Calling All Applicants: How to Become a 911 Operator
Ever consider what it’s like to be a 911 emergency operator?
Well now’s the time to think about it. The job is in high demand these days and it doesn’t require a college degree, saves lives and is never boring. The average starting salary is $38,000 and the national average pay is about $48,000, which isn’t super high but the job usually has good medical benefits.
In most states it takes about four to six weeks to get certified and then several months of on-the-job training. New hires are paid while they are trained.
Yes, there is certainly stress involved, but agencies have services to help employees deal with that. And not every call is a life-or-death situation; there are plenty of non-emergency situations such as stolen cars or lost dogs.
St. Johns County in Florida is just one of hundreds of agencies across the country looking to hire so-called “heroes in headsets.” It’s offering a starting salary of $41,000, which is boosted with overtime. There’s also a bonus of $2,000 for completing the certification.
“There has been a need for 911 professionals for as long as I can remember,” said April Heinze, Operations Director for 911 and Public Safety Answering Point at NENA, the National Emergency Number Association. That need has become much greater with COVID-19, which discouraged many from working in office settings or high-contact jobs like public safety. Thus the pool of potential employees has gotten smaller. “You’re starting to see more and more municipalities offering signing bonuses to encourage people to apply.”
For the right person, a job in emergency communications can become a rewarding career. As with healthcare, working in public safety is a chance to help people in need.
“When you go home at the end of your day you think about all of the people you helped. You may have saved lives that day. You are able to do a large amount of good on a daily basis,” Heinze said. Her organization represents tens of thousands of 911 first responders.
Here’s a link to 911-operator openings in each state. This isn’t comprehensive, however, so check the municipalities near you about openings, which are sometimes described as emergency dispatcher or 911 dispatcher.
How to Become a 911 Operator
First, be 18 and have a high school diploma or GED. The hiring process involves pre-employment testing and interviews. Most states have training requirements of four to six weeks in person or online. After that, employees train on the job for six to 12 months. Expect a drug screening.
Pros of Being a 911 Operator
The pros of being a 911 operator include good medical benefits, paid vacation time, job satisfaction especially if you like to help people and a lively workplace. It’s a job that’s rarely boring.
The most common employers are police departments, public safety departments, fire stations, and emergency management call centers. Aside from a few nonprofit organizations, most of these agencies are operated by municipalities.
“In many cases there are many really good benefits. Some localities still have great retirement benefits. You typically get decent sick time and vacation time and can earn other types of time off as well,” Heinze said. “There’s opportunity for overtime and holiday pay. You get paid holidays off and may end up getting double time if you work on a holiday.”
There’s no going home wondering if you made a difference in the world. “You have a great sense of self worth. You are able to do some fantastic things in your day,” Heinze said. “You make a difference in many people’s lives in one day’s time on a weekly and monthly and annual basis.”
Along with the above tasks, emergency dispatchers must analyze situations and consider what more could be happening. Heinze pointed to a scenario in which a caller complains that her neighbor’s dog is barking incessantly. The 911 dispatcher has to figure out whether the dog’s owner could have had a medical emergency or there could be a break-in taking place.
This can be a pro or a con depending on the person. For some, emergency communications work might seem overwhelming. But for people who have a passion for operating on all cylinders, a 911 call taker offers a wide variety of work.
Once you are fully trained in emergency communications, you’ll take calls, dispatch emergency responders and check data and background records all at one time, said Heinze.
Cons of Being a 911 Operator
The cons are stressful work and long hiring process then after that on-the-job training and shadowing an experienced dispatcher. As you can imagine, the hiring personnel want to make sure that 911 operators can handle the pressure of hearing and helping people in distress.
Clearly, this isn’t an easy job. It’s very hard to take numerous calls that include trauma and crimes in process. Heinze said many municipalities have peer support groups, mentors and outside counseling to help dispatchers cope with the stress.
Long Hiring Process
This is not a job you can apply for and expect to start two weeks later. Heinze estimates it can take up to three months to be hired.
The pre-employment testing process includes several interviews, aptitude tests, a psychological evaluation and lengthy background checks. Some agencies go a step further, asking applicants who make it to the final stage of hiring to shadow someone on the job to make sure it’s something they want to do.
What Makes a Good Emergency Dispatcher?
The most important characteristic for an emergency dispatcher is the ability to be calm in stressful situations. A good emergency dispatcher has good communication skills and is personable. Typing is a required skill, as is empathy.
Here are more details on the skills employers will look for:
- Customer service. If you’re good at customer service, you will likely make a good emergency call-taker.
- Typing abilities. Most 911 dispatchers need to type between 30 to 45 words per minute without error.
- Communication skills. Not only are you communicating with people in distress, you must be able to calmly talk with a wide variety of people. “You have to handle calls from every different generation, from a child caller to the elderly, someone with a mental disorder, intoxicated people, deaf or hard of hearing people,” Heinze said.
- Empathy. It’s good to have a calming voice and provide an empathetic ear that’s ready to help.
These skills will give you a good foundation for your training, where you will learn about:
- Critical incident stress
- Suicide intervention
- Emergency medical dispatch
- Advanced First Aid/CPR/AED
- Hazardous materials
- Domestic violence
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About the 911 Operator Profession
We’ve rounded up answers to some of the most common questions about being a 911 dispatcher.
Applicants must be 18 and have a high school diploma, GED or college degree to apply for 911 operator positions, and then go through a series of tests and interviews. Once you are hired, most states have training requirements of four to six weeks in a classroom or online setting. After that, employees will train on the job for six to 12 months.
Pros include job satisfaction, good work benefits and an exciting, meaningful job. Cons are high stress, up to a three-month hiring process and major multitasking.
Yes, it can be stressful taking calls from people in life threatening situations. Agencies provide counseling, peer support groups and mentor support to help emergency dispatchers deal with stress.
It is a good job if it you are the kind of person who can remain calm in an emergency and you like to help people. Average starting pay is $38,000 for a meaningful career. In addition to the salary, most 911 operators work for a government agency with retirement benefits, sick time and paid vacation. There is also potential for overtime pay and the chance to advance to a higher salary.
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance editor and reporter in North Carolina and Florida. She is author of Rules for the Southern Rulebreaker: Missteps & Lessons Learned.