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What does a 911 Operator do?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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A 911 operator is a specialized type of phone dispatcher who answers calls to emergency services. 911 is the universal emergency services number in the United States; outside the United States, operators may answer calls to emergency services numbers such as 111, 112, or 999. 911 operators are responsible for answering calls to the emergency services phone number and making sure that callers get the services and assistance they need.

With a universal emergency phone number, people who need help from the fire department, police force, or ambulance service can call a single number which is easy to remember, rather than having to look up individual phone numbers. Universal numbers are also convenient for travelers who need assistance but may not be familiar with emergency numbers. However, having all emergency services calls routed to 911 means that a skilled operator needs to be available to answer the phone.

911 operators typically work eight to 10 hour shifts in a dispatch center, and they may work with a group of dispatchers to ensure that the line is never busy when people call. When the phone rings and a 911 operator answers, he or she determines the nature of the emergency, and dispatches emergency services as needed. For example, on a medical aid call where someone calls to report a broken limb, the 911 operator would determine which ambulance service should respond to the call, and dispatch an ambulance. If a caller reports a traffic accident, the operator might send out a fire truck, police car, and ambulance to ensure that the situation is fully covered. Dispatchers also talk with emergency responders at the scene so that they can dispatch additional responders as necessary.

Skilled 911 operators can be in high demand. A good 911 operator can extract necessary information from callers quickly and efficiently, keep callers calm and update them on the status of the emergency services they have dispatched, and coach callers on interventions such as how to perform CPR. The 911 operator needs to be able to handle a wide variety of situations, and stay cool, calm, and collected throughout.

911 operators usually need to be familiar with computer systems which are used to log calls and dispatch emergency services. They are also trained to deal with issues like prank calls and hangups, which still require a response. These dispatch professionals may need to be able to work with several computer and phone systems to coordinate emergency responses, and they need to be familiar with topics like cell phone calls which are routed to the wrong dispatch center, staffing allotments at various emergency services agencies, and how to handle non-emergency calls which end up at the 911 dispatch center, such as noise complaints.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Practical Adult Insights researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By BrickBack — On Sep 06, 2010

Suntan12- Bad 911 operators should be eliminated immediately. I agree with you that offering more vacation time might help the operator avoid burnout and become careless.

Operators that do not show empathy are the worst 911 operators out there. There should also be frequent evaluations of these operators to make sure that they remain detailed and focused on their callers.

Most 911 operators are great, but it is the few bad ones that you have to eliminate.

By suntan12 — On Sep 06, 2010

Musty- A dispatch operator’s job is very important. They often have a few moments to make critical decisions that can result in life or death situations.

Dispatcher jobs should also include courses on stress management and thinking under pressure. This critical job brings on a high level of stress and stress management training should be offered in order to teach the dispatcher operators how to handle difficult calls.

Ample vacation time should also be offered in order to avoid burnout. These operators should be given more than the standard two weeks vacation due to the high level of stress their jobs contain. They should actually receive at least four weeks vacation.

By mutsy — On Sep 06, 2010

911 operator training is actually voluntary in most states. However, in the state of Florida, 911 operator training is mandatory.

There was a state law signed by Gov. Charlie Crist that requires that 911 calls being handled by certified operators that actually pass an exam.

The reason that this law was passed was a result of a mishandled 911 call that resulted in the death of a 21-year-old Northport woman.

In a state of Florida you have to take an emergency dispatcher 911 operator exam and pass it. This certification will not only teach you how to become a 911 dispatch operator, but it will allow you to obtain 911 operator employment upon passing the exam.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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