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How to Become a Police, Fire, or Ambulance Dispatcher

Most police, fire, and ambulance dispatchers have a high school diploma or GED. Additional requirements vary. Many states require dispatchers to become certified.

Important Qualities

Ability to multitask. Responding to an emergency over the phone can be stressful. Dispatchers must stay calm to simultaneously answer calls, collect vital information, coordinate responders, and assist callers.

Empathy. People who call 9-1-1 are often in distress. Dispatchers must be willing and able to help callers with a wide variety of needs. They must be calm, polite, and sympathetic, while also quickly getting information.

Leadership skills. Dispatchers work with law enforcement, emergency response teams, and civilians in emergency situations. They must be able to efficiently communicate the nature of the emergency and coordinate the appropriate response.

Listening skills. When answering an emergency call or handling radio communications, a dispatcher must listen carefully. Some callers might have trouble speaking because of anxiety or stress. Dispatchers must be able to record the call accurately.

Problem-solving skills. Dispatchers must be able to choose wisely between tasks that are competing for their attention. They must be able to quickly determine the appropriate action when people call for help.

Education and Training

The typical entry-level education is a high school diploma or a GED. However, some employers may not specify any educational requirements. Others prefer to hire dispatchers who have a related 2- or 4-year degree in a subject such as criminal justice, computer science, or communications.

Most dispatcher jobs require an applicant to complete an interview as well as to pass a written exam and a typing test. In addition, applicants may need to pass a background check, lie detector and drug tests, as well as tests for hearing and vision.

Most states require a dispatcher to be a U.S. citizen, and some jobs require a driver’s license. Both computer skills and customer service skills can be helpful, as is the ability to speak a second language. 

Training requirements vary by state. Some states require dispatchers to be certified.

Several states require 40 hours or more of initial training. Some require continuing education every 2 to 3 years. Other states do not mandate any specific training, leaving individual agencies to conduct their own courses.

Some agencies have their own programs for certifying dispatchers; others use training from a professional association. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO), the National Emergency Number Association (NENA), and the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) have established a number of recommended standards and best practices that agencies may use as a guideline for their own training programs.  

Training is usually conducted in both a classroom setting and on the job, and is often followed by a probationary period of about 1 year. However, this may vary by agency as there is no national standard of how training is conducted or the length of probation.

Training covers a wide variety of topics, such as local geography, agency protocols, and standard procedures. Dispatchers are also taught how to use specialized equipment, such as a 2-way radio and computer-aided dispatch (CAD) software. They receive training to prepare for specific types of incidents, such as a child abduction or a suicidal caller. Some dispatchers receive emergency medical dispatcher (EMD) training, which enables them to give medical assistance over the phone. 


Dispatchers may choose to pursue additional certifications, such as NENA’s emergency number professional (ENP) or APCO’s Registered Public-Safety Leader (RPL) to prove their leadership skills and knowledge of the profession.


Dispatchers can become senior dispatchers or supervisors before going on to administrative positions, in which they may focus on a specific area, such as training or policy and procedures. Additional education and related work experience may be helpful in advancing to management level positions. Technology skills also may be helpful in becoming a supervisor.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition