911 operators deal with high stress, low pay

The response of the emergency dispatcher who took the call in the Cleveland kidnapping case is bringing scrutiny to a critical job.

By Jonathan Berr May 9, 2013 3:51PM
911 police dispatcher in Broomfield, Colorado (© Jim West/Alamy)Officials in Cleveland are reviewing the conduct of the 911 operator who handled the call from kidnapping victim Amanda Berry for displaying what they considered to be a "lack of empathy," according to The Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The dispatcher's behavior has been lambasted on social media. "Is it just me or does the dispatcher have all the empathy of a brick?" one Twitter user asked.

Even the city's public safety director, Martin Flask, told the newspaper that the operator, a four-year veteran, didn't take the call from neighbor Charles Ramsey seriously and failed to remain on the line with Berry until police arrived.

The criticism is calling attention to and raising questions about the role of 911 operators, who do a critical and highly stressful job that doesn't pay nearly enough for the work involved. Their median annual salary is $35,370, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some studies have shown the job takes a psychological toll on emergency dispatchers, putting them at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder.

"This is a population of people who are routinely exposed to events that should be considered traumatic," Michelle Lilly, a psychology professor at Northern Illinois University, told ABC News last year.

It clearly isn't a job for everybody. Operators can work 12-hour shifts. They also face high levels of scrutiny for every action. Some, though, clearly find the job rewarding.

"I have to endure this feeling of helplessness every day I swipe my badge in for work, and my goal for each day at work is to go home with the feeling that I helped save a life," 911 operator Mike Williams wrote in a 2010 AOL Jobs article.

Berry and fellow kidnapping victim Gina DeJesus were greeted with thunderous ovations from their families Wednesday. Michelle Knight, another victim, is still in the hospital. 

Former school bus driver Ariel Castro, who allegedly kept them captive in his house, has been charged with kidnapping and rape. His bail has been set at $8 million.

Follow Jonathan Berr on Twitter @jdberr

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May 9, 2013 7:07PM
Here's the deal. I am a 911 dispatcher and post traumatic stress disorder is a very real part of the community. Imagine going from handling a multi-car accident with people screaming for help to a baby not breathing medical aid call in which your trying to give verbal instructions over phone to save them, to someone's house on fire with someone still inside to a call with noises outside their window and someone might be breaking in. Now imagine all that happening in the first hour you work. Mediocre pay at best, long hours and every now and then you get a happy ending to the person you was on the phone with. It's a hard life with only few that can handle it. Respect the people that answer those phones because god forbid, some day you may need them.
May 9, 2013 6:10PM
I didn't think anything was wrong with this 911 dispatcher. The dispatcher never got excited which I think is good under a call like this. The dispatcher doesn't get emotional which I would expect them not to. If the dispatcher is supposed to stay on the phone until police arrive then I would say they're guilty of that.
May 9, 2013 6:01PM
The dispatcher did an excellent job. Everyone forgets that it took the officers 90 seconds to get to location and rescue the girls. Dispatcher sent them there quickly.
May 9, 2013 6:15PM

We should be careful how we talk down on 911 dispatchers because their job is very stressful.

Ask your self if you could do what they do or could you be better.

I have always said that any job dealing with people is stressful because there are so many nuts

playing games on the phone.

They need to change from 12-hour shifts to 8-hours a shift and hire more people to take less stress off those 12-hour shifts.

May 9, 2013 8:55PM
I also am a 911 dispatcher.  In my call center, I take the 911 call, and then am also the person that needs to dispatch it to an officer.  Staying on the line is, of course, the best option, but sometimes it just isn't possible.  For example, what if i have gathered information and can determine that this person is not in imminent danger, but i have three 911 calls coming in to the call center that i can't answer because I am on the line with someone I know is relatively safe?  Do I let those phone calls go unanswered at the risk of someone else's life?  Do I let a baby keep choking because i can't hang up?  We are people, and on a personal level your calls often strike a chord with us, but when we have our headset on, we have a job to do, and sometimes that means hanging up the phone and going to the next call.
May 9, 2013 8:47PM

How many calls were coming in at this time? Did the operator determine where she actually was calling from? Did he ascertain that Ms. Berry was as safe as he could make her until uniform cars and officers arrived? From what I heard, he did what he could. I'm certain she was scared and a bit hysterical under the circumstances, you can hear that excitement in her voice. If she was in deadly peril, he should have stayed online with her; it no longer seemed to me that she was, and was in the "protective custody" of a compassionate, caring neighbor.  Essentially; you're safe now, wait until the officers arrive. I suspect the department did not have "transmat beams" to move any faster.

May 9, 2013 8:29PM
...sounds like overworked and under paid...

May 9, 2013 8:31PM

“The criticism is calling attention to and raising questions about the role of 911 operators, who do a critical and highly stressful job that doesn't pay nearly enough for the work involved. Their median annual salary is $35,370, according to data from the .

It clearly isn't a job for everybody. Operators can work 12-hour shifts. They also face high levels of scrutiny for every action. Some, though, clearly find the job rewarding.

"I have to endure this feeling of helplessness every day I swipe my badge in for work, and my goal for each day at work is to go home with the feeling that I helped save a life," 911 operator Mike Williams wrote in a 2010 article.”


Really, sounds like the same things teachers go through every day.  Isn’t teaching a job that is high stress, low pay.  A job that is not for everyone, 12 hour days, high levels of scrutiny but some find it rewarding.  Yet the same end result, feeling like you helped save a life.

May 9, 2013 10:13PM
I have been a 911 dispatcher for 18 years.  I think the public sometimes is too critical of recordings they hear without understanding everything that is happening during that phone call.  Do 911 operators make mistakes? Yes, we are human and unfortunately, even with all the training in the world, mistakes can happen.  I have had to put callers on hold that thought they had an intruder in their home to answer another 911 call of an accident with injuries, and then to answer another 911 call where someone wanted to report a dog barking.  Every call has to be answered and prioritized.  Sometimes, emotion has to be put on the back burner.  We try to empathize with our callers, but sometimes, just getting the job done has to take priority.  I started out in this job making minimum wage with no benefits, but got job satisfaction from knowing I was helping people.  Now, I make above the national average with benefits, but no longer am satisfied with my job and know it is time to move on due to the amount of stress 18 years of this job have put on my life.  If everyone goes home alive at the end of my shift, it's been a good day.
May 9, 2013 8:43PM

Just a few years back, there was no 911, I'm sure it is a stressful job..!!

I used to work on their systems years ago..


You people that call them are expecting too much sometimes, you have forgotten how to take care of yourselves in many ways....And are too dependent on outside forces that can have glitches..

People that call them with stupid questions, should be put in jail...That's not 911's purpose.


Years ago, callers would call operators and ask to be connected to police or call for help.

Or try and dial Local police depts. for certain help...Now you all have cell phones, very few operators(none local).  911 systems that can't always tell where you are or some dead spots...?

This is what you wanted, that is what you got....NOW LIVE WITH IT..

May 9, 2013 8:58PM

The original concept of 911, was to Centralize a call-in Center for sending help of Fireman or Police officials, maybe now PSOs.. In a timely manner.


To be manned by multiple personell 24/7/365...Their jobs were to dispatch, help needed to a specific scene or Locale....Local, Sheriff or State Police or Fire Authorities.


Their job was take calls and properly dispatch or guide Authorities to a place...Nothing Else.

Some have went above and beyond, that's fine.

But still many expect them to do much more, that was not their original job.. Or the Plan.

I would not want their Job...Period.   Money wouldn't matter. 

May 12, 2013 10:38PM
Just wait until we have our 911 outsourced to India then you will see how good this call is!
May 10, 2013 8:40AM
Every time a government employee is shown to be rude and indifferent, there is a flood of response defending the government employee. My experience is that there are plenty of rude and indifferent government employees. Some may be underpaid. Very few are overworked. It is up to those in the public sector to create a standard that will lead to a higher degree of respect. Demanding respect will not work. Earning respect is a better approach. And now the Cleveland cops are putting out drivel about how hard they searched for these young women.
May 9, 2013 10:29PM
In a nanny state like Ohio are you sure they are not making $100,000 a year they are union are they not.  So if they are not capable of doing there job you have to keep them.  She was doing ok till she said she would (send police as soon as they had a car free) what the hell is this? She said she was kidnapped an just escaped an needed police before he got back. So what we will see if we can get someone there but maybe a hour or so or what?  Does she not understand the girl is frantic and she was Kidnapped and just escaped?  Any way $35,370 if that is what she was making is not a bad pay for sitting on your butt and answering the phone, understand it can get stressful at time but not bad pay.
I have nothing but respect for 911 Operators and the work they do. That said this woman dropped the ball. 'Talk to the Police and I'll send the next open car were not appropriate responses to a woman telling you she has been held for years and just escaped her kidnapper. 911 Operator held me together when my Mom died in my living room and when my tiny Grandson had a seizure in my arms. This Operator needs more training.
May 9, 2013 9:22PM

Unbelievable, how much money do people need to do right of for their job right, you don't like you quit, has the dispatcher become desensitized from reality? his /her job is to HELP provide a sense of security and hope for those in a moment of "Real Stress".... Charles Ramsey did not do it for money and no one is saying anything other the truth. Today's job market is all composed of high stress and low pay. What does dispatcher expect from a girl submitted to inhuman abuse for 10 years, finally her one chance to freedom and the other side doesn't have any compassion, "when a car is open" what kind of an answer is that in a emergency call?


There is no excuse can you only imagine

May 9, 2013 4:10PM

I watched a news segment on 911 dispatchers about 2 years ago after someone died when the dispatcher didn't send the required help.  The segment revealed that depending on where you live, a 911 dispatcher could be no more competent than a fish when answering the phone.  While some dispatchers show a clear understanding of the emergency i.e. providing clear instructions for safety, assuring the victim help is coming, others are like "Why are you bothering me right now?"


I'm not saying that a 911 dispatcher don't get  pointless and unnecessary calls (like the people who dial 911 because their fast food didn't arrive in 5 minutes), but it does go to show that this is one more system in our country that's not functioning like it should.

May 9, 2013 8:24PM
$35k a year is low pay? Plus they get a pension after only ten years of work. I wish I made that much with a pension!
May 9, 2013 9:34PM
the attempt to portray a 'median' annual salary of $35K per year as 'low pay' doesn't fly, I think you left out the medical benefit plans, retirement, overtime, etc. in an effort to cast the 911 operators as some sort of higher calling somewhat akin to say, air traffic controllers or perhaps brain surgeons... or, maybe  you just think the gum'mint ought to pay all 'workers' the same pay, I think the dumbocrats are already heading in that direction led by Commissar Barry...  I think any 911 operator still has the ability to stand up and walk out of that PTSD inducing job, I'm sure someone, somewhere, will recognize their true talents and pay them according to their own perceived value scale, life's a beatch 'working for the man', then you die... grow up
May 9, 2013 8:34PM
$35,743 Per year is a ton of money in Cleveland. Jesus Christ. Fire their a$$es and replace them with someone who wants to do a competant job. Sure, just give em a raise and that will make them better... Yeah right., Already paying them plenty and they will receive a multi million dollar retirement (Cost of an annuity to pay out 80% income for life with a 3% annual raise based on retirement at 55 years of age (must be nice)) and with an 85 year life expectancy) as well. Give me a break.
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