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From The Chair: Semantics Makes All the Difference

Author: Paul D. Bagley

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-05-17
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Often it seems as though how we say something conveys more information than what we actually say; and, of course, vice versa.  Nowhere is this truer than in the profession of emergency telecommunications.  In addition to everything else that dispatchers must do in their daily routine, today they must be diplomats, and true diplomacy requires a new paradigm regarding language skills.  Brokering truces between embattled family members, arbitrating between the recipient of a parking ticket and the rookie cop who issued it, or simply giving a chief officer the raw truth about a situation in the field without sugar-coating it for easy consumption are all examples.  Selecting the appropriate words and using the proper intonation can often mean the difference between a simple and peaceful resolution to an incident or all out mayhem.  Since it appears that high-level semantics is swiftly evolving into an essential tool of our trade, where do dispatchers go to develop and hone this important skill?

Well, it might sound oversimplified, but the most likely tool to expand or enhance one’s vocabulary is a dictionary.  A dictionary is the owner’s manual for any language.  It not only contains all the words of that language properly-spelled, it provides detailed explanations on how those words can be strung together to form sentences and paragraphs that can represent ideas and concepts.  All of the rules of the road are provided along with a surprising number of clues as to how one can express things more eloquently.

Let’s assume that you can’t afford to purchase a dictionary for yourself; a reasonable assumption given the average compensation of an emergency dispatcher.  Most, if not all, libraries have dictionaries available for public use, and even the internet offers a number of free sites where surfing the web can beget sound results.  Merriam-Webster, long-considered a leader in American English dictionaries, offers a free site on line at: .  Not only is this site a comprehensive dictionary and thesaurus (no, that’s not a first-cousin to a brontosaurus), it contains a medical dictionary tab, a Spanish-to-English tab, and a tab that will hook you up to the Encyclopædia Britannica; not bad for free.

While there are other useful dictionary sites on the web, I would recommend avoiding those that allow users to redefine words and terms, such as Wikipedia.  Although this kind of site might be somewhat useful in acquiring an understanding of the vernacular, the ability for anyone to alter definitions can have the effect of obscuring or even completely altering reality; not at all what you’re looking for when seeking precision of expression.

Okay, you’ve got a dictionary that contains within its pages all of the properly-spelled words of every book, every paper, report and letter ever written in that language.  It’s a dictionary with which you are comfortable; or as comfortable as you can get with any book.  Where do you go from here?

You can start by listening to other people talk.  Don’t just listen to the words they say, listen to how they say them.  Consider the words they chose to convey their thoughts.  Listen to the tone and timber of their voice as they speak those words.  Assess in your mind whether or not what they are saying could be better said, either by uttering different words or by employing different intonations.  Would it have been better had they more fully-explained themselves, or would an economy of words presented their case more succinctly? 

Listen to yourself.  If you have call-check or digital recording medium that allows you to review your calls, spin the tapes and listen to yourself.  The tone of your voice is quite often a key determinant in how your words are perceived.  One of the most useful tools for maintaining dispatcher attitude is the ability to hear your own voice over your headset.  This is a common practice in commercial radio; it allows the announcer to hear how they sound and adjust their tone and pitch accordingly.  This capability is even more critical in an emergency communication environment where dispatcher attitude conveyed by voice to a caller or a unit in the field can make the critical difference in the evolution of the call.

For those who don’t possess the technological advancement of digital logging, or who lack call-check or tape recording on their telephone lines or radio channels, there is the age-old 1930s radio announcer technique of cupping your palm over your ear as you speak in order to hear the sound of your own voice.  It isn’t the best method, but it does work.  As the intensity of calls increase, dispatcher attitude begins to ramp up and so does their voice.  This escalation of emotion is the result of the stress associated with the call.  It is as transparent as window glass to those at the receiving end.  The problem is; not only is a dispatcher’s elevated attitude palpable, it’s contagious. 

Among the largest stressors for dispatchers are units in the field, especially those who are of the mindset that communications specialists are, “just dispatchers!”  Using the word “just” to describe anyone is pejorative at best; inflammatory and insulting at worst.  It is the kind of word that once prompted wigs on the green, gauntlets on ground, and all hands to battle stations.  It takes time and effort to properly indoctrinate field personnel into understanding the value of their lifeline back in Communications.  In order to do so, many dispatchers utilize the same techniques that are used in training small children or puppies.  Among the rules of proper puppy training is to never be rough, provide plenty of treats, and be patient and allow lots of time for the training.  Puppies learn best when rewarded for good behavior – in this respect, field personnel aren’t so dissimilar.  

Dispatchers need to realize that police, fire, and EMS personnel are not fully familiar with all the subtle aspects of dispatch; just as dispatchers may not be fully cognizant of the tasks of those whom they dispatch.  Because those on the outside are caught up in the face-to-face interaction with the public, they often feel as though there is a higher level of intensity in what they do as opposed to those in dispatch.  The resulting attitude is that they are, somehow, a higher life form.  It is due to such attitudes that it usually falls to the dispatcher to establish and maintain the progressive working rapport that is needed; remember diplomacy?

The responsibility for coaxing field personnel into doing their job often falls to the dispatcher.  More and more communications centers are being relieved of command-and-control and operate more as information resources.  Such centers merely tell field personnel what they’ve been told; they don’t give orders.  This being the case, dispatchers need to know how to make things sound like a request or an advisory rather than an order:  “Can you respond to …”, “We have a report of …”, and so on.  This is especially helpful when dealing with those who identify us as “just dispatchers!”  In some cases these contemporary troglodytes blow off calls as though we were merely spewing the equivalent of gossip.  They won’t begin to understand the value of your “advisory” until their supervisor is chewing them out for not handling the call you gave them.

One boondoggle that has befuddled progress within modern emergency telecommunications, and especially interoperability, is the continued reliance by many agencies upon codes.  From the early days of television we saw Broderick Crawford mumbling all kinds of numeric jabber into his car microphone.  That was soon followed by Jack Webb, Martin Milner and eventually all the boys up on Hill Street.  I recently attended a training class where a police chief actually admitted that law enforcement has fallen far behind in this area and that the fire service has actually gotten it right.  The Incident Command System (ICS) works.  Departments that use it can work easily with each other no matter what the location or circumstance.  It embraces all elements of emergency response and has room for everyone, even cops.  Most important is it relies upon clear speech rather than codes to convey information concisely and quickly.

In the town where I live the local police department still relies upon a ten-code system that was developed back in the 1960s.  The town next door has a completely different ten-code.  In my town, 10-4 means to repeat – in the town next door it means transmission acknowledged.  Okay, let’s look at an actual conversation over the air between two policemen.  “I’ll meet you at the line for paperwork,” says officer number one.  “Ten-Four,” replies officer number two.  Officer Number One then says, “I’ll meet you at the line for paperwork.”  “Ten-Four,” is the reply.  Rinse.  Repeat.  While it provided good laughs for those of us on the sidelines who understood the humor, it served as a perfect example of how codes can confuse rather than clarify.  The town beyond the one next door has a completely different code structure that isn’t used by any other agency in the known universe.  Theirs consists of files rather than codes, and a file nine either means that there is a missing person or Air Force One is arriving from Neptune and is being forced-landed at the local airport – I’ve never been certain which.

The trouble with codes is that they must be completely abandoned the moment you begin working with outside agencies.  Since mutual aid in all services has proven its value in saving lives, property, and taxpayer dollars, and since interoperability is an integral element of any mutual aid enterprise, where is the value in codes?  Codes are meaningless to units that are foreign to where the emergency is evolving, cumbersome and often confusing to local units, and may actually serve to stifle the message rather than convey it.  Clear speech requires the speaker to articulate specifics.  In order to do this, the speaker must possess the language skills that are up to that task... which brings us right back to the dictionary.

Multilingual dispatchers are a precious resource that is grossly undervalued even among fellow telecommunicators.  Being able to interpret and translate information from one language to another is a huge benefit to any communications center, and dispatchers should be encouraged to acquire second and even third language skills.  In my younger days one of my fire chiefs was of French/Canadian descent and his accent was very pronounced.  I had two years of high school French which I barely passed.  The chief arrived on the scene of a fully involved house fire and immediately starting barking orders in French.  I fell back on the little I knew and replied to him over the air, “Chief, je ne comprends pas. Parler en anglais s'il vous plaît.”  He immediately jumped back into English and we were able to get him what he needed.  Good thing – that was actually the extent of my French.

For those looking for a quick and useful guide to a specific language, although I’m reluctant to promote any publisher other than my own, Pocket Books (an imprint of Simon and Schuster) puts out a series of books called Pocket Idiot’s Guides.  These books exist for several languages and include key phrases and terminology that are helpful to law enforcement, medical and fire first-responders.  A quick reference like these might also prove useful in the communications center along with a dictionary of both English and that other language.

If we’ve learned nothing else since the Oklahoma City bombing and 9/11/01, we’ve learned that clear speech is the method of choice for emergency dispatch and that codes often confuse or obfuscate the message.  Providing precise instructions with well-chosen words requires a mind that possesses an expanded vocabulary.  True, the person on the receiving end needs to understand what you’re saying, and that implies that a mind needs to be out there as well.  But everyone’s listening vocabulary is greater than their speaking vocabulary, and one of the ways to develop minds in the field is to take the initiative.  The spoken word by a dispatcher can mean life.  The more weapons and ammunition you have in your verbal arsenal the more likely you’ll be able to deliver the timely and effective message when it is needed.  After all, anyone can tell a cop where to go... but it takes real talent to get paid to do it.  Only those in The Chair seem to pull it off effectively, provided of course they employ the right words.


Paul D. Bagley is a published author of both fiction and non-fiction books, a retired police officer and emergency dispatcher.  He is the past president of New Hampshire Emergency Dispatchers Association, and he is editor and publisher of the association’s monthly newsletter, “The NHEDA Broadcaster.”

"From the Chair" is produced for 9-1-1 Magazine by 911Lifeline, a national 501(c)(3) membership association providing services for 9-1-1 telecommunicators, assistance to the media, and public education programs.  For more information visit

Photo by R D Larson: Reno (NV) 9-1-1 dispatcher.


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