Of all the skills necessary to be a successful 911 dispatcher — understanding “10 codes,” staying calm in chaotic situations and knowing Allen County’s geography — one stands out.
“You have to be able to listen with two ears,” said Karen Kimball, assistant director of the Allen County 911 Communications Center.
There’s a distinct difference between listening and hearing, Kimball explained.
Dispatchers frequently must converse simultaneously with whoever is calling 911 for emergency service and the appropriate emergency crews, such as law enforcement, firefighters or ambulance personnel.
“And there are times that both sides may be talking at once,” Kimball said. “You have to keep track of what both are saying.”
And with dispatchers wired in to as many as 13 Allen County agencies at the same time, a dispatcher occasionally has to keep straight as to who is saying what.
“The ability to multitask is definitely a must,” Kimball said.
“It’s not a job for everybody,” added Roberta Ellis, another dispatcher at the communications center.
The communications hub for emergency services in Allen County recently capped its first year online, having handled more than 55,000 calls in all — an average of 150 a day. Of those 55,000 calls, 4,800 came in through the emergency line. Those calls resulted in 32,000 calls for service, according to figures provided by the communications center.
BECOMING A full-time dispatcher — officially, they’re known as communications officers — takes at least 12 weeks to ensure employees can respond correctly to most any type of call.
The first four weeks cover the basics, such as learning the 10-codes, the centerpiece of communications among all emergency personnel. An injury accident, for example, is a 10-48; a domestic disturbance is a 10-97.
“You have to understand the language,” said Ellis, who teaches the opening four-week training session.
New employees also are drilled on fundamental procedures, such as answering the phone properly, speaking phonetically and enunciating properly so that information can be delivered quickly and accurately and learning to stay calm if a caller is frantic.
The dispatcher must also determine quickly who should be summoned in emergency calls, be it police, fire or ambulance personnel.
“The policies are in black and white, but you could be here 100 years and not know everything you have to know to respond to any kind of call,” Ellis said. Nine dispatchers are on staff now, with one vacancy.
THE SECOND session, taught by Lee Roberts, another communications officer, covers radios and geography.
Communicating with 13 agencies requires more than just passing knowledge of radios and computers, Ellis said.
“All of our paging with responders is done with radios,” she said.
Likewise, dispatchers must know in an instant all of Allen County’s geography, including its rural roads, plus every city street from every local community. More than passing knowledge of surrounding counties also is important.
Dispatchers even are tested on unofficial names for various landmarks. For example, a map can quickly point out Old U.S. 169 between Iola and Humboldt, but few if any identify Sinclair Curve or Elm’s Corner near Moran (both of which carried those nicknames long before 911 mapping).