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Dispatchers are communications personnel responsible for receiving and transmitting pure and reliable messages, tracking vehicles and equipment, and recording other important information. A number of organizations, including police and fire departments, emergency medical services, taxicab providers, trucking companies, railroads, and public utility companies, use dispatchers to relay information and coordinate their operations. Essentially, the dispatcher is the "conductor" of the force, and is responsible for the direction of all units within it.
"Public safety dispatchers" (also known as emergency dispatchers, Telecommunicators or 9-1-1 dispatchers) receive calls from individuals who need assistance from Firefighters, Police Officers, and Emergency Medical Services. Once information is obtained from the caller, these dispatchers activate the services necessary to respond to the nature of the call for help. Dispatchers are an integral part of the organization's success. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 10% of all dispatchers employed in the United States in 2004 were public safety dispatchers.
A number of other organizations use dispatchers to respond to service calls, coordinate transportation schedules, and to organize the delivery of materials. Truck dispatchers are employed by trucking companies to monitor the delivery of freight over long distances and coordinate delivery pickup and drop-off schedules. Bus dispatchers monitor the schedules of their bus fleet and address any problems that arise during their operations. Tow-truck dispatchers respond to calls for emergency roadside assistance. Gas and water service dispatchers monitor their respective utilities and receive calls for emergency assistance that involve gas lines and water mains. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 26% of all dispatchers employed in the United States in 2004 worked for transportation and warehousing industries.
A train dispatcher is employed by a railroad to direct and facilitate the movement of trains over an assigned territory, which is usually part, or all, of a railroad operating division. In Canada the train dispatcher is known as the rail traffic controller (RTC). In New Zealand and Australia they are known as Train Controllers. The dispatcher is also responsible for cost effective movement of trains and other on-track railroad equipment to optimize physical (trains) and human resource (crews) assets.
Train dispatchers are required to be intimately familiar with the physical characteristics of the railroad territory for which they are responsible, as well as the operating capabilities of the locomotive power being used. An efficient train dispatcher may use the rule book, timetable, train orders, and knowledge of track conditions to move a large number of trains safely over the assigned territory with minimal delay to any train, even in single-track territory.
A flight dispatcher (also known as a flight operations officer) assists in planning flight paths, taking into account wind speed, storms, aircraft performance and loading, and other conditions. Some dispatchers provide a flight following service and advise pilots if conditions or paths change. They usually work in the operations or control center of the airline. In the United States and Canada, the flight dispatcher shares legal responsibility with the Commander (joint responsibility dispatch system).
Dispatchers are responsible for monitoring all of the communications within a specific geographic area. Public safety dispatchers are responsible for all emergency communications that occur within the jurisdiction of their department. These workers receive and document incoming calls, transmit messages to appropriate personnel, and keep logs of the daily activities of their personnel. Public safety dispatchers usually work in a police station, a fire station, or a hospital. Other dispatchers work in centralized communication centers associated with their specific company or service.
All types of dispatchers work with telephones, radios, ACARS, and computers on a routine basis. They also monitor traffic patterns or other outside activity via video surveillance. As a result of sitting for long periods and using such equipment, dispatchers can develop eye strain and back problems. Many dispatchers must also work irregular hours to provide 24-hour service, which includes night, weekend, and holiday hours.
Public safety dispatchers are usually the first point of contact between emergency services and the public. When receiving incoming calls for help, these dispatchers must ascertain the nature, location, and extent of the emergency. The working conditions of a public safety dispatcher may be particularly stressful compared to others because handling a call in an inappropriate manner may delay or misdirect other emergency personnel, which could result in serious injury or even death. A dispatcher error in a San Juan County, New Mexico vehicle crash, for example, may have cost lives in May 2006. The dispatcher in San Juan County was criticized for not using GPS tracking to locate a van that crashed with six people inside. The dispatcher received eleven calls from the trapped crash victims. By the time rescuers located the van four hours later, all six people were dead. Callers requesting emergency assistance are often in a state of heightened emotional distress, which makes it difficult to obtain the information needed to handle the call appropriately. In the San Juan County incident, the crash victims did not know where they were.
Human error can also produce deadly results for other types of dispatchers. A train dispatcher in Spain was found guilty of negligent homicide for a head-on train collision that occurred in June 2003. Nineteen people died and forty-eight were injured in a crash where the dispatcher allowed a passenger train to leave a station when a freight train was approaching the station on the same line.
Like very similar controlling jobs, such as air traffic controllers, dispatcher positions can be notoriously stressful and full of non-stop work.
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Employment as a dispatcher does not usually require a level of education higher than a high school diploma, but many that work in the field hold liberal arts degrees. Employers prefer candidates with computer and clerical skills, communication skills, and the ability to work fast under pressure.
Candidates for employment as public safety dispatchers may be required to pass written, oral, or performance tests and are governed by state or local regulations. Public safety dispatchers may also have to obtain certifications and attend additional training before or after they are employed by state or local governments to dispatch for police, fire, or emergency medical services. The level of training required for these dispatchers is typically the most extensive in comparison to other dispatch positions.
A standard certification requirement for public safety dispatchers is Terminal Operator certification for access to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database system. Access to this database system often allows additional access to the state-level system comparable to NCIC which allows public safety dispatchers to access motor vehicle registration and drivers license information as well as wants or warrants by various law enforcement agencies both statewide and national.
In addition to certifications, specialized training is also required or appropriated to public safety dispatchers. As public safety dispatchers are the first contact made between the public and emergency services, public safety dispatchers need to be able to extract a vast array of information out of the caller. Such specialized training for 911 dispatchers can include: suicide intervention, hostage negotiation, bomb threats, tactical dispatching (for SWAT teams), domestic violence and domestic and foreign terrorism countermeasures. Many are also trained as Emergency Medical Dispatchers, able to give first aid instructions to victims or families prior to EMS arrival.
According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, 266,000 people were employed as dispatchers in 2004. Employment for dispatcher is projected to grow as fast as the average (an increase of 9 to 17 percent) through the year 2014. In addition, it is expected that a number of current dispatchers will either transfer to other occupations or leave the labor force, which will result in an increase of openings.
The primary tool of the Dispatcher is the dispatch console. A dispatch console is a system that interfaces to a private or public radio system, allowing the dispatcher to communicate directly with all field workers, police officers, EMS personnel, and others in order to coordinate their activities. Dispatchers use various hardware and software to create dispatch.
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