911 Dispatcher & Air Traffic Control – Professions of Honor, Professions of Criticism

This comparison of 2 different professions with so many negative similarities may ask more questions than it does reveal answers but they need to be asked. How is it that we are protected on a daily basis by the actions of 911 Dispatchers and Air Traffic Controllers(ATC) but we still want to criticize when a situation doesn’t turn out the way we would like it to have? Why is it that we only hear the flaws and errors in reference to these 2 professions in an imperfect world, but the countless times the folks that sit behind the headsets are not congratulated for the hard work and the service they provide? Do we do enough as citizens to lift up and support those that sit behind the headsets 365 days a year to keep us safe? Just think for a moment about a world without the skilled and brave that serve in these 2 capacities. It is very scary to even entertain that thought.

You may say that I am biased having sat behind the headset as a 911 Dispatcher for 5 great years of my life, but that is far from the truth. Because, you see, I do not believe that the dispatchers or the controllers are without flaw. It happens, everyone is capable of making mistakes. Does it happen that the mistakes made by employees in either capacity can be at the worst possible time, yes. However, the reason that is true isn’t coincidence. It is that these people face crisis every day of their lives. They face “close calls” each and every day. When a police officer is requiring backup in an emergency situation, who is it that coordinates and sends that assistance. It is the dispatcher. Now let me also tell you that there may be several other emergencies requiring assistance from that dispatcher at the same time. Citizens and the media are not always aware of that, but it needs to be understood. When a health and physical education teacher calls after their father suffers a heart attack and is not breathing and ironically cannot remember CPR, it is the 911 Dispatcher that is able to calmly talk the frantic into a situation to provide the best possible care until arrival of emergency responders. Sounds extreme, but I can tell you from first hand experience it happens. It is not until after the call, or after the shift that the dispatcher has to grapple with the emotions of another tough day from a world that demands so much. 911 Dispatchers and Communication Centers as a whole are constantly in the news. It is uncommon to go a month without hearing a story about something that went wrong in our emergency system that we demand so much from. However far less common are the stories about heroism and professionalism in the face of intense pressure and crisis. We do a great job as citizens of recognizing National Telecommunicator Week each year and we watch local news stories spotlighting the dispatcher career. Thank God that we have that week each year to honor the men and women behind the headset. However is that enough? Do we do enough to ensure that these men and women get the support that they deserve? I am of the opinion that we do not. There should be far more stories of honor and professionalism in the media. In many respects the profession is viewed as a thankless one. We owe it to those that serve and protect us.

In respect to Air Traffic Control we see much the same thing. We hear regular criticism in the media of problems and errors that are encountered because of an error by an overworked controller. Rarely do we hear the stories of the potentially fatal accidents that are avoided because of the skill and quick reaction time of the Air Traffic Controller. Controllers routinely are faced with an airspace that is filled with aircraft. Each going a different speed, a different altitude, and a different direction. The professionalism and skill of the Controllers enable them to handle these situations rather easily and without any problems. Some would say that they silently perform their tasks. However what isn’t silent is the media’s criticism of them when things do not go as planned. I recently read a Washington Post article that talked about the disaser of the Trooper 2 medevac with the Maryland State Police. This was a terrible tragedy. The events as they were detailed in the article is that the weather that fateful night was very bad. It made for tremendously difficult flying conditions. As the aircraft took off from the accident scene with the patient on board they realized that they were not going to be able to make it in to the hospital as planned. They then were forced to divert and attempt to land at their hangar at Andrews Air Force Base. Typically medevacs fly in VFR conditions. This means they are able to fly by sight and not require ATC assistance in navigation. They are alerted of potential targets, or other aircraft that may pose conflicts in their route, and instructed how to avoid them. This particular night upon arrival at the airport Trooper 2 requested assistance in landing. The lone controller in the tower that night had not been trained in how to properly instruct the aircraft in landing. Trooper 2 ended up disappearing from radar and crashing in a heavily wooded area. This scenario is certainly one that should be examined. During the course of the night there were several areas that, if we were able to turn back the clock, could have gone differently. There are many teaching opportunities to improve our ATC system, and improve the overall safety of our airways. It is my belief that we should learn from the overall scenario, and not focus on the individual errors without offering anything to improve the situation and avert future tragedies. What I am asking is for a more understanding society. One that lifts up instead of tearing down. There are far more positives and acts of heroism than errors and tragedy.

Where do we go from here? How do we, as a society, learn to be more understanding? We as readers and viewers of media outlets tend to place blame and expose areas of weakness in both 911 Dispatching and Air Traffic Control. It is my belief that the main reason for that is because so many people depend on the services provided by men and women in both of these professions. They truly are taken for granted. Unconsciously we get up each morning and go about our day hoping that we are able to safely navigate our day. In the unfortunate circumstance of an emergency situation arising, we just know we can call 911 and someone will be on the other side of the phone to handle our problem without flaw. In a majority of the scenarios that is exactly what happens. That doesn’t mean that the dispatcher is perfect and the system will never fail our situation. It happens. Does it make it any more understandable to the victim of the unfortunate circumstance? Could someone have done something to make our emergency crisis turn out in a more positive manner, possibly yes, but possibly not. That said, there are situations that happen that are tragic, but what they do is provide a learning experience for those involved to improve the overall performance of our system. 911 is better for it. We are better for it. We board an airplane without really thinking about the Air Traffic Controller. We just take it for granted that there will be someone there to guide the plane around potential hazards and most of the time they do. However there are the rare circumstance that the system fails our circumstance and it doesn’t happen. It is very tragic and normally has fatal consequences. The FAA can use these tragic circumstances to learn and teach Controllers to improve the system and result in our airways being safer. I believe that is exactly what happens. But we are unconsciously trained to point blame at a particular agency, or a particular controller because of an error that may have been out of their control in the first place. I am in no way looking for excuses to these unfortunate circumstances. However, I do believe that we do not get up on a particular day without risk and chance. Our lives are in the hands of people that we meet and depend on every day. I just ask that we be understanding and not add to the stress that the professionals in each of these 2 professions face. They are under intense scrutiny and pressure. By being critical and not adding anything positive to an already difficult situation is not constructive. In fact it hinders the effectiveness of our systems in which we place our lives. It is my hope that we are able to make a conscious effort to understand these 2 professions, and celebrate the heroism and success of those that have decided to serve us, and protect us in such an honorable way.

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4 Responses

  1. Thanks Lee. You hit it right on the nail!

  2. Agreed Lee, great post. It is true that we as a society look for the negatives in people and situations more than positives for sure. It happens every day in every working environment. It’s the nature of the “”pure competitive capitalist, take what you can get when you can get it and take down any of your fellow employees if you have to”” attitude.

    ahhh, I don’t know how that ties into your post but I do agree that yes, we tend to point out negatives in people far more than positives.

  3. You’re right, we do take these people for granted.

  4. Unfortunately that tends to be the news in general, on any subject they focus on the negative instead of the positive. Same with cops. You hear about all the bad ones instead of the good they do every day. There are a lot of flaws in many dispatch centers though, but I think that has more to do with budget issues and computer systems than human error (specifically the outdated systems that can’t trace cell phone locations). SOO many people nowadays don’t have landlines and they are clueless to the fact that their 911 system may not find them if they are calling from a cell.

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