How to Become a Public Safety Dispatcher in California

Skills/Qualifications and Personal Background for all PSD Positions
Law Enforcement Dispatch
Fire Dispatch
EMS Dispatch
Employment Resources

Introduction:

Congratulations! The fact that you’re reading this webpage is an excellent first step towards beginning a successful career as a Public Safety Dispatcher (PSD). In most cases when a member of the public needs help, their first contact is with a PSD during a 9-1-1 call. We truly are the “First of the First Responders.”

While being a PSD is fun, exciting and rewarding, it can also be extremely stressful, demanding and mentally exhausting. Before choosing this career, it is very important to consider all aspects of the position, both positive and negative.

This section of the CAL-EDA website is designed to provide a general overview of the requirements, selection process, training program and potential job resources for a PSD. Keep in mind that this information may vary from agency to agency. It is divided into five sections: Skills/Qualifications and Personal Background for all PSD Positions, Law Enforcement Dispatch, Fire Dispatch, Emergency Medical Service (EMS) Dispatch and Employment Resources.

In California, there are well over 500 Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), commonly known as “9-1-1 Dispatch Centers” or “9-1-1 Communications Centers”. When a member of the public dials 9-1-1, the call is routed to a PSAP. Many PSAPs are Law Enforcement only, others handle Law Enforcement and Fire, and some handle Fire only, while others are specific to EMS.

Before beginning your journey into a new career as a PSD, you may consider asking yourself, “Is this the right job for me?” One way to get a glimpse into the life of a PSD is by requesting a “sit-a-long” at a local PSAP. Some organizations have stringent guidelines on who is allowed on the “Dispatch Floor”, while others are less restrictive.

It certainly doesn’t hurt to contact your local PSAP on their business or administrative telephone number, express your interest in becoming a PSD, and ask for a tour or “sit-a-long”. Experiencing a couple of hours at “the console” may help you determine if this is the right path for you.

Once you’ve made the decision to move forward with a new career as a PSD, you can expect a strict selection process and extensive training regiment. What follows is an overview of the process.

Skills/Qualifications and Personal Background for all PSD Positions:

Numerous studies over the years have shown that not everyone can perform the duties of a PSD. It is a highly demanding position, often involving serious, life-threatening situations. PSDs are routinely called upon to make critical split-second decisions that may make the difference between life and death. While there is no standard “skill-set” for PSD applicants, some of the more desirable abilities include:

    • Multi-tasking (listening, typing, talking & reading at the same time)
    • Memory/information retention (both short and long-term)
    • Active listening (quickly absorb, digest and interpret information)
    • Verbal communication (relay information accurately, rapidly and efficiently)
    • Above average typing speed (35 words-per minute is roughly the average for PSD-related typing tests, but vary by agency)
    • Ability to read & write English (although candidates who speak/write a second language, particularly Spanish, are highly desirable)
    • Patience
    • Ability to remain calm and professional under extremely stressful situations
    • Excellent interpersonal skills
    • Willingness to work various shifts, weekends and holidays as required with the potential for rotating days off

In addition to having a solid set of skills for the job, PSD candidates must also possess a personal background of high moral character, good judgment and free from criminal activity. All PSD candidates undergo a Background Investigation, which may include a review of:

Law Enforcement Dispatch:

In California, the Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) regulates the hiring and minimum training requirements for Law Enforcement PSDs. Most, but not all Law Enforcement agencies in California participate in the POST PSD Program. The minimum requirements to become a PSD in California are:

All requirements specified in these regulations shall be satisfied prior to the date of appointment as a PSD. Remember, these are minimum requirements, and some agencies have adopted more rigorous requirements, higher standards, additional assessments, and/or more in-depth evaluations as part of the selection process. One common additional test is a typing speed assessment. Some agencies require a psychological test and/or polygraph examination. Complete POST PSD Selection Standards can be found by clicking here.

Generally, the first step in getting hired as a PSD is completing an Employment Application with the State, County, City or Municipal agency you’re applying with. Once the agency has a reasonable number of candidates, they will administer a POST Entry-Level Dispatcher Selection Test Battery. Candidates must pass this examination to move to the next step of the process. This series of tests measure:

  • Verbal Ability: the ability to read and listen to information and identify facts and draw conclusions; and the ability to write clearly.
  • Reasoning: the ability to apply general rules to specific problems to attain logical answers; and the ability to correctly follow rules to arrange things or actions in a certain order.
  • Memory: the ability to store and retrieve facts, details, and other information.
  • Perceptual Ability: the ability to quickly and accurately compare letters and numbers presented orally and in written form; and the ability to shift back and forth between two or more sources of information, both written and orally imparted, in performing a task.

A POST Examinee Guide, detailing the testing process and how to prepare, as well as sample questions can be found by clicking here.

Once you pass the written examination and successfully complete the additional selection requirements (Oral Interview, Background Investigation, Medical Evaluation, and any other agency-specific standards), and are hired as an Entry-Level PSD, you must complete the POST Public Safety Dispatchers’ Basic Course.This course introduces the necessary skills and knowledge to work in a law enforcement communications center in a productive and professional manner. The course also prepares each student for the basic roles, responsibilities, and duties of a PSD within a law enforcement agency.

The course has a minimum hourly requirement of 120 hours, which is divided into 14 individual topics, called Learning Domains. Course content includes:

 
Learning Domain
Domain Description
Minimum Hours
100 Professional Orientation and Ethics 8 hours
101 Criminal Justice System 4 hours
102 Introduction to Law 12 hours
103 Interpersonal Communication 4 hours
104 Telephone Technology and Procedures 12 hours
105 Missing Persons 4 hours
106 Domestic Violence 4 hours
107 Community Policing/Cultural Diversity/Hate Crimes/Gang Awareness 8 hours
108 Child, Elder and Dependent Adult Abuse 4 hours
109 Law Enforcement Telecommunications 8 hours
110 Radio Technology and Procedures 12 hours
111 Resources/Referral Services 2 hours
112 Critical Incidents 16 hours
113 Wellness Management 4 hours
  Minimum Domain Hours 102 hours
 

Supporting Instructional /Activities - Exercises

18 hours
  Total Minimum Required Hours 120 hours

Complete training specifications for the PSD Basic Course can be found here.

*NOTE: While Law Enforcement agencies send their “new hires” to the 120-hour course for training, some PSD candidates elect to attend training, at their own expensebefore starting the hiring process. Some agencies may consider a qualified candidate more desirable if the have already received the “basic” training prior to being hired. Perspective PSDs should click here to see the current PSD Basic Course schedule (look for the 120-hour class titled “Dispatcher, Public Safety [Basic]). You may also want to check with your local community college or law enforcement training facility for potential training dates.

Once the newly hired PSD has completed the 120-hour Course, they may receive additional agency-specific classroom instruction, or begin the “hands-on” phase of training (sitting one-on-one with a Training Dispatcher/Instructor performing the duties of a PSD while under direct supervision). The “hands-on” portion of training may last as little as a few months, or up to a year for some of the larger agencies.

When your “hands-on” training is complete, and you are qualified to work without a Training Dispatcher/Instructor, you will be assigned to a particular shift and will most likely have rotating days off. Many agencies work a 5/40 schedule (40 hours over 5 days), others work a 4/10 (4 ten-hour days), and some work a 3/12 (3 twelve-hour days). Shifts, scheduling and days off vary from agency to agency.

Many questions regarding the hiring and training of PSDs can be answered on the POST Website FAQ Section.

Fire Dispatch:

Unlike Law Enforcement Dispatch, there is no single authority that currently regulates the hiring and training of Fire Service PSDs. Individual agencies develop a unique set of minimum qualifications, hiring standards and training programs.

The California Fire Chief’s Association (CFCA), Communications Section is working closely with the State Fire Marshall’s Office to develop a curriculum for a statewide standard of proficiency for Fire communications. As of March 2011, a revised draft of the Dispatch Manual was made available on their website for review. Click here to read the Manual draft. Click here for a history of the CFCA Communications Section.

The proposed course outline consists of (excerpt from Manual draft):

Course Objectives: To provide the student with…

a) Information regarding the history and evolution of requests for emergency services.

b) A working knowledge of the various methods for accessing emergency services or assistance.

c) A working knowledge of the technical equipment and components used by emergency communications centers.

d) A working knowledge of standardized terminology associated with emergency communications.

e) A working knowledge of interrogation techniques and the accompanying responsibilities and liabilities.

f) A working knowledge of interpreting the various types of geographical information systems.

Course Content: 40 Hours

SECTION 1A – INTRODUCTION AND OVERVIEW

Unit 1: History And Evolution

1-1 Orientation and Administration

1-2 Introduction to the Fire Service

1-3 The History of Public Safety Communications

1-4 The Importance of Professionalism

Unit 2: Technical Equipment And Components

2-1: Technology in Fire Communications

2-2: Ergonomic Precautions and Requirements

2-3: Emergency Backup Power Systems

Unit 3: Responsibilities And Liability

3-1 Laws, Standards, and Guidelines Affecting Communications Center Operations

3-2 Cultural Diversity

Unit 4: Geographical Information Systems

4-1 Overview of Maps

4-2 Using and Reading a Map

4-3 Street Names and Addresses

Unit 5: Contracts And Agreements

5-1 Contracts and Agreements

Unit 6: Fire Service Apparatus, Equipment and Terminology

Unit 7: Fire Service Communications Overview

Unit 8: Fire Service Incidents and Incident Management Systems

8-1 National Incident Management System and Incident Command System

8-2 Fire Service Incidents

SECTION 1B – FIRE CALL TAKER

Unit 1: The Call Taker Position

1-1 Scope of the Call Taker Position

1-2 Overview of Emergency Medical Dispatch

Unit 2: Accessing Emergency Services

2-1 Means of Accessing Emergency Services

2-2 Nonverbal Communication Systems

2-3 Availability and Use of Language Translation Services

2-4 Line Prioritization

Unit 3: Call Processing

3-1 Fire Service Call Processing

3-2 Primary Questions For Call Assessment

3-3 Fire Service Incidents

3-4 Secondary Questions For Call Assessment

3-5 Reporting Parties Requiring Special Handling

3-6 Potentially Dangerous Situations Affecting On-Scene Safety

3-7 The Importance of Properly Terminating a Call

Unit 4: Mapping For The Call Taker

4-1 Mapping for the Call Taker

SECTION 1C – RADIO DISPATCH

Unit 1: Standardized Communications

Unit 2: Major Incident Types

2-1 Fire Service Incidents

2-2 Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Incidents

2-3 Terrorism Incidents

Unit 3: Understanding Your Chiefs

Unit 4: Station Move-Ups/Area Coverage

Unit 5: Scenarios

5-1 Introduction to the Scenarios

EMS Dispatch:

The California Emergency Medical Services Authority maintains Dispatch Program Guidelines for Emergency Medical Dispatchers (EMDs). These Guidelines were developed to provide a consistent, statewide standard for emergency medical dispatch agencies and dispatchers that choose to implement an EMD program. The Guidelines include provisions for EMD training, continuing education, medical direction, continuous quality improvement, and for pre-approved medical protocols (instructions) used to give medical advice to 9-1-1 callers at the scene of an emergency. An overview of these guidelines can be found here.

Much like Fire Service Agencies, selection and training standards vary from agency to agency for EMS Dispatchers. Interested candidates should consult the job announcement literature for specific requirements.

Classroom training for EMDs is generally around 24 hours (3 days) and participants must successfully pass a written examination prior to beginning their “hands-on” training with a Training Dispatcher/Instructor.

Employment Resources:

The best way to see if there are any jobs open in your area for Public Safety Dispatchers is to check with your local agency/government websites. This may be a City agency (such as a local Police or Fire Department), a County agency (such as the Sheriff’s Department) or State agency (such as the California Highway Patrol). Most cities and counties have websites listing current available employment positions, testing dates and selection process procedures.

POST also has a listing of current available positions here. In addition, the California Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) has jobs listed on their website. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) has job listings on their Northern California Chapter and Southern California Chapter websites. The California Highway Patrol consistently has available positions throughout the State. There are numerous other employment resources available on the Internet.

Good luck and we wish you a long and rewarding career as a Public Safety Dispatcher!

Please contact us if you have any additional questions.