WILMINGTON — If you dial 911 from any Wilmington landline or recently purchased cellphone line, Wilmington’s public safety dispatchers are the ones who will answer. Then, according to the priority and severity of the issue, they’ll raise the concern to the appropriate party. But taking notes and communicating with the fire and the police departments are not all of the responsibilities of a dispatcher.
While the job of public safety dispatcher is a desk job, it’s not a job that just anyone can do. Wilmington Dispatch Supervisor Corey Swift explained how Wilmington’s dispatchers receive training far beyond that required by the state.
“Every [dispatcher] in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts will have the public safety telecommunicator training,” he said.
This is where they learn call taking, customer service, stress managing, and other necessary skills for the job.
“To answer 911 calls you need the state 911 department’s two-day course.”
Then, they will also take an emergency medical dispatch class. After their classroom-style training is complete, new hires receive one-on-one training from someone in the public safety department.
The town takes this training even further by requiring each of them to take 16 hours of continuing education every year. Topics that Swift sees a lot of them studying include hostage negotiation, disaster operations, and suicide intervention.
“This way, they’re staying up-to-date with the techniques.”
He said it’s a priority of the public safety department to avoid making minor mistakes that end up being costly in terms of both lives and money.
With the help of training, dispatchers are required to assess a situation and then identify what assets need to be sent out. Swift mentioned how between the training program and specific procedures, there’s room for each dispatcher to use some of their own judgment outside of what they’ve been taught. They often have to delegate and prioritize when a more important call comes in. While they may send a police officer or another public safety officer to the situation, the dispatcher won’t tell the first responders what to do or what resources to bring.
It’s important for the dispatcher to ask all of the questions that they do so that they can use all of the information available to determine what services are needed.
“We always ask for somebody’s phone number in case we get disconnected or need to follow up,” Swift said. “We do not have caller ID so that people can remain anonymous if they choose.”
When the caller can’t identify a dispatchable address, or an address where they can send an officer, the dispatcher asks for context clues so that they can narrow down the location.
After that, the procedure requires them to figure out the nature of the call if it’s something the police can handle.
“We try to get that information as quickly as possible to give it a priority level.”
Even when the caller doesn’t know what’s wrong, it’s up to the dispatcher to help them identify the issue and then connect them to the right service.
If it’s a call for the fire department, the Emergency Medical Dispatch System has a script for the dispatchers to run through so that they can give instructions over the phone for what to do before medical help arrives. Members of Congress recently introduced a bill that would consider public safety dispatchers first responders. Swift mentioned that he’s had dispatchers explain how to give CPR and even how to deliver a baby. In any situation, a well-trained dispatcher can be instrumental in providing care over the phone and make a world of difference.
Stressing the necessity and importance of good training, the Wilmington dispatchers don’t overlook the customer service requirements of their job.
“Every call that we take is someone in some level of crisis,” Swift continued.
They care about making sure people are satisfied with the level of service they receive and they don’t settle for anything less.
“We don’t want to ever say ‘that’s not our problem’… we try to deal with everything that we can internally.”
When they need to, they’ll transfer someone to the right section of the public safety department or to the state police.
Swift’s job as dispatch supervisor is to help facilitate the collaboration between dispatchers and the police and fire departments. He has flexibility between dispatching responsibility, administrative tasks, and things delegated to him by the police officers and firefighters.
“I’m not the department head but people come to me with problems from below or above,” he said.
What he really wants is to let people know that dispatchers are trained and ready for whatever crises come their way.
At any moment, there are two or three dispatchers in the Public Safety Building waiting to answer any phone call to a public safety person.
“One dispatcher handles most of the police traffic and another the fire traffic. The third person will act as overflow.”
They make sure people aren’t sitting on hold when they call 911. They have a current staff of 11 but are looking to hire another public safety dispatcher to make up a full staff of 12. Swift maintains that all of their employees are wholly dedicated to getting people the service that they need and fast.