If you haven’t already, odds are good you’ll have to dial 911 at some point. Whether it’s an emergency happening to you or someone else, the voice on the other end offers a sense of calm in a storm when it’s needed most.
It’s a fast-paced career, but public safety dispatchers say there’s no job that compares. They’re the first line of defense because they are notified first when an emergency occurs. While calming frantic callers, they simultaneously communicate with the responding agency.
Dispatchers are key members of an efficient, well-trained team of public safety professionals. One of those members is Florence Prickett, a dispatcher and 12-year veteran of Huntsville Fire & Rescue.
Prior to joining HFR, she worked as a dispatcher for the Huntsville Police Department and HEMSI. When asked what led her to become a dispatcher, she didn’t hesitate: “A desire to help people.”
Prickett sought a career that provided job security and great benefits. The City of Huntsville checked both of those boxes. Her primary motivation, however, was knowing she could come to work each day and help someone.
“Sometimes we deal with people on the worst day of their lives, but the desire to help pulls you through,” she said.
More than a job
Like Prickett, Communications Manager Eric Jean was attracted to dispatching because it seemed like a stable career with great benefits. Once he got into the position, however, the more he wanted to learn and improve.
“This job is very gratifying because even if it might not be a big emergency, it’s a big emergency to the caller,” he said. “We’re here to be a liaison between the public and the first responders, while also keeping our first responders safe.”
Keeping the public safe is also a key responsibility. Prickett said it’s not uncommon for a dispatcher to tell a caller to back away from a dangerous situation.
She recalls doing just that during a structure fire call in which the caller believed an elderly lady was trapped inside. Though smoke and flames were visible in the home, Prickett advised the caller not to break any windows or make entry because doing so would fuel the fire.
“He was able to see through the windows that the elderly woman was still in there,” he said. “We later found out she was searching for her dog. (The caller) sounded so defeated because he wasn’t able to help her. He thought she was gone.”
The woman ultimately exited the house, and firefighters were able to save her dog.
“Sometimes we don’t know what the end result is, but because we have great district chiefs, they’ll call and let us know what happened,” Prickett said. “It’s always great to have closure and know when a call went well.”
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Public safety dispatchers are part of an elite team. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 98,300 police, fire and ambulance dispatch jobs in the U.S. in 2019. With a U.S. population of more than 328 million, that’s one public safety dispatcher per 3,336 people.
Making fast-paced decisions that help both the caller and firefighters heading to the scene can be tense, but that’s when teamwork comes into play.
“The longer you work with people, the more you know what their next move is so you can make your next move,” Prickett said. “We check in with one another. We communicate behind the scenes. … That common denominator is that we all want to help and provide the best service to the community.”
That team dynamic extends from the newest dispatcher all the way up to HFR Chief Howard McFarlen.
“He’s got a background in dispatch, so when we go to him with questions and concerns, he understands and wants to help,” Jean said. “That leadership and understanding from the administrative side isn’t something you often find, which is why we get dispatchers from other agencies.”
HFR is now taking applications for both firefighters and public safety dispatchers. Jean said he and the department’s certified training officers can work with anyone committed to the cause.
“We can’t train someone to show up on time or even early,” he said. “We can’t train if they’re unable to communicate or don’t have a good work ethic. If someone has a good attitude, we can work with them.”
Being able to put out multiple fires, literally and figuratively, is a big part of the job. Considering Huntsville’s explosive growth, there’s rarely a dull moment in the Madison County 911 Center.
“It’s good to know how to multitask; being able to listen to what’s going on in one ear while also maintaining whatever situation is happening in the background,” Jean said.
Prickett said the ideal dispatcher is one who shows compassion to the caller. It also doesn’t hurt to be driven and ambitious.
“You have to be able to maintain control when you’re talking to someone who’s not sure how a call will turn out,” she said. “You also have to stand your ground and guide the conversation while letting them know you’re doing everything for them as quickly as you can.”
Jean acknowledged the job isn’t for everyone because dispatchers work evenings, holidays and weekends. He and Prickett both say the benefits are worth it, however.
“There will always be a need for people to do what we do,” Prickett said. “A lot of people say public safety is a thankless type of work, but it’s really not. You feel accomplished at the end of each call when you know you’ve got the citizen some help. … I love this job.”
To learn more about the hiring process and complete your application, please visit joinhuntsvillefireandrescue.com. Candidates can also email recruiter Cory Green at Cory.Green@HuntsvilleAL.gov for more information or to ask questions.