Dispatch simulator allows criminal justice students to gain professional experience

Macey McCoy, of Blacksburg, Virginia, using the dispatch simulator.
Macey McCoy, of Blacksburg, Virginia, uses the dispatch simulator.

9-1-1, Where is your emergency?

Students in Radford University’s criminal justice program have the opportunity to practice being a 9-1-1 dispatcher using the same equipment that is used to train professional dispatchers.

Steve Owen, chair of the Department of Criminal Justice, said that the experience has been eye-opening for the students in how challenging it can be to get information from a caller during what could be a stressful situation.

“We provide classroom instruction that prepares students and debriefs them after they go through the simulation,” Owen said. “We have practicing dispatchers come in and coach the students.”

The dispatch call simulator is located in the College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences and simulates multiple aspects of 9-1-1 systems, including telecommunication systems used by first responders, which include telephone, radio traffic and the computer-aided dispatch systems.

Macey McCoy, of Blacksburg, Virginia, said that using the simulator was intimidating at first.

“Not everyone gets to do this,” McCoy said. “It’s cool knowing that we can use the same technology that police departments use.”

Owen said that Radford’s criminal justice program is unique among similar programs in the equipment available for students to use.

“We are very fortunate to have the same training equipment, and the same educational equipment that those in the field would be utilizing to develop their skills,” Owen said. “This helps students prepare for their professional careers. If they want to be a dispatcher, they have some prior experience to lean on. If they go into another area of criminal justice, they know what is going on the other side of the radio.”

9-1-1 Dispatch Call Demo

Owen said that the department teaches that the person who answers the call is often the very first person responding to a situation, as they are usually the first person having contact with a caller.

“We want students to understand how critical that role is and also to understand how important it is to get information about a situation and relay it accurately in order to inform and prepare the officers who will be responding,” Owen said.

It is important for the dispatcher to ask the right questions during the call.

“People think [dispatchers] say ‘what is your emergency.’ It should be ‘where is your emergency,’” said Sophia Gonzalez from Ontario, California. “When someone calls from a cell phone, it doesn’t give the exact location. It must be verified.”

It is also equally important that the callers be as clear and detailed as possible so the dispatcher has the best information to relay to law enforcement and other first responders. This experiential learning opportunity provides students with lasting lessons about the role, responsibilities and reality of being a dispatcher.

“Sometimes [the public] gets upset when they might be thinking they aren’t doing anything,” Gonzalez said. “[The dispatchers are] most likely calling available units and asking questions, such as what the suspect looks like, they are wearing and what the caller is wearing. That helps law enforcement when they arrive on scene. Also, if there are moments of silence, dispatch is still on the line.”

This simulation and associated instruction encourages students to think critically and aligns with the Radford University mission “to empower students form diverse backgrounds by providing transformative educational experiences.”

May 7, 2019
Max Esterhuizen