By Hal Collier, Retired LAPD
From Hal: Thonie, here’s part 1 on Dispatchers. I have another 1 or 2 parts to finish. I’d like a dispatcher’s point of view from the other side of the microphone. Are you game? –Hal
Why, yes. Yes, I am!–Thonie
Ok, I might be stepping on a landmine, but here goes my take on dispatchers or RTO’s (Radio Telephone Operators—This is what my first dispatcher title was when I started at San Rafael PD in 1975), later called PSR’s (Police Service Representatives). They were my lifeline. If I needed help, who do you think I called first? That’s right my RTO—no one could get me help faster. Once during a foot pursuit in the olden days (no radio on your hip) I ran through a parking lot behind a strip club as it was closing. I knew I had changed directions twice since my last broadcast. I asked a patron to call the police and tell them what direction I was going. I heard him say, “I thought they were the police.”
No, he didn’t call the police for us. This is why dispatchers do “status checks” after a designated period of time; depending on the call but usually about four minutes. After the mid-70’s my agencies had portable radios so it was easy to ask an officer who just checked out on a domestic if he was okay or needed more units. Traffic would be: “1L30, your status?”
A satisfactory answer would be, “Code 4,” which means, “sufficient units on scene.” An unsatisfactory answer would be, “Send me another unit,” or no answer at all. For the first, another unit would immediately be assigned, usually they’d volunteer. For the second, a two-man unit or two cars were sent to the physical address where the officer checked out. If we were lucky, the officer had his portable turned down and didn’t hear the status check. Sometimes, back-up units drove up on the officer fighting for his life. That’s why we do status checks.
Now some of our RTO’s were very good. As an example, you should hear the North Hollywood Bank Robbery broadcast. That had chaos written all over it, but some very seasoned RTO’s handled it as true professionals. Just imagine over twenty very excited cops yelling in the microphone at once.
I made it a point to be friendly to my RTO. I always said “Good Morning” when I cleared for my start of watch. I knew that the RTO had the ability to determine what kind of night I was going to have. Did I want to spend the night getting all the crappy calls or just my share?
Not all of my co-workers felt the same way. We had one Hollywood officer who hated the RTO’s and the feeling was mutual. Dispatchers cultivate the nuances in language, diction and mood of their officers. This isn’t taught in a book, but with any luck by a seasoned trainer who knows the voices of their team. Often, a dispatcher can pick up on stress before other units can. They knew him by voice and they could check the officers assigned to each patrol car by the computer when you logged on. He wondered why he got all the crappy calls! Duh.
Some cops could hear the RTO’s giggling and talking when there was an open microphone and they called it a knitting circle. I knew several dispatchers who knit. Knitting isn’t inherently funny. However, in down-time, especially after a busy night, dispatchers need the “pressure relief valve” that officers (and firefighters, and medics and corrections officers—it’s a standard in first responders) have. Think about this, that North Hollywood Bank Robbery call—what had the dispatcher been doing just before the officer called out the armed robbery? Doesn’t matter. Her reactions had to go from zero to sixty in warp speed to take care of business. She did a great job, by the way.
I knew that they had a hard job and I sometimes tried to give them a smile. Hal, this is usually very appreciated. Dispatchers are pleased to have a connection with their officers. Hopefully it’s pleasant and as in your case, funny. Often after finishing a radio call, the protocol was to say “clear.” I often said “transparent” just to see if they were listening to me.
Once, the RTO asked me to repeat my message three times before she got it. Dispatchers are usually sharper than that.
Part two, next Sunday