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Fire Dispatcher Employment Information

You've seen "Rescue 911" . You're looking for a challenging new career. You're thinking you'd like to be a dispatcher. You think you have what it takes.... OR Maybe you are currently employed as a dispatcher and are looking for a change of scenery. Read on... 

The Bellingham Fire Department provides fire suppression and emergency medical services to the citizens of Bellingham. Whatcom Medic One, the EMS division of the Bellingham Fire Department, provides advanced life support care to the citizens of Bellingham and Whatcom County in conjunction with the 19 volunteer fire districts that currently operate within the county. The Bellingham Fire Department is committed to providing the best possible service to the citizens of the community it serves and that commitment is met by ensuring that the staff it employs are well-qualified, well-trained, and equally committed to their career as a firefighter, paramedic, or dispatcher.

The Alarm Room

In 1984 the dispatching of the Bellingham Fire Department and surrounding volunteer fire districts was taken over by The Alarm Room, the Joint 9-1-1 Communications Center. As calls for service get more frequent and defined responses get more "specialized" there is a need for the fire dispatchers to be more "specialized", no longer making it feasible for a dispatcher to effectively dispatch both law enforcement and fire on a rotational assignment basis. In 1997, it was determined that there was a need to "split" the dispatching of fire services and law enforcement in order to accommodate the need for dispatchers to be trained to higher standards. As a result, in June of 1999, PROSPECT, the Alarm Room for Fire/EMS in Whatcom County became operational. What follows is a general preview of the types of duties and tasks that make up the "big picture" of being a dispatcher for the Bellingham Fire Department at The Alarm Room.

The Job

Dispatchers work long hours and frequently must switch gears from little or no activity to intense activity under stressful conditions. Emergency response calls can happen at anytime of the day or night and the dispatcher is depended upon to act as the "eyes and ears" for the responding apparatus until they arrive on the scene, obtaining and relaying critical information in order to assist them in providing the level of service that our community has come to expect. Dispatch is an integral part of the emergency response "team" that responds to each and every call. Involvement can range from the obtaining of basic information to providing life-saving pre-arrival instructions to the caller so that every effort is made for a successful outcome. Callers are often emotionally upset, requiring a competent professional with a calm and reassuring voice on the other end of the phone line to elicit the information needed for help to be dispatched and for pre-arrival instructions to be carried out. It is critical that the dispatcher think quickly and obtain the appropriate information to deal with each unique situation. Not all calls are emergencies, however, and it is essential that all callers are treated with the same concern and professionalism. Dispatchers work closely with the on-duty Battalion Chief in order to coordinate resources to meet the needs of each call. Dispatchers and Incident Command work closely to meet the needs of major incidents as they evolve. Dispatchers are relied upon to make all necessary phone calls to notify and coordinate appropriate agencies depending on the needs of the on-scene commander. 

Dispatchers use a Computer Aided Dispatch program to enter and dispatch calls. Typing skills of at least 40 WPM are required. Dispatchers must be able to type while talking to the caller or talking on the radio.

In addition to phone responsibilities, dispatchers are also communicating with all responding apparatus via radio. 3-4 different frequencies are monitored and it isn't uncommon for there to be radio traffic on all three at once. Transmissions from field units will range from routine, such as acknowledging an apparatus enroute to a call , to emergent as when responding to a cry of "Mayday, Mayday, Firefighter down". Patience, compassion, the ability to "multi-task", and excellent listening skills are a must in order to be successful at this job. Dispatchers are also responsible for "other duties as assigned" during slow periods throughout their shift which may range from assisting office staff with clerical tasks to data entry into/or maintenance of various computer databases. Dispatchers are scheduled for regular "ride-alongs" with both the ambulance and engine company crews in order to better visualize their role as a communicator. This provides the dispatchers with a more "vested" interest in continuing to learn and grow in their career as a dispatcher and valued member of the Bellingham Fire Department.

Training

All dispatchers are required to be EMT trained and certified either at the time of hire or within 12 months of hire. An additional 124 hours of classroom training are provided including , but not limited to; basic caller interrogation, CAD computer operations, incident call types, basic fireground operations, incident command systems, hazardous materials awareness, and local geography. Upon satisfactory completion of the classroom training dispatchers are assigned a trainer for approximately 6 weeks of one-on-one practical training on the dispatch console after which time they are expected to work independently as a dispatcher. There is a probationary period of 12 months from date of hire.

Personal Considerations

Dispatchers work 12 hour shifts, generally in a combination of 4 days on/3 days off; 3 days on/4 days off. Time off from the center is maximized this way and is more conducive to a healthy lifestyle. Dispatchers work 2 or 3 to a shift and function as a team. The work area is compact and you are connected to your console with a headset. Freedom of movement is limited. An attempt to provide all appropriate rest and meal breaks is made, however due to the nature of the business, emergency situations may interfere with break schedules. Lunchroom facilities are provided. Dispatchers may be required to work overtime. Dispatchers work weekends and holidays. Dispatchers must work during unusual and/or catastrophic events such as major fires, earthquakes, floods or civil unrest. The fire service is regimented and dispatchers may receive orders which must be carried out promptly and without question.

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