by Gary Allen
Public safety dispatchers should receive the same pay as police officers, according to former Los Angeles police chief Daryl Gates, who hosted four dispatchers during his weekly live Internet talk show in early 1999.
Gates was generous with praise for dispatchers during the 90 minutes of his two-hour show that he devoted to dispatching, calling them "unsung heroes" who perform a vital service to the community. Besides pay, Gates believes dispatchers shouldn't be restricted from using their expertise only in the comm center, but should have access to other positions within their public safety agency.
The show-titled "Daryl Gates-The Chief"-was carried by the Talkspot Internet site, which not only carries live audio of the show, but also presents graphics, video and an interactive chat area accessible to Web visitors during the show. Gates' show is broadcast each Sunday at 10 a.m. (PST) at www.talkspot.com.
Guests for the show included DISPATCH Monthly editor Gary Allen, 911 Magazine associate editor Dave Larton, dispatching Web mistress Linda Olmstead, dispatcher Diane Beaty representing the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), and Capt. Mike Downey, who heads the LAPD comm center.
During the first 30 minutes of the talk show Gates talked about law enforcement issues in general, including the shooting death of a man in New York, and their subsequent indictment on criminal charges.
Gates introduced the dispatching segment by saying that law enforcement is "really dependent on good communications." He recalled that a colleague once said that everyone working in the comm center should all be a sergeant, because those persons "really control the efforts of our police officers out there." Gates added, "He was right" about the reason.
However, Gates felt putting all-sergeants in the comm center would be too expensive. "Besides, " he told his colleague, "we can train up civilian employees to do this job. And they will probably do it a hell of a lot better than sergeants. And that's exactly what's happened," he said, referring to the LAPD comm center.
Gates said that, today, LA's comm center employees do a "far better job" than sergeants ever could.
Police officers receive all the recognition, Gates said. "But the people behind them, people supporting them, people giving them the direction that is so vital-they're unsung heroes." [RealAudio excerpt of Gates' opening remarks, 2:38] [download RealAudio player]
Gates then turned to his guest for initial comments. Allen agreed that dispatchers are unsung, because it's an occupation that hidden away in an area of the police department, with no windows and a locked door. "The only contact people have is usually that very first phone call they ever make for assistance, by dialing 911 or some other number. And that's the first time they ever think about it." Allen said a caller's entire perception of dispatching can be molded by that first call.
Gates recalled the LA dispatcher-Sharyn Gilbert-who appeared as a witness on the first day of testimony in the murder trial of O.J. Simpson (DISPATCH, March 1995). Gilbert had fielded a telephone call from Nicole Brown Simpson in 1989 during which Nicole reported being beaten by O.J. Simpson.
Gates called Gilbert's testimony "marvelous." He said she did a "superb" job at handling the telephone call, "and that her testimony was so great." He said testimony by others called in the case "wasn't nearly as complete." He praised her ability to communicate in the courtroom, then added, "I'm so proud of her."
Larton explained that communications is generally 85 percent visual. But as a dispatcher operating only on the telephone, "We don't have the opportunity to see the person, so we can't tell if you're car is burning or if you're bleeding or you're in a car accident." Larton said a dispatcher's entire work "literally blind, and to use our voice inflection and questioning techniques toto elicit information from the caller, to try to calm them down, and to try to get the right help at the right time to the right place."
Larton called dispatching a unique job, and said, "We're paramedics who don't have ambulances. We're police officers that don't wear weapons. We're firefighters who don't drive fire trucks." But, "No matter what the call is, we're really first on the scene. We represent the agency. If our call goes good, then when the officer arrives, when the firefighter arrives, they have a much better chance of handling it as a good call."
But, Larton added, if the telephone call goes bad, "By the time the officer gets there, the reporting party is very upset, and typically is doesn't go well for that officer."
Larton admitted that dispatchers make mistakes, "But I think it's very much common to any other type high stress job, like a police officer or firefighter, and thousands of people while the five of us are having this conversation are going to be calling 911, with everything from a choking baby to a house on fire, to a cat up in a tree. And all those dispatchers will be doing the very best they can, using their ears to get the right people at the right time."
As an aside, Larton said he recently met Tonja Bellard, the LAPD radio dispatcher who handled the North Hollywood (Calif.) bank robbery shoot-out, and was very impressed with her performance (DISPATCH, April 1997). Capt. Downey added that Bellard was six month pregnant at the time of the incident.
Chief Gates said the media always zeros in on mistakes. "But that's part of the job."
Downey said LAPD's comm center fielded almost 3.5 million telephone calls during 1998. "In all of last year we had less than 200 complaints. So as a percentage, it's incredible the job they do," he said.
Gates called that record "incredible. Just think about it! I wish private industryI wish those that are in any other part of government, or private industry could have a record like that. They'd all be proud of that kind of a record."
Gates turned to Beaty, who said she's a 14-year veteran and is on a mission to train dispatchers "to be the professional communicators that they need to be to do their jobs." She described the job as being a juggler, "throwing flames up into the air and catching them."
Gates said officers sometimes get miffed with dispatchers because they don't know the dispatcher's job. "It's really a good thing, I think, to bring police officers into communications and give them some experience, so they can recognize the problems that our dispatchers have. And they'll be less short-sighted."
Beaty said, "I believe the telecommunicator can set the tone for professionalism. We train them to do that. I also think that telecommunicators, along with police officers, firemen and ambulance need to sit in each other's seats on occasion, as part of educating them."
Gates agreed that everyone within public safety needs to understand the system, and know about each other's job, so that everyone works smoothly.
Larton then stressed that the public is actually the first link in the chain. "The more information that they can provide the dispatcher, the more information we can provide the emergency services personnel so we can get the right people to the right spot." He suggested that listeners go by their local police or fire department, and visit. "People really only dial 911 once in their lifetime, and that call really has to count."
Larton said citizens really need to know how to call, so they can provide the necessary information. "My 911 center is open 24 hours a day. We love to have the public-not just kids, but adults- come in."
Chief Gates said when he was chief, he took a call at home from his secretary, who was suffering from a medical problem. Gates said he dialed 911, "acted like a citizen" and requested an ambulance. "I was so proud of the way the way, the reaction of the board operator, and the way they dispatched an ambulance there, in just a very short period of time."
Gates said, "I got the feeling that citizens must have." He said it was a great experience for him, and later telephoned the comm center commander to pass along "good work."
Gates began the second segment by saying that dispatchers not only handle emergency incidents, but an entire range of problems. "It's the everyday kind of activity that is so important. People who need law enforcement or need the firefighter or need a paramedic sometimes it isn't an emergency. But to them, it is."
He said, "There has to be someone there that can discern the difference between a real emergency and an average call. And that in itself is a problem," because even minor problems are a major problem for the caller. "They are the link," Gates said.
He also acknowledged the direction that dispatchers give to law enforcement officers. "They are actually deploying our people, deploying our forces out there. And that is an incredible responsibility, to deploy them correctly, to deploy them in a way that we are getting the most effectiveness out of them. That's a tremendous burden. That's not brought out enough."
Gates said, "I can't stress enough the fact that the media, whenever there's a mistake, the media zeros in on that, and they portray that, and people get an entirely different view of the work that is done here by these marvelous people who are so vital."
A visitor to the on-line chat room asked if there are "average" calls. Olmstead chimed in to say that 911 callers always think their call is most important. "We have to be very careful to not say, 'You know, I've handled calls like yours all morning long, and it's nothing.'"
Olmstead said even boring or average calls can turn out to be something extraordinary, that ties up resources for hours. On the other hand, Olmstead said, callers sometimes dial the 7-digit, non-emergency phone number to report an emergency.
Gates said even a car blocking a driveway can be urgent to the caller. At that point, Larton jumped in to say he recently fielded a call reporting a noise disturbance in a van on the street.
Larton said when an officer arrived, the van tried to leave. When the vehicle was finally stopped, the officer found two runaway juveniles who had warrants, and determined the van had been stolen. "What we try to do is not to upgrade or downgrade any particular call. The call may turn out to be average, but we try as much as we can to try to treat every call as important as we can, because sometimes an average call turns out to be something very, very major."
Capt. Downey LA's experience is that 60 to 70 percent of the 1.9 million 911 calls they fielded were non-emergencies. "We're trying to educate the public, and the city is now going into a 311 city services system to try to divert some of these calls away from the 911 system." Downey said the system should be in operation in April or early May. Callers who dial 311 would reach a city operator.
Downey said Los Angeles is also setting up a toll-free, non-emergency number in April-(888) ASK-LAPD. "That's too complicated," said Gates emphatically. Downey laughed, and said, "It's a little bit burdensome, but we're really trying to divert some of these non-emergencies away the 911 lines, so we can get our answer time up, and provide the service to real emergencies, when people really need it."
Gates said, "I like the 311. That's easy to remember, and I think that's going to be very, very useful. I'm not sure about that 1-888 number." He admitted having a hard time translating letters to numbers on the telephone.
Gates then asked Downey to talk about the LAPD comm center itself, built in 1984. "Your people are certainly locked away," he said, "down in a, unfortunately, it was a mistake to do it, but it was during the time when we worried about atomic attacks, so we put them way, way, way down in a cellar. And that's a real morale buster, is it not?"
Downey said the LAPD comm center is four floors below ground, with no windows. "I constantly have people come down and test our air, and we're always adjusting the dampers outside," he said. "It's just not a real healthy environment."
He said, "Our system is about on its last leg right now, and it's about probably living two years beyond its life expectancy." But Downey said, "We're in the process of a very exciting project," building two separate, above ground, windowed comm center, "and all the creature comforts that the dispatchers really deserve and need."
The current facility is 6,000 square feet, and the new facilities will be 15,000 square feet each. They will provide redundancy to each other.
"The environment right now, it's very tough to keep people's moral up. They do a dynamite job. But that underground, no windows, no air mentality, I think we're beyond that now. And with all the technology that's available to us, we can afford to be in a state of the art facility."
Downey said the city has broken ground on the former Parker Center parking lot, and building will begin in April. It will take 14 months to construct the shell of the building, and another 20 months to finish the interior.
Capt. Downey said to maintain morale, they've spent $300,000 to upgrade the interior of the comm center. As for National Telecommunicator Week, the police department will have guests visiting the center, including the mayor and other political officials. Downey invited Chief Gates to an open house on April 13th, and he accepted.
Gates said when he was chief he frequently visited the comm center, "just to say hello and to just let them know how valuable they were for LAPD."
Gates then turned to recruitment and training issues. Downey quickly said that LAPD is currently is a "hiring mode." He said they have 470 dispatchers now, but are trying to fill 534 positions. "Because our attrition is so great, it's been about 50 to 50 percent."
Downey said from 1994 to 1997, the police department lost $11 million by dispatchers who dropped out of the training process. As a result, the police department revamped their test to better focus on the necessary skills.
Of all the persons who apply for the dispatcher position, only 9 percent are accepted for further screening, Downey revealed. Chief Gates surmised that figure is perhaps more severe than the acceptance rate for police officers.
Beaty said her agency now pre-screens candidates, require them to have completed a basic dispatching course, and prefer they already be trained for emergency medical dispatching (EMD). "We're at about 70 percent. We're hiring some excellent people, with the skills, they can multi-task and do the job. But we're weeding them out in the beginning with the testing."
Allen pointed out that in previous times, dispatching were clerical personnel. Now, the job is very technology oriented and is "very much a specialized occupation, one that requires a tremendous amount of training and experience." This, in turn, has changed the type of people who apply for these jobs.
"As the job has progressed, not every agency has recognized the specialties required, and have not kept up with the training, and as Chief Gates said in the beginning, we can train them. But there is support required for all of this, and not every agency does this."
Allen said the attrition rates that Downey mentioned are very common across the country. "I think most people's experience is that if you can retain 25 percent, 30 percent of the people who actually come in for training, then you're doing real good. But obvious, that leaves a lot of room for improvement, and that's what we should be shooting for."
"Gary, you mentioned a word that I think is most important to use," Chief Gates said. "This is a profession now. It's no longer just a job. It's a profession, and you have to have people who are well trained-that's what professions are all about, people who are educated and skilled in handling a very, very specialized area of work. And it has become a profession-not important, vital, vital profession in the emergency services that we depend on each and every day."
Gates then returned to the nine percent applicant
acceptance rate for LAPD dispatcher positions. Capt.
Downey said the success rate for trainees is about 50
percent. The department is trying to fill 120 positions a
year, but isn't having success, "because our
requirements are so stiff."
|Gates recalled that having an
argument with the city administrative officer and
personnel office over salary. "Salary
ought to be the same as police officer," Gates told
them. "These individuals are as important as our
police officers, in fact, in many instances, they're more
important, because they're doing the directing, they're
making sure people are deployed correctly and that
emergency calls are handled in an efficient and effective
Gates said he had "a terrible battle," but eventually raised the pay so that it was almost equal to officers. He then asked the panel about dispatcher pay rates across the country. "Are we paying them enough? -that's a bad question, we're never paying them enough." Then he wondered if pay rates are at least competitive and, "at least significant enough to denote the importance of the work that is being done there?"
Olmstead and Beaty immediately said, "No, we're not there yet." Downey said the police department may begin giving their police service representatives (PSR) who work in the comm center some type of bonus. "I really do think it deserves a bonus for being there. Just like police officers get hazard pay for being involved in squads, or motors or helicopters."
Gates said, "I do, too." He said PSR's shouldn't be limited to just dispatching, and a bonus is appropriate for the stress they face.
Gates then asked about pay rates and, "Is it anywhere near police officers?" Allen explained that pay rates vary by the area of the country, "But it's not anywhere near police officers."
In a broader view, public safety dispatching is in a pool with many other occupations that need skilled, technology-oriented workers. "We have to be competitive in the government service, with private enterprise, with other government occupations, to attract people to the profession." Allen said. He added it's not often part of government service to feel the need to be competitive.
Gates returned to the pay parity subject, saying, "The benchmark ought to be a police officer's salary. They're as important as police officers. They do work that is different but is vital to law enforcement and emergency services in the community, and ought to be paid at the same level. Firefighters and paramedics and police officers are often paid almost identically. Not only that, there needs to be a hierarchy, a promotional possibility, so a person isn't just stuck on one level. They need to be able to move forward ,and the pay has to be the same for moving forward," Gates said. He said that if you're a dispatch supervisor, you should be making the same as a sergeant, the supervisor of police officers. And as you go up in the hierarchy, your pay should increase.
"We all need to work in that regard, and whatever help I can do, my belief is clearly that they ought to be paid identical to police officers," Gates said.
Larton said, besides salary, agencies should be giving dispatchers more time off. "Many of the centers are working their dispatchers 12 hours days, five to six days a week," he said. He mentioned that his agency allows him to take administrative days off to perform other dispatch-related activities.
Olmstead said she's involved in several activities, including her Web site, "letting people know that this is a profession, that this is a careerand that it's a great job even if they're not paid so well."
Gates then expressed the feeling that there are many men and women who, for some physical reason, cannot become police officers or firefighters. These persons should consider a career in dispatching.
Olmstead quickly stepped in and asked, "Can I throw a monkey wrench into that idea?" Gates urged her on and she said, "I agree with you that they could do the job. But I've found that many persons who want to be police officers are particular kinds of persons that have a lot of trouble of staying in a room, and taking in the oral information and not actually having active response to it. They want to be out there."
Gates agreed with the sentiment, but repeated that someone who wants to be a police officer, and who gets turned down, should consider staying in the profession by considering public safety dispatching.
Gates went on to suggest that dispatchers, who accumulate "an incredible amount of experience in police work, in emergency services, and you need to use that experience in a broader form. You can't just be stuck in that particular job. You need to be able to use that experience in a broader form."
Gates concluded the talk show, "That gets back to what I was saying about benefits. Making it a career. Making it an attractive career. Making it a job, not a job, a career and a profession that people will look at and say, 'Hey, I'm technologically minded. I'd love to be involved in emergency work. I'd love to be involved in law enforcement. I'd like to be a firefighter, but I can't. And I want to do something parallel to that."