Missouri state training requirements for joint communications dispatchers fall far shorter than many other professions.
The state only requires 40 hours of training for a joint communications dispatcher and even less, just 16 hours, for fire and police dispatchers.
Compare that to a cosmetologist, which requires at least 1,500 hours of training to get a license. A barber is required to have at least 600 hours.
“It’s amazing, isn’t it,” said Columbia-Boone County Joint Communications Director Joe Piper. “
The hairstylist/cosmetologist/barber comparison is not exact because the state of Missouri does not issue licenses for joint communications dispatchers. But those dispatchers told ABC 17 News better standards need to be in place.
“I think standards need to exist,” said Piper. “If standards don’t exist, then people create their own and if you have no standards of care, you get people who do different things.”
In Columbia-Boone County, dispatch operators are required to have certifications for emergency fire dispatch, emergency police dispatch and emergency medical dispatch.
Across the country there is no standard for 911 dispatchers. According to the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, 21 states have no minimum training requirement for dispatchers.
“Still in the country as a whole it varies from state to state, county to county, pretty much across the board,” said Piper.
The training for those certifications is counted on top of the minimum telecommunicator training required by the state. It takes three days for each certification, and is run by groups like Priority Dispatch.
“We basically learned all the protocols to help our callers,” said Morgan County dispatcher Kelly Comstock. “We’re going to learn some techniques to keep callers calm and reassure them that we’re sending help.”
ABC 17 News was granted access to a three-day Priority Dispatch emergency medical dispatch training session at the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office in Versailles.
A trained paramedic leads the session, which includes the use of Medical Priority Dispatch System cards. Those cards are used to guide the dispatcher through questions for the caller and to provide pre-arrival instructions in an emergency.
Dispatchers in the training were divided into partners to do role-play modules using the MPDS cards, handling theoretical calls for child birth and a heart attack.
Most 911 centers, like Columbia-Boone County, use a computer system in place of the cards. It allows the call taker to input information into the system while dispatching crews and providing pre-arrival instructions.
“There’s absolutely no question on what to do because there’s protocols on everything and I think that gives the callers confidence because there’s no question that there’s not an answer to,” Comstock said.
Columbia-Boone County Joint Communication is currently training eight new dispatchers and has hired five more that haven’t started training as of Thursday.
Prospective dispatchers were required to have a high school education or equivalent and have to pass an electronic test that checks for multitasking ability and memory recall. Then the applicants have a board interview, drug test, and background check.
Piper said 65 to 70 percent of applicants who take the CritiCall computer test are disqualified because of their scores.
The new hires in Columbia-Boone County can expect six to seven weeks of classroom training and even longer on-the-job training, which brings the required hours of training much higher than the state minimum of 40.
“In Joe’s perfect world, every communication center, every 911 center in the country would have a basic standard level of training,” Piper said. “But it’s not Joe’s perfect world and we can only control the things under our realm.”
About one dozen Missouri counties do not even have dedicated 911 centers.