Operating the Single-Staffed Emergency Dispatch Center

John O’Brien shares how one person can manage inbound and outbound communications at a dispatch center.

As time goes on, today's emergency dispatch centers bear witness to one technological innovation after another. The more high-tech the dispatch center becomes, the more of a role the dispatcher can play in using these important features to the best of his or her ability.

This article is designed around the single-staffed dispatch centers that are the lifeblood of many communities across the United States. We will touch on dispatch techniques, problem solving and the best use of today's modern design.

In my 30 years as a fire dispatcher, 24 of them as a supervisor, I have been fortunate to deal with, and learn from many people ranging from those who supervised me, to every employee I have ever worked with, or supervised. I am grateful to all those along my journey.

So you are hired as a fire and EMS dispatcher, or plan to be one. Maybe you have experience, maybe not. Regardless it is important to remember that you have an obligation to learn as much as you can and essentially be the best you can at all times, at someone else's worst moment in life.

A single-staffed dispatch office can usually be identified as a local fire or EMS agency. One that will handle 400 or 800, maybe 1,600 runs a year. In any case, many of the same rules apply.


Calls may be far and few in between depending on the size and population of your district. Regardless of whether you are busy or not, every dispatcher must be at the top of his or her game. As the hotline rings, the dispatcher must first ensure composure. Be alert and be ready for the worst. Maybe a loved one just collapsed. Maybe it is a fire and the caller is trapped. Take that second to ensure mental preparation. If you work off paper, have your pen and writing material and be ready to write. If you are a full computer aided dispatch (CAD) center, it may be the keyboard as choice.

Regardless of the manner, your preparation of alertness and readiness, will greatly reduce your need to re-ask a question such as the house number, or street simply because your attention readiness was not where it needed to be. This is a critical moment for both the caller and you. You can ill afford asking these questions over again during a true emergency unless the caller was unclear.

Unclear Voice

From time to time you will have trouble understanding a caller. The most common method to overcome the unclear voice is to get the address in a spelling format. Numbers can be asked in single digit form as well.

Failure to verify through spelling and number digits will result in:

a. your continuing on the same path not understanding the callers dialog, or

b. your continued misunderstanding, having an incorrect numerical or street.

Hang Ups

Hang ups are a common occurrence for many dispatch centers. Although most are a realized incorrect dial, or possibly a caller testing their new automatic dialer, such calls cannot be ignored if technology affords your otherwise.

In most regions of the our country, local and regional phone service technology boast features that will enable a fire or EMS dispatcher to check back on a ceased dial. In my region, unless a caller's phone service has been restricted, dispatchers can dial "*69" if at least one full ring has resulted. By doing this from the line in which the call came from, an automated voice gives us a number of the ceased ring.

At this point, the caller can be called back and you can verify that this is a non emergency at the other end. Such instances usually end up being an embarrassed homeowner who was simply checking their speed dial and forgot that such phone features exist.

A complete dispatcher who gets no answer on the callback may take other options to pursue a caller's status. Commonly a police officer may be requested to check on the residence to ensure the caller does not have an emergency.

Child On The Phone

As a dispatcher you either have, or will one day, come across a child on the phone. Whereas, the situation will usually end up being a child who pressed the automatic dialer of the agency speed button, you, the dispatcher, must stay with this child until you have deemed it to be a non-emergency.

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