systems detect the location of cell phones and landline phones automatically.

Some dispatchers also use crime databases, maps, and weather reports to best prepare first responders for the situations they will encounter. Other dispatchers monitor alarm systems, alerting law enforcement or fire personnel when a crime or fire occurs. In some situations, dispatchers must work with people in other jurisdictions to share information and transfer calls.

Dispatchers often must instruct callers on what to do before responders arrive. Many dispatchers are trained to offer medical help over the phone. For example, they might help the caller to provide first aid at the scene until emergency medical services arrive.

Work Environment

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers work in a communication center, often called a public safety answering point (PSAP).

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers held about 102,000 jobs in 2014.

About 81 percent of dispatchers worked for local governments in 2014, with the majority employed by law enforcement agencies and fire departments. Some dispatchers work for state governments or for private companies.

Dispatchers work in communication centers, often called public safety answering points (PSAPs).

Work as a dispatcher can be stressful. Dispatchers often work long shifts, take many calls, and deal with troubling situations. Some calls require them to assist people who are in life-threatening situations, and the pressure to respond quickly and calmly can be demanding.

Work Schedules

Most dispatchers work 8- to 12-hour shifts, but some agencies require even longer ones. Overtime is common in this occupation.

Because emergencies can happen at any time, dispatchers are required to work some shifts during evenings, weekends, and holidays.

How to Become a Police, Fire, or Ambulance Dispatcher

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers
Many states require dispatchers to be certified.

Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma. Many states require dispatchers to have training and certification.

In addition, candidates must pass a written exam and a typing test. In some instances, applicants may need to pass a background check, lie detector and drug tests, and tests for hearing and vision.

Most states require dispatchers to be U.S. citizens, and some jobs require a driver’s license. Experience using computers and in customer service can be helpful. The ability to speak Spanish is also desirable in this occupation.

Education

Most dispatchers are required to have a high school diploma.

Training

Training requirements vary by state. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International) provides a list of states requiring training and certification.

Some states require 40 or more hours of initial training, and some require continuing education every 2 to 3 years. Other states do not mandate any specific training, leaving individual localities and agencies to structure their own requirements and conduct their own courses.

Some agencies have their own programs for certifying dispatchers; others use training from a professional association. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO International), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch (IAED) have established a number of recommended standards and best practices that agencies often use as a guideline for their own training programs. 

Training is usually conducted in a classroom and on the job, and is often followed by a probationary period of about 1 year. However, the period may vary by agency, as there is no national standard governing training or probation.

Training covers a wide variety of topics, such as local geography, agency protocols, and standard procedures. Dispatchers are also taught how to use specialized equipment, such as two-way radios and computer-aided dispatch software. Computer systems that dispatchers use consist of several monitors that display call information, maps, relevant criminal history, and video, depending on the location of the incident. Dispatchers often receive specialized training to prepare for high-risk incidents, such as child abductions and suicidal callers.

Licenses, Certifications, and Registrations

Many states require dispatchers to be certified. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) provides a list of states requiring training and certification. One certification is the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) certification, which enables dispatchers to give medical assistance over the phone. 

Dispatchers may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as the National Emergency Number Association’s Emergency Number Professional (ENP) certification or APCO’s Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) certification, which demonstrate their leadership skills and knowledge of the profession.

Advancement

Dispatchers can become senior dispatchers or supervisors before advancing to administrative positions, in which they may focus on a specific area, such as training, or on policy and procedures.

Training and certifications, such as emergency medical technician (EMT) training, can aide those looking to advance. Additional education and related work experience may be helpful in advancing to management-level positions.

Important Qualities

Ability to multitask. Dispatchers must stay calm in order to simultaneously answer calls, collect vital information, coordinate responders, use mapping software and camera feeds, and assist callers.

Communication skills. Dispatchers work with law enforcement, emergency response teams, and civilians. They must be able to communicate the nature of an emergency effectively and coordinate the appropriate response.

Decisionmaking skills. Dispatchers must be able to choose between tasks that are competing for their attention. They must be able to quickly determine the appropriate action when people call for help.

Empathy. Dispatchers must be willing and able to help callers who have a wide range of needs. They must be calm, polite, and sympathetic, while also collecting relevant information quickly.

Listening skills. Dispatchers must listen carefully to collect relevant details, even though some callers might have trouble speaking because of anxiety or stress.

Pay

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers

Median annual wages, May 2014

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers

$37,410

Total, all occupations

$35,540

Material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing workers

$29,210

 

The median annual wage for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers was $37,410 in May 2014. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $23,790, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $58,870.

Most dispatchers work 8- to 12-hour shifts, but some agencies require even longer ones. Overtime is common in this occupation.

Because emergencies can happen at any time, dispatchers are required to work some shifts on evenings, weekends, and holidays.

Job Outlook

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers

Percent change in employment, projected 2014-24

Total, all occupations

7%

Material recording, scheduling, dispatching, and distributing workers

-1%

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers

-3%

 

Employment of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers is projected to decline 3 percent from 2014 to 2024.

Although the prevalence of cell phones has increased the number of calls that dispatchers receive, advanced 9-1-1 systems have increased the efficiency of emergency communication centers, allowing them to serve broader regions than before. Consolidation of these centers is expected to reduce the employment of dispatchers.

Local and state governments employ most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers. Therefore, any future budget constraints will likely further limit the number of dispatchers hired in the coming decade.

Job Prospects

Overall job prospects should be favorable because the work of a dispatcher remains stressful and demanding, leading some applicants to seek other types of work.

The majority of positions will come from the need to replace the large number of dispatchers expected to transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force.

Those with good communication skills and experience using computers should have the best job prospects.

Employment projections data for police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers, 2014-24
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2014 Projected Employment, 2024 Change, 2014-24 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers

43-5031 102,000 99,000 -3 -3,000 [XLSX]

State & Area Data

Occupational Employment Statistics (OES)

The Occupational Employment Statistics (OES) program produces employment and wage estimates annually for over 800 occupations. These estimates are available for the nation as a whole, for individual states, and for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas. The link(s) below go to OES data maps for employment and wages by state and area.

Projections Central

Occupational employment projections are developed for all states by Labor Market Information (LMI) or individual state Employment Projections offices. All state projections data are available at www.projectionscentral.com. Information on this site allows projected employment growth for an occupation to be compared among states or to be compared within one state. In addition, states may produce projections for areas; there are links to each state’s websites where these data may be retrieved.

Career InfoNet

America’s Career InfoNet includes hundreds of occupational profiles with data available by state and metro area. There are links in the left-hand side menu to compare occupational employment by state and occupational wages by local area or metro area. There is also a salary info tool to search for wages by zip code.

Similar Occupations

This table shows a list of occupations with job duties that are similar to those of police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers.

Occupation Job Duties ENTRY-LEVEL EDUCATION 2014 MEDIAN PAY
Air traffic controllers

Air Traffic Controllers

Air traffic controllers coordinate the movement of air traffic to ensure that aircraft stay safe distances apart.

Associate's degree $122,340
Customer service representatives

Customer Service Representatives

Customer service representatives interact with customers to handle complaints, process orders, and provide information about an organization’s products and services.

High school diploma or equivalent $31,200
EMTs and paramedics

EMTs and Paramedics

Emergency medical technicians (EMTs) and paramedics care for the sick or injured in emergency medical settings. People’s lives often depend on the quick reaction and competent care provided by these workers. EMTs and paramedics respond to emergency calls, performing medical services and transporting patients to medical facilities.

Postsecondary nondegree award $31,700
Suggested citation:

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2016-17 Edition, Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers,
on the Internet at http://www.bls.gov/ooh/office-and-administrative-support/police-fire-and-ambulance-dispatchers.htm (visited February 12, 2016).

Publish Date: Thursday, December 17, 2015