California Occupational Guides

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Detailed Guide for

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers in California

May also be called: 911 Operators; Ambulance Dispatchers; Call Takers; Communications Dispatchers; Communications Officers; Communications Operators; Communications Specialists; Emergency Communications Dispatchers; Emergency Medical Dispatchers; Fire Dispatchers; Police Dispatchers; Public Safety Dispatchers; Telecommunicators

What Would I Do?

Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers, commonly called Public Safety Dispatchers or 911 Operators, take calls for police, fire, or ambulance assistance, and dispatch emergency personnel and vehicles. They log calls, track emergency vehicles, and prepare detailed reports of activities that occur during their shifts. Dispatchers have responsibility for all communications within a designated area.

Public Safety Dispatchers monitor the location of emergency services personnel from one or all of the jurisdiction’s emergency services departments. They dispatch the appropriate type and number of units in response to calls for assistance. Dispatchers often are the first people the public contacts when emergency assistance is required. If certified for emergency medical services, the Dispatcher may provide medical instruction to those on the scene of the emergency until the medical staff arrives.

Public Safety Dispatchers work in a variety of settings—a police station, a fire station, a hospital, or, increasingly, a centralized communications center shared by all. In some areas, one department serves as the communications center for many departments. In these situations, all emergency calls go to that department, where a Dispatcher answers and screens calls before transferring them to the appropriate service.

When handling calls, Dispatchers question each caller carefully to determine the type, seriousness, and location of the emergency. They post the obtained information electronically by computer, then quickly decide the priority of the incident, the kind and number of units needed, and the location of the closest and most suitable units available. When appropriate, Dispatchers must keep in close contact with other service providers—for example, a Police Dispatcher would monitor the response of the fire department when there is a major fire. In a medical emergency, Dispatchers must keep in contact with the dispatched units and the caller. They may give extensive first-aid instructions to the caller before the emergency personnel arrive. Dispatchers continuously give updates on the patient’s condition to the ambulance personnel and often serve as a link between the medical staff in a hospital and the emergency medical technicians in the ambulance.

Dispatchers use digital recording equipment, computers, multiline telephones, telecommunications devices, and two-way radios. They also use computer-aided dispatch software and a variety of law enforcement databases.

Important Tasks and Related Skills

Each task below is matched to a sample skill required to carry out the task.

View the skill definitions
TaskSkill Used in this Task
Question callers to determine their locations, and the nature of their problems to determine type of response needed.Active Listening
Receive incoming telephone or alarm system calls regarding emergency and non-emergency police and fire service, emergency ambulance service, information and after hours calls for departments within a city.Customer and Personal Service
Determine response requirements and relative priorities of situations, and dispatch units in accordance with established procedures.Critical Thinking
Record details of calls, dispatches, and messages.Written Expression
Enter, update, and retrieve information from teletype networks and computerized data systems regarding such things as wanted persons, stolen property, vehicle registration, and stolen vehicles.Telecommunications
Maintain access to, and security of, highly sensitive materials.Problem Sensitivity
Relay information and messages to and from emergency sites, to law enforcement agencies, and to all other individuals or groups requiring notification.Speaking
Scan status charts and computer screens, and contact emergency response field units to determine emergency units available for dispatch.Selective Attention
Provide emergency medical instructions to callers.Speech Clarity
Monitor alarm systems to detect emergencies such as fires and illegal entry into establishments.Monitoring
Source: U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Information Network (O*NET)

Working Conditions

Public Safety Dispatchers work in well-equipped offices and sit for long periods, using telephones, computers, and two-way radios. Much of their time is spent at video display terminals, viewing monitors and observing traffic patterns. As a result of working for long stretches with computers and other electronic equipment, Dispatchers can experience significant eyestrain and back discomfort.

Dispatcher work can be very stressful when many calls come in at the same time and because a slow or improper response can have dire consequences. Callers who are anxious or afraid may become excited and be unable to provide necessary information; some may even become abusive. Even under these circumstances, Dispatchers must remain calm, objective, and in control of the situation. Many work in teams, especially Dispatchers in large communications centers.

Generally, Dispatchers work a 40-hour week; however, rotating shifts, compressed work schedules, and overtime are common. Alternative work schedules are necessary to accommodate evening, weekend, and holiday work and around-the-clock operations.

Public Safety Dispatchers may belong to one of several unions, which vary by field or location. They may belong to a law enforcement, fire fighting, or electrical workers union, such as the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Service Employees International Union (SEIU), or Communications Workers of America (CWA). Some local areas in California have formed their own unions representing Dispatchers.

Will This Job Fit Me?

The job of Dispatcher may appeal to those who enjoy following set procedures and routines, working with data and details, and following a clear line of authority. Service-oriented individuals who value working for supportive management that stands behind employees should enjoy this type of job.

Communication skills and the ability to work under pressure are important personal qualities for Dispatchers. They must remain calm and tactful under challenging conditions, remembering detailed information and thinking clearly while performing several tasks at once. They also need to be dependable, have excellent hearing, and a willingness and initiative to take independent action.

What Wages and Benefits Can I Expect?

In addition to their regular earnings, Public Safety Dispatchers may also receive bilingual pay and shift differentials.


The median wage in 2020 for Public Safety Dispatchers in California is $67,601 annually, or $32.50 hourly. The median is the point at which half of the workers earn more and half earn less.

Change to Hourly Wages
Annual Wages for 2020Low
(25th percentile)
(50th percentile)
(75th percentile)
Source: EDD/LMID Occupational Employment Statistics Survey, 2020 Wages do not reflect self-employment.
View Wages for All Areas


Benefit packages for full-time Dispatchers typically include health, dental, vision, and life insurance as well as vacation and sick leave, holidays, and retirement plans. Dispatchers who work for State or municipal agencies may also be provided with uniforms.

What is the Job Outlook?

The growing and aging population will increase demand for emergency services and stimulate employment growth of Public Safety Dispatchers. Many districts are consolidating their communications centers into shared area-wide facilities. As the equipment becomes more complex, individuals with computer skills and experience will find greater opportunities for public safety dispatch work.

This is a relatively stable occupation and is unlikely to be affected by economic downturns.

Projections of Employment

In California, the number of Public Safety Dispatchers is expected to grow slower than average growth rate for all occupations. Jobs for Public Safety Dispatchers are expected to increase by 7.5 percent, or 500 jobs between 2016 and 2026.

Estimated Employment and Projected Growth
Public Safety Dispatchers
Geographic Area
(Estimated Year-Projected Year)
Source: EDD/LMID Projections of Employment by Occupation
View Projected Growth for All Areas

How Do I Qualify?

Education, Training, and Other Requirements

Public Safety Dispatchers who work for agencies participating in the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) must meet several statewide minimum standards for employment. These include fingerprint and Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) records checks; a passing score on a verbal, reasoning, memory, and perceptual abilities assessment (written examination); an oral communications skills evaluation (employment interview); background investigation; and medical examination. Local law enforcement departments or communications centers may have additional requirements. Most employers require the candidate be at least 18 years of age and possess a high school diploma or equivalent as well as a valid California driver license and proof of automobile liability insurance. Some agencies may also require a psychological screening examination and/or a typing test. Spanish bilingual skills are desirable in California.

Completion of the 120-hour POST-certified Public Safety Dispatchers' Basic Course is the entry-level training requirement for Public Safety Dispatchers employed by agencies participating in POST's Public Safety Dispatcher program. Some agencies will only hire those who have successfully completed the course, while others will hire individuals and then send them through the course. Public Safety Dispatchers must complete the Public Safety Dispatchers' Basic Course before or within 12 months of the date of appointment.

Early Career Planning

High school students interested in this kind of work should take computer technology, language arts, mathematics, electronics, social science, and a foreign language.

Work Study Programs

There may be Regional Occupational Programs (ROP) available for Public Safety Dispatchers in some locations in California. To find an ROP program near you, go to the California Association of Regional Occupational Centers and Programs Web site.

Continuing Education

Continuing education is required to maintain certification. POST-certified Public Safety Dispatchers are required to satisfactorily complete 24 or more hours of POST-qualifying continuing professional training (CPT) during every two-year CPT cycle.

Many Public Safety Dispatchers participate in structured training programs sponsored by their employer. Increasingly, they receive training in stress and crisis management as well as in family counseling. This training is useful in providing effective service to others, while assisting them in managing the stress involved in their work.


The Public Safety Dispatcher Certificate is awarded to current full-time Dispatcher employees of agencies that participate in the POST Public Safety Dispatcher program. Applicants must have been selected in accordance with the POST selection requirements and have satisfactorily completed the Public Safety Dispatchers' Basic Course and the agency's probationary period. Certificate requests are submitted by the Dispatcher's employing agency.

Meeting the POST requirements is sufficient for most California employers; however, some have additional requirements. There are certificate programs that provide training on computer-assisted dispatching, radio dispatching, stress management, and emergency medical training. The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) as well as the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) offer certification in emergency medical dispatch. The International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) offers Public Safety Dispatcher Level I and II certificates. Earning a voluntary certificate or completing additional training may help the candidate advance. For more information, go to the U.S. Department of Labor's Career InfoNet Web site and scroll down to "Career Tools." Click on "Certification Finder" and follow the instructions to locate certification programs.

Where Can I Find Training?

There are two ways to search for training information:

Contact the schools you are interested in to learn about the classes available, tuition and fees, and any prerequisite course work.

Where Would I Work?

Most Public Safety Dispatchers in California work primarily for local police, sheriff, and fire departments. More jobs tend to be found in urban areas where large communications centers are located. The largest industries employing Public Safety Dispatchers are as follows:

Industry TitlePercent of Total Employment for Occupation in California
Local Government65.5%
State Government12.9%
Other Ambulatory Health Care Services11.7%
Colleges and Universities5.4%
Source: EDD/LMID Staffing Patterns

Finding a Job

Direct application to employers remains one of the most effective job search methods. Positions with State and local agencies are filled through civil service examinations and are advertised in State, county, and city personnel offices and on agency Web sites. Job openings with law enforcement agencies participating in the California POST program are included in the job opportunities section of the POST Web site. Newspaper classified ads and job search Web sites may also provide job leads.  Online job opening systems include JobCentral at and CalJOBSSM at

To find your nearest One-Stop Career Center, go to Service Locator. View the helpful job search tips for more resources. (requires Adobe Reader).

Yellow Page Headings

You can focus your local job search by checking employers listed online or in your local telephone directory. Below are some suggested headings where you might find employers of Public Safety Dispatchers.

  • Ambulance Services
  • Emergency Care Facilities
  • Fire Departments
  • Government Offices
  • Police Departments

Find Possible Employers

To locate a list of employers in your area, go to "Find Employers" on the Labor Market Information Web site:

  • Select one of the top industries that employ the occupation. This will give you a list of employers in that industry in your area.
  • Click on "View Filter Selections" to limit your list to specific cities or employer size.
  • Click on an employer for the street address, telephone number, size of business, Web site, etc.
  • Contact the employer for possible employment.

Where Could This Job Lead?

Public Safety Dispatchers may become a shift or divisional supervisor or chief of communications. They may also move to higher paying administrative jobs. Some become police officers or fire fighters.

Related Occupations

Below is a list of occupations related to Public Safety Dispatchers with links to more information.

Air Traffic ControllersGuide
Bill and Account CollectorsGuide
Counter and Rental ClerksProfile
Credit Authorizers, Checkers, and ClerksProfile
Customer Service RepresentativesGuide
Dispatchers, Except Police, Fire, and AmbulanceProfile
Eligibility Interviewers, Government ProgramsProfile
Radio OperatorsProfile
Railroad Conductors and YardmastersProfile
Reservation and Transportation Ticket Agents and Travel ClerksProfile

Other Sources

These links are provided for your convenience and do not constitute an endorsement by EDD.

For the Career Professional

The following codes are provided to assist counselors, job placement workers, or other career professionals.

SOC - Standard Occupational Classification43-5031
O*NET - Occupational Information Network
   Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers43-5031.00
   Interest Codes (RIASEC)CRE