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With the close of another National Public Safety Telecommunicator (Dispatcher) week upon us I thought this article in the latest 9-1-1 Magazine was appropriate.

When she talks about the blue wall it can be said she also means the red wall of the fire department.

If you are a dispatcher or looking to become one ay close attention.

The article was written by Sandi Bumpus who was the first supervisor for Roseville CA Police and Fire Communications.

In 1988, I was hired as a "Dispatcher/Clerk" for a small Northern California municipality. I was assigned a uniform of durable double-knit polyester made to stand up to near-nuclear disaster, and a set of shiny black pumps to match. My badge, about half the size of that of a police officer had "Dispatcher" tattooed across the top in teeny little letters. I worked solo on the graveyard shift, becoming adept at juggling a portable radio while running to records to retrieve a report, or to the jail to provide a booking folder, and yes even to "the facilities." I learned how to coach parents through CPR and tell officers and firefighters where to go. I mastered the changing of cumbersome reel-to-reel tapes every night, and on occasion, search female prisoners while performing matron duty.

Nearly 17 years later, technology has changed the way we do business and break-neck population growth has dictated we do it quicker and more effectively than ever before. One thing hasn't changed, however. The insidious plague of public safety I've come to know as the "JUST-A-DISPATCHER SYNDROME."

You have heard the words. Perhaps you've even said them yourself. "I'm just a dispatcher." Maybe you uttered this phrase in response to a citizen's query on the phone. Maybe it was at a job fair, or during a tour of your center when a wide-eyed boy scout asked, "Are you a real police officer?" And you or your co-worker responded, "No. I'm just a dispatcher."

It's possible that no four words have been more destructive to the public safety dispatching profession. The irony is that those most guilty or perpetuating that destructiveness are often dispatchers themselves. While the words seem fairly innocuous, they have fostered significant damage over the years, to booth the individual and the profession.
Does the barber say to his client, "Sorry, I'm just a barber!" when he receives a request for the best haircut? How about the meat-cutter who is asked to recommend a prime cut of steak? "I'm just a meat-cutter, sir." Imagine the scenario for the police officer.

"Officer, officer, please help me, I don't know what to do!"

"Sorry ma'am, I'm just a police officer. Perhaps you should call a professional, I'm not able to handle a request of this caliber." Isn't that what we are saying each time we say we are "just a" dispatcher to the public, our coworkers, or to ourselves? Aren't we blacking the eye of the vital profession we've worked so hard to master?

Public safety dispatching at any level in any municipality or region is one of the toughest, demanding, and unappreciated jobs there is. As a dispatcher, you are the disembodied, faceless, nameless voice inside a mysterious black box. You speak a language of acronyms, abbreviations, and codes and are as familiar with the elements of a crime as a unit in the field. Your practice complex interviewing techniques when dealing with hysterical, angry, and terrified people, obtaining critical information while reassuring them that help is on the way. While working with the dexterity and precision of an air traffic controller, you're the calm voice tracking the pursuit - the lifeline for the officer who's down or in trouble.

In many centers, you serve a dual role, providing life-saving emergency medical instructions while simultaneously deploying a myriad of fire apparatus and personnel to mitigate the crisis. You know the diameter and how many feet of hose are on each fire engine, how may ladders, what special abilities and equipment may be unique to each company. You work with your dispatch team like a MASH unit, triaging the most critical to the most trivial, all under the watchful ears of the recording system, which demands professionalism NOW, with accuracy, because someone's life may depend on the decision you've just made. Want a raise? Forget about it. You're JUST a dispatcher.

For years the "blue wall" between the "Sworn" and "non-sworn" has been deep. Perhaps we began repeating the "just -a" mantra because of the reinforcement we received from others. "Not sworn, not born." Perhaps we began to believe that ourselves.

Recently, I attended a training manager's conference. As is typical when attending conferences for supervisors or managers in public safety, most attendees are sergeants, lieutenants, or captains, This one was no exception. I shared the distinction of being one of only two non-sworn representatives attending. One portion of the class was devoted to formulating a specific training plan for each department and was facilitated by a Captain for a mid-size law enforcement agency he said had no particular claim to fame. However, he quickly distinguished himself in a way that served to inspire me to look honestly at the continued unhealthy dynamic of sworn vs. noon-sworn, and our penchant for devaluing ourselves, or letting others do it for us. While making a point for including all personnel in a department's training plan, he eloquently opened, "Saying a dispatcher comes to you with a request to go to training. And you say to yourself, "Well, it's not a DISPATCHER Department, it's a POLICE Department… but I guess we do need to include THEM too."

After I picked up my jaw off the table in front of me, I realized several things that day. First of all, the gap continues to loom large, and we have a long way to go in order to breach the blue wall in a universal way in law enforcement. But I also realized that I was very proud of my own department and the great strides we have made in valuing our professional staff. They are small steps but are symbolic or positive progress.

Our badges today are the same size as those the officers in the field. We are sworn-in jointly with officers, and are included in recognition and awards ceremonies that used to be accorded only to firefighters and police officers. Promoting training and career development has become priority. That day, while I struggled to keep my anger in check, I realized that my department, and in turn, our dispatchers, were recovering from the effects of the syndrome, and in small steady ways, succeeding in getting healthy. I also knew it was possible for the rehabilitation to the global, and that it must start with us. Public safety dispatchers hold the keys.

Each and every day, we need to understand the value of our service to the community. Several years ago when Rescue 9-1-1 became a popular television series, those of us in the public safety dispatching profession were offered the unique opportunity to be seen, understood and appreciated by the general public. Today we see police and fire administrators who are acknowledging that the sworn/non-sworn division is unhealthy, unrealistic, and counter-productive. It's been a long road, but it appears the tide may slowly be reversing.

How best to portray the vital image of the public safety dispatcher and to effect continued changes? We must become VISIBLY professional, as individuals and as a group, in a viable and positive way.

Some of the credit for the paradigm shift in progressive departments goes to managers who realize the need to find ways to recognize and appreciate all members equally. However, the most critical component in the positive changes goes to the dispatchers and professional staff who have become "visible." These folks have always been professionals, but through career development, training, and education, they are enhancing their self-worth and are seeking out leadership opportunities even when formal titles or promotions aren't available. They are proactively thinking and acting outside their box. This bias for action doers represents the proactive steps that professionals must take to breach the blue wall that still exists between those sworn and non-sworn.

While the uniform is still in my closet, albeit a little tighter around the middle, I know, as Mr. Dylan said so prophetically, "The times, they are a0changin." I am reminded that what we do is critically important. If one of us fails, we all fail - and the media makes sure everyone knows about it. If I believe I'm "JUST A DISPATCHER", then that is what I am and what I am relegated to remain. But if I am a leader, proud of my profession and worth to the organization, it becomes a contagion. Others can't help but catch it, and I'll never be "JUST A DISPATCHER" again.

ARTICLE IS FROM THE:

MARCH 2005 9-1-1 MAGAZINE (EDITOR RANDALL D LARSON)
 

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Great post. I see that I am very lucky to work in a department that most of the sworn guy started as dispatchers. We also have a good command staff that does not have a problem sending us to training.
 

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I'm also lucky like Mikey to work in a great department, where all the officers and command staff are great to work with. The opportunity for training is excellent and they are very willing to send you if you are interested. We also have our monthly trainings with the whole department and that is very helpful. It is a job, and you need to know your stuff in order to succeed. We are usually the first line of defense for the officers and we need to know where they are and to lookout for their safety whether it be running BOP's, running the name through the master file or whatever. Anyway, its a great job to me and you do learn a lot from the job, and as always, you get out of a job what you put into it.
 
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