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The Multitalented, Multitasking Public Safety Polymath

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  • The Multitalented, Multitasking Public Safety Polymath

    Excellence in the ECC depends on a telecommunicator’s understanding of the public and first responders in the field.

    [Originally published in the March/April 2021 PSC magazine.]

    By David Larson

    You have probably heard of Leonardo da Vinci, the 15th-century architect, artist, engineer, inventor and scientist. Leonardo da Vinci was a man of a great many talents, what one would refer to as a Renaissance man. Nowadays, this term has become interchangeable with the word polymath. Public safety telecommunicators can be the polymaths of public safety.

    The modern and near-future demands placed on public safety telecommunicators go far beyond the often-described skillset of a clerical position or “just a dispatcher.” A public safety telecommunicator is a protective job in more ways than one since we protect the public as well as other first responders. The skills, knowledge and abilities that public safety telecommunicators should possess to do their job well are numerous, detailed and wide-ranging. Public safety telecommunicators must understand principles and details of communication, psychology, law enforcement, fire service, emergency medicine and technology. All of this is in addition to the ability to understand and work within a variety of sociological and cultural environments.


    For someone looking to improve, the first and often most overlooked place to start is interpersonal communications. Communication is the one skill that, at least in some measure, we all bring with us by virtue of our employment and employability. After all, we had to speak to pass an interview. Does the fact that we all possess an ability to communicate mean that we communicate well? I’m sure you have heard at least one interaction in your emergency communications center (ECC) in which a telecommunicator did not communicate well.

    However, communication is the bedrock of what we do as public safety telecommunicators. Theoretical understanding and practical applications of interpersonal communications are critical for every other facet of a public safety polymath’s toolkit. This is most often the weakest component of any emergency operation. Telecommunicators blame poor communication for far more mistakes and injuries than any other single cause.

    Beyond the introduction to the cycle of communication and active listening, as described in APCO’s Public Safety Telecommunicator 1 class, there are more elements we need to keep in mind. We must understand our audience. Public safety telecommunicators are responsible for interacting with two categories of people: responders and the public. It is important to remember that they do not speak the same language. With responders, we speak public safety jargon. Using public safety jargon with the public is much less effective, which is a mistake I see often. We must use a technique that linguists refer to as “code switching.” Code switching is when you speak a different way depending on the audience. Most of us do this frequently without being aware of the phenomenon. We probably speak differently with our close friends at a party than we do in a formal business meeting. As public safety telecommunicators working in an ECC, we do not change physical environments. However, we do change virtual environments: switching between radio communication with a responder and phone communication with the public. Being aware of and using public safety language with responders and non-technical, jargon-free communication with the public is a sign that the telecommunicator is on the path to becoming a public safety polymath.

    For next-level interpersonal communication, we can add in adjustments for generational difference, cultural difference and socioeconomic difference. It is important to have an awareness of the variety of demographics in your ECC’s resident population along with an understanding of commuting or visiting populations.


    The next set of principles to understand are those in the field of psychology. Public safety telecommunicators need to recognize the causes and signs of stress reactions. There are a variety of causes of stress within any population. Generally, when people encounter a high-stress situation, they don’t rise to the occasion; they sink to the level of their training. Consider our two categories of people we communicate with — first responders and the public. Responders have training, whereas the public usually does not. It stands to reason that responders and the public may react differently to the same situation.

    Once we understand stress reactions of responders, we can provide needed communication and additional resources. Once we understand stress reactions of the public, we can use that understanding to obtain and keep the caller’s cooperation for the duration of the call. Under the best conditions, we can help keep the caller and other members of the public calm until the arrival of responders.

    Advanced application of communication skills in a purposeful psychological framework leads telecommunicators to the same skillset possessed by crisis (hostage) negotiators. A substantial portion of crisis negotiation training involves understanding concepts of abnormal psychology, including mental illness. There can be many challenges and pitfalls in communicating with those experiencing a mental health challenge. As potential changes in policing and public safety are considered for law enforcement and medical response, changes in public safety telecommunications will likely occur simultaneously. The common sense of one-size-fits-all call taking must change as our collective skillset improves.


    Telecommunicators should have a solid understanding of many of the same law enforcement concepts that police officers learn in academy. That understanding should also evolve as police tactics evolve. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy’s proclamation of Peace Officers Memorial Day and Police Week described the duties of law enforcement officers. These duties include safeguarding rights and freedoms, protecting lives and property, application of new procedures and techniques, and maintaining law and order. Public safety telecommunicators must embrace all of these as duties as well. It is not enough to learn the applications of policing once during initial training. It is one of our
    duties to be continually learning.

    There are three critical elements of law enforcement that telecommunicators should know: use of force concepts, criminal code, and evidence collection and preservation. Each state has laws that outline appropriate use of force for law enforcement officers as well as acceptable use of force for civilians. Law enforcement organizations have additional policies and procedures that give guidance in addition to laws. A telecommunicator’s understanding of use of force can help bridge gaps. Knowledge of these considerations can help a telecommunicator understand why an officer needs specific information about what a suspect is doing or has done. This understanding in turn can help to guide a telecommunicator’s questioning of a caller.

    Understanding criminal code can help a telecommunicator understand why officers ask certain questions en route to a call for service. While telecommunicators provide a “picture” of a call for service and don’t label each infraction of law or potential criminal charge, knowing the differences between charges is important to providing professional support to law enforcement officers in the field. Knowledge and understanding of evidence collection and preservation can help telecommunicators provide appropriate instructions to callers to preserve the evidentiary value of a crime scene prior to the arrival of responders. In the chaos of public safety communications, having a good working knowledge of these three facets of law enforcement is important to a successful and
    safe outcome to police calls for service.


    It is important for telecommunicators to understand basic fire science, fire behavior, fire service terminology and potential for exposures and possess a solid awareness of hazardous materials. This goes for telecommunicators who do not dispatch for fire service personnel as much as those who do.

    Awareness of exposures and knowledge of hazardous materials help telecommunicators ask better questions of the public and consequently provide better information to fire and police responders alike. If your local fire academy (or fire department training division) and ECC administration permit, I highly recommend participating in initial or continuing firefighter training. If you can be fit tested for and wear a self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA), do it! When wearing a SCBA and breathing the supplied air, you can feel an added layer of stress and restricted vision and movement. Add to this the complications of a fire scene and you can better understand why it can be so challenging to communicate on the radio. Having a first-hand, experiential understanding of what fireground personnel have to do at a fire scene lends important contextual information to the communication support that telecommunicators provide.

    In my career in public safety communications, I have been blessed to participate in cross-training exercises with police officers and firefighter paramedics. This cross training allowed me to witness firsthand what it can be like to fire a weapon during a variety of police scenarios. (Don’t worry, the ammunition used was training rounds and many safety measures were in place.) Cross-training with the fire department allowed me to feel what it’s like wearing turnout gear with SCBA in a burn tower under smoke and fire conditions. These experiences and many more like them have helped me better understand what police and fire first responders experience in the field. They also helped me understand the considerations that responders have to take into account during an emergency.


    Many public safety telecommunicators are required to be licensed as emergency medical dispatchers (EMDs). There are several medical protocol providers available and your local EMS system and ECC dictate which you use. I have been trained and licensed with three of them. Each have advantages and challenges. All are enhanced by any training or education you can obtain beyond the minimum required for licensure. While you cannot exceed restrictions placed upon you by protocol and policy, you can become better at understanding and recognizing problems within the context of your ECC’s chosen procedures. You can also learn about mass casualty and triage procedures used by fire service and EMS crews. This is another area in which you will benefit by active participation in fire
    service and EMS training exercises.


    There is something that the public safety polymath may use in greater measure than many other responders: technology. In my brief professional life before public safety communications, I was a computer nerd. I programmed and provided network help desk support. Having that background knowledge allowed me to quickly adapt to changes in public safety technology and help fix problems that arose. Radio, telephone, computer and networking technologies evolve continually. While the role of technician is typically relegated to non-telecommunicator personnel, we need to have a firm grasp on how the tools we use work. The more familiar we become with technology, the more quickly we can detect a problem, notify support, figure out a temporary solution and best use the tools at our disposal. Don’t be shy about asking questions. It’s OK to start as a beginner. We all start out that way with new skills. APCO provides endless resources, including PSC magazine articles related exclusively to the technological side of public safety. Your knowledge of public safety technology will be a resource for responders themselves. As you seek knowledge and training from those responders, your knowledge of the ECC side of the radio and other technologies can be used to “horse trade” and get the information from them you need to do a better job. You can also provide invaluable input regarding their agencies’ procedures; they sometimes don’t fully understand the capabilities available to us in an ECC.


    We all have other life experiences that contribute to our skills and effectiveness as telecommunicators. Draw on those as well! My experiences in the Navy and Air Force Reserves helped me better understand public safety. I received training in firearms, security, firefighting, combat first aid and as a hazardous materials technician. This training sharpened my understanding of the first responder units I support through communications in my civilian career. I am no longer an active reservist, and this isn’t a plug for readers to enlist. This is a call for public safety telecommunicators to embrace both theoretical and working knowledge of such skillsets to hone their abilities as public safety telecommunicators.


    While becoming better at these skills may not feel the same as painting the Mona Lisa or inventing a flying machine, being a jackof- all-trades can improve career satisfaction as well as improve the lives of first responders and the public. In short, here is the challenge: be hungry for knowledge and seek to improve continually. It’s relatively easy to get set in a routine answering calls and dispatching. It takes deliberate effort to seek out additional training and education. Once you’ve found it, share your newfound information with others. Turn around and teach what you’ve learned; you’ll know it better once you teach it. You will be rewarded through better service to responders and the public. You’ll be known as someone who knows quite a bit about a lot. You’ll be a public safety polymath.