Smiling dispatcher with a headset on

From EMT to Emergency Dispatcher: EMT Career Guide

How to Become an Emergency Dispatcher: An In-Depth look at the Responsibilities, Requirements, Certifications, Job Outlook, and Salary

Smiling dispatcher with a headset on

Before an EMT or a paramedic can respond to a scene, an important step must first occur: someone must call in the emergency, and an Emergency Dispatcher is a person whose vital job is to take that call.

Emergency Dispatchers play a pivotal role in the emergency response system. Their responsibility is to communicate with people during emergencies (and lesser situations as well), many of whom may be panicked or hysterical, obtain the necessary and sometimes complicated information, and dispatch the appropriate first responders.

For many EMTs and paramedics, a career as a dispatcher can be an excellent alternative. The experience EMTs and paramedics gain in the field gives them the ideal perspective when receiving calls and relaying information as they’ve been on the other end. Also, their ability to react calmly and rationally during high-stress emergencies is a key attribute of a successful dispatcher.

 (See our list of alternative jobs for EMTs and paramedics)                

Emergency Dispatcher Duties & Responsibilities

What Does an Emergency Dispatcher Do?

The primary job of an emergency dispatcher is “communications triage”—an essential process of collecting facts from emergency reports, assessing the most vital information, and relaying that information clearly and accurately to EMTs, firefighters, or police.

Typical responsibilities for Emergency Dispatchers include:

  • Answering 9-1-1 calls and security alerts
  • Determining the appropriate response based on types of emergencies
  • Relaying information to first responders
  • Coordinating first responder dispatches
  • Providing basic medical instructions over the phone
  • Monitoring and tracking the status of first responders
  • Keeping detailed records of phone calls
  • Coordinating responses across multiple departments and organizations

Emergency Dispatcher Job Description

What Is a Typical Day for an Emergency Dispatcher?

Unlike EMTs and paramedics who spend their time hands-on in the field, emergency dispatchers spend most of their shift at a desk, surrounded by computer monitors, while wearing a communications headset. Shifts are worked at this desk (with appropriate break times in between) as all the tools for answering and responding to calls are provided at their fingertips.

Facilities housing dispatcher headquarters can vary from city to city. Some look like air traffic control centers—with screens and flashing lights. Others may look like a typical office. Emergency dispatchers can also work in police precincts, fire stations, or hospitals, where their jobs vary only slightly.

Because of the importance and urgent nature of their work, a dispatcher’s work environment must remain clean, calm, and quiet at all times—the last thing dispatchers need is to be distracted by a mess or a loud conversation.

Emergency Dispatcher Hours

Emergency dispatchers typically work 8- to 12-hour shifts, but because emergencies can happen at any time, communication centers remain staffed and operative 24 hours a day. As a result, some shifts may include overnight, weekend, or holiday hours.

Police dispatcher with a headset on

Emergency Dispatcher Requirements

How to Become an Emergency Dispatcher

A benefit of transitioning from EMT to emergency dispatcher is how easy it is to do so. While exact requirements will vary by region, most states require nothing more than a high school diploma and the completion of a specific training course. Some states may also require a certification and typing examination.

Some states require emergency dispatchers to pass the Emergency Medical Dispatcher (EMD) exam, which officially qualifies you to provide medical advice over the phone. Try this handy quiz to brush up on your knowledge for the EMD exam.

Working as an Emergency Dispatcher Might Be a Good Fit for You If:

  • You are calm under pressure
  • You’re good at multitasking
  • You have thick skin (anxious or frightened callers can lash out verbally)
  • You can think quickly in high-pressure situations
  • You enjoy coordinating groups
  • You enjoy talking on the phone
  • You have an outgoing or conversational personality

Emergency Dispatcher Education

What Training Is Required to Become an Emergency Dispatcher?

EMTs or paramedics do not need specialized degrees to apply to become Emergency Dispatchers. However, a high school diploma is required, and some states also require that dispatchers complete EMD certification—including the previously mentioned EMD exam.

You’ll find that many states also require emergency dispatchers to receive a predetermined number of hours of on-the-job training before answering calls on their own. This ensures that dispatchers are comfortable and familiar with their job expectations and equipment before responding to live emergencies.

Some states may even require dispatchers to be certified in CPR as a practical measure to help them talk through the procedure with actual emergency callers.

How Long Does It Take to Be an Emergency Dispatcher?

On average, the states requiring on-the-job training for future emergency dispatchers ask for 40 hours. In addition, some states require continuing education every two to three years to stay current on techniques and issues. However, as you research where you want to live and work, you’ll find that many states and municipalities have unique training requirements. This helpful page from the IAED will give you a good overview of standards and certification.

Emergency Dispatcher Certification

For states that require the Emergency Medical Dispatcher certification exam, applicants can register for the training course and exam at the International Academies of Emergency Dispatch website here.

Registration includes an 8-hour training course, training manual, and the EMD exam. Your certification is valid for two years after passing the exam.

Emergency Dispatcher Required Skills

Besides the educational and certification requirements, successful emergency dispatchers typically exhibit the following skills:

  • Patience – One essential trait of an emergency dispatcher is the ability to remain calm and patient when speaking with people who may be frightened or upset.
  • Focus – Emergency dispatchers must be able to focus on multiple inputs at once, including their caller, emergency professionals, and procedures, often simultaneously.
  • Medical Knowledge – Knowledge of emergency medical techniques is essential to success, and emergency dispatchers must often be able to walk callers through basic emergency medical procedures during the initial stages of an emergency.
  • Communication – Dispatchers must be able to switch gears quickly and communicate with multiple sources based on their communications with callers, first responders, coordinators, and supervisors.
  • Organization – Dispatchers must be able to prioritize their most critical (or time-sensitive) emergencies by collecting vital information as fast and accurately as possible.

Laptop draped with a stethoscope

From EMT to Emergency Dispatcher

How Will My EMT Experience Help Me Become an Emergency Dispatcher?

Having EMT or paramedic experience can be the perfect asset for becoming an emergency dispatcher. Firsthand knowledge of emergency medical procedures combined with valuable field experience can be helpful and advantageous to your career. Other benefits of your experience include:

  • Shift Experience – Dispatchers work similar shifts to EMTs and paramedics, sometimes including 12-hour shifts, overnights, and weekends.
  • Proof of Performance – EMTs and paramedics have proven experience (and success) in handling stressful emergencies.
  • Patient Care – Treating patients in the field as an EMT helps create a better understanding of how to communicate with patients over the phone as a dispatcher.
  • Communication – Emergency dispatchers with EMT experience know how to communicate effectively, using varying medical terminology combined with human understanding, when interacting with patients.
  • Organizational Skills – EMTs and paramedics have experience collecting patient information and triaging during emergencies.
  • Strong Stomach – EMTs and paramedics have proven experience dealing with medical emergencies. If they can handle injuries and illnesses in the field, they will usually have no trouble dealing with them over the phone.

Emergency Dispatcher Salary

How Much Does an Emergency Dispatcher Make?

In 2021, emergency dispatchers earned an average of $47,000 per year (or $23 per hour), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, your experience, education, industry, and location affect your pay.

Highest Paid Industries for Emergency Dispatchers

Here is a list of occupational settings where emergency dispatchers can work, ranked in order of average salary:

Industry Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
State government $24.94 $51,870
Local government $22.96 $47,750
Colleges & universities $20.54 $42,720
Medical & surgical hospitals $19.98 $41,560
Ambulance services $18.42 $38,310

Highest Paying States for Emergency Dispatchers

Of course, location is another factor that can significantly influence your emergency dispatcher’s salary. These are the highest-paying states for EMDS:

State Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
California $34.05 $70,820
Washington $30.69 $63,840
Oregon $28.49 $59,250
Minnesota $28.38 $59,040
Connecticut $28.18 $58,620

Highest Paying Cities for Emergency Dispatchers

Here are the highest-paying cities for EMDS:

City Average Hourly Wage Average Salary
San Jose, CA $46.82 $97,380
San Francisco, CA $44.61 $92,790
Oxnard, CA $36.99 $76,950
Santa Maria, CA $35.94 $74,740
Santa Cruz, CA $35.52 $73,870
San Luis Obispo, CA $35.47 $73,770
Santa Rosa, CA $34.77 $72,330
Stockton, CA $34.67 $72,120
Los Angeles, CA $34.09 $70,910
Seattle, WA $34.06 $70,840

Close up of desk with red telephone

Beginning Your Career as an Emergency Dispatcher

Becoming an emergency dispatcher is a natural step for many EMTs and paramedics.

If you want to gain valuable real-world experience before becoming an Emergency Dispatcher, training for EMT certification is an excellent place to start.

Emergency medical services are an excellent way to start a career in healthcare. It’s a great stepping stone to numerous other jobs in and around the healthcare industry. Employers for Emergency Dispatchers and EMTs always need hard-working, competent, and dedicated employees for their teams. If this sounds like you, then now is an excellent time to start working towards your future career.