5 Steps to Becoming an Emergency Medical Dispatcher

Research what it takes to become an emergency medical dispatcher. Learn about the necessary skills, training, certification, and salary potential to find out if this is the career for you. Schools offering Fire & Emergency Services degrees can also be found in these popular choices.

What Does an Emergency Medical Dispatcher Do?

Emergency medical dispatchers are intermediaries between emergency callers and first responders. These professionals typically answer calls placed to emergency response phone numbers such as 911. They collect information from distressed individuals and may provide limited support and instructional assistance to callers. Dispatchers will also classify calls as emergency or non-emergency and relay information to relevant personnel, such as ambulance units. Because a dispatcher may be communicating with individuals in the midst of high-stress situations, a calm, rational and proactive problem-solving mentality is key. Further, the dispatcher will often input information into databases, which requires solid computing skills.

The following table provides detailed information for this career:

Education Required High school diploma or GED
Training Required Emergency medical dispatcher training course
Key Skills Communication, organization, multi-tasking
Certification CPR certification, voluntary EMD certification from the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch
Job Growth (2014-2024) -3% for all police, fire and ambulance dispatchers*
Median Salary (2015) $38,010 for all police, fire and ambulance dispatchers*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Is an Emergency Medical Dispatcher?

An emergency medical dispatcher (EMD) is a communications specialist who processes calls from the public requesting immediate medical assistance. Your primary responsibilities are to answer calls, obtain a caller's location and the nature of their emergency, determine the severity of their need and send appropriate response. You may also be tasked with instructing a caller on first aid. As an EMD, you'll need to speak and write clearly, organize multiple tasks and remain calm when engaging people who are distraught or in panic.

Step 1: Earn a High School Diploma

At least a high school diploma or equivalent is needed to work as a medical dispatcher. According to O*Net OnLine, about 75% of police, fire and ambulance dispatchers have only a high school diploma (www.onetonline.org). Courses in math and English can develop some of the basic skills you'll need as an EMD.

Step 2: Get Training

Several community colleges and vocational schools offer training courses for emergency medical dispatchers modeled after protocols set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's EMD curriculum. You'll learn how to handle calls, prioritize needs and give instructions to callers. You'll also study anatomy and physiology, stress management, resource allocation and quality assurance. These courses may be completed in a week. Employers may also require you to become CPR certified, which is available at your local chapter of the American Red Cross.

Step 3: Seek Employment

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), there were 102,000 individuals who held jobs as police, fire and ambulance dispatchers in 2014 (www.bls.gov). Over the 2014-2024 decade, employment of these workers was projected to decrease by about three percent due to consolidation and technology advances, the BLS noted.

Local governments are the primary employer of dispatchers, but you may be able to find positions with ambulatory health care services, state governments and hospitals. The BLS reported that emergency medical dispatchers earned a median annual salary of $38,010 as of May 2015.

Step 4: Attain Certification

Certification is voluntary but could improve your career prospects. You can obtain certification from the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch by completing their EMD certification course and passing the certification exam. The exam consists of 50 questions and requires a score of 80% or better.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

You have several opportunities for advancement, especially in a large emergency medical services system. You could become a trainer or supervisor of EMDs, or a dispatch center manager. If you work in a small system you could seek a position in a large system. Or, you could consider a lateral move into police or fire dispatch.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

Individuals seeking a more hands-on role in assisting distressed individuals may choose to pursue careers as police officers, firefighters or EMTs. These careers generally require some form of postsecondary training, whether through a police or fire academy training program or an emergency medical services degree or certificate.

While not in the emergency services sector, a similar career that heavily emphasizes assisting people over the phone is that of a call center representative. These professionals provide customer service and can qualify for employment with a high school diploma.

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