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Dispatcher Job Interviews

During a personal interview, one or more persons from the agency (or agencies) who will hire you conduct an interview. They may ask may ask questions about you, about hypothetical situations and how you would handle them, and other questions to get an idea of your personality and abilities. They may conclude the interview by asking if you have any questions for the panel, and if you’d like to give the panel further information about yourself.

Federal discrimination laws limit the types of questions that an interviewer can ask. In general, they cannot ask your age, about disabilities or other questions that do not speak to your actual ability to perform the job. In fact, an employer may not legally make a pre-employment inquiry on an application form as to whether, or to what extent, you are disabled, how old you are, etc. The employer may ask you whether or not you can perform particular job functions. You should know that most dispatcher job offers are conditioned on the results of a medical examination, so your ability to perform the job (or not) may be apparent to your employer after the exam.

In most cases, the scope of the questions or the questions themselves has been set out by the agency’s personnel department. In some cases, a member of the personnel department conducts or helps to conduct the interviews. However, at some point in the process you will be interviewed by personnel from the agency itself, and personnel department employees probably won’t be present.

Remember, it’s not so much the actual answer, but your overall appearance, reaction and responsiveness to the questions. A person who is alert, thoughtful and definitive comes across much better than someone who can’t quite make up their mind, or changes their mind when asked a question, whether the answer is correct or not.

There are personal qualities that you must have as a dispatcher, too. Although these won’t be revealed so much during an interview, be prepared.

  • You must be honest, admit mistakes and learn from them. The basic tasks of the job require that you not lie to co-workers, supervisors or citizens–they must be able to trust you. And since a dispatcher encounters many unique situations, you simply cannot be expected to perform perfectly every time. On the other hand, you must be able to gain insights from what occurred and how you performed, if you want to excel and succeed.
  • You must be reliable–again, everyone must feel they can depend upon you to perform at your best all the time. This includes showing up for work on your scheduled days, and at the appointed time. It also includes taking on the assigned tasks and completing them satisfactorily. Without this trait, trust in you will disappear, and your value as a dispatcher virtually disappears, too.
  • You should be a team player. There are certainly opportunities to perform brilliantly as an individual, but not often. Most comm center work involves at least one other member of the team. If you can’t accept a “second spotlight,” or feel that your people skills are refined enough to work with other people, you’ll no doubt have a problem as a dispatcher.

Some basic tips include: leave early for your interview to ensure you’re on-time, be honest in all your answers, and be sincere about your feelings and beliefs. Don’t wear strong perfume or cologne, and wear business-like clothing. Give a firm handshake and use/repeat the interviewers’ names as you’re introduced. Don’t chew gum, sit up straight, make eye contact, be relaxed and attentive.

Check our preparation Web page for more information on preparing for interviews.

Here are some of the questions you might be asked, and some guidance:

  • What made you apply to be a public safety dispatcher? Be honest and genuine–and don’t say it was for the money and benefits!
  • Why are you applying at the Oaktown Police Department? The board wants to know why you applied at their agency. You should have your own answer, but it should have something to do with the size of the agency, working conditions, you have a friend who works there, or some other positive reason. It’s OK to say, “The commute is short,” but you should tie that in with, “…so it will be easy for me to be on-time and arrange public transportation if my car doesn’t run.”
  • Describe the work of a public safety dispatcher. The interview board simply wants to know if you’ve prepared–in any way–for the application process. Specifically, have you talked to other dispatchers, done a sit-along in the comm center, or taken any other definitive action to familiarize yourself with the job tasks, working conditions, etc.?
  • What have you done to prepare yourself for this job? Again, just be honest. On the other hand, if you’ve been following along with our tips, you won’t have to say, “Nothing!” You’ll have done a sit-along with an agency (maybe the one you’re applying at), taken a course, done some reading, etc.
  • What experience have you had with radio or telephone equipment? Explain your experience, but don’t twist it into something more dramatic than it was. If you just answered phones as an office worker, say so and move on.
  • Have you handled any stressful situations where you had to verbally or physically confront someone? How did you handle the situation? Be descriptive and specific, but don’t make a small incident out to be a major confrontation.
  • Describe your experience working in a situation where you’ve had to closely follow rules, regulations, and procedures? As always, be honest and don’t overdue it.
  • Describe a job where you’ve had to provide service to a wide variety of people from diverse racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds. Again, be honest about your prior experience, but don’t s-t-r-e-t-c-h it! If you really haven’t encountered a multi-cultural situation, simply explain that.
  • Describe a work situation during which you became very upset, but had to recover quickly. What type of situation; how did you recover? It doesn’t have to be a shoot-out type of situation…even an ordinary office situation would be good if you can describe it well.
  • Describe a situation in which the outcome resulted in you second-guessing your actions? How did you handle it? What did you learn from it? Admitting that you might have made a bad initial decision seems counter-productive. But it indicates an ability to learn from your mistakes.
  • What do you think one of your strongest qualities is for this type of job? Go back and review the job tasks and abilities studies posted on the Web site. Which ones are you strong at?
  • Dispatching is inherently a stressful occupation; what do you do to deal with stress? You should know the answer to this…but, you could mention sports or other recreation in which you participate, family activities, hobbies or other ways of dealing with stress.
  • What would you do if confronted with a person on the telephone calling you obscene names, saying he/she is going to make a complaint? Ignore the words and focus on solving the caller’s problem.
  • Have you told your friends and family you applied for this position and the responsibilities/comittment it requires? What are their thoughts? The answer gives some insight into how others close to you view the job, and may indicate your ability to be a long-term employee.
  • How would you try to control phone conversations with upset or distraught callers? Talking slower and more deliberately is one solution to these callers. Also focusing on the caller’s actual problem and making a quick offer to help them will many times calm them down. Operate step-by-step. Again, however, there is now “correct” answer.
  • You understand that this job requires shift work, and being on-time? Would you have any trouble meeting these demands? Have back-up child-care or transportation plans in mind, or other solutions to any possible personal issues.
  • We’ve asked you several questions…do you have any questions of us? You should have at least one reasonable question to ask that shows insight into the job. You might clarify if dispatchers have any public contact, about the training process, etc.
  • What can you tell us about yourself that we have not already asked you? Again, you should have some special talent, experience, training or education in reserve for this question–it will demonstrate your ability to think quickly. Try not to use it to simply repeat qualifications or answers you’ve previously given. You might stress those abilities the interviewers are looking for: adaptability, good interpersonal skills, memory, multi-tasking, etc.
  • What question did we not ask you? Ask and answer it. Be prepared! Part of this answer, and the previous one, is your ability to think on your feet. Again, focus on the necessary qualities and skills: learning new tasks, working under pressure, getting along with co-workers, etc.
  • The Communications Center operates 24 hours/day, 7 days a week; are you able to work a variety of shifts and days off, and occasional unscheduled, ordered overtime? The answer should obviously be “Yes,” but if there are factors in your personal life that bear on the answer, give them.
  • What will your current or past employers tell us about your sick leave usage and habits?

Scenarios

The oral board may also give you situations, or scenarios, and ask you how you would handle them. There are no wrong answers. The board is evaluating your common sense, thinking ability and consideration of all the factors in the situation.

  • Assume that every day for a week, you receive a call from the same elderly drunken citizen reporting a person in his home stealing his property. Each time you dispatch officers to the scene, and each time they find no problem. On this date, it is unusually busy, and you again send officers, who again find no problem. Two hours later, the citizen calls again reporting the same problem. What would you do? Making judgments is an occupational hazard for dispatchers–you just cannot do it! If a person calls 12 times, you have to evaluate what they say and act on it–period. Hopefully, you can convince the officers, deputies or firefighters who respond to handle the situation so it doesn’t occur again (or at least the person doesn’t call again!). Otherwise, if the caller describes a valid incident, you dispatch.
  • While working as a call taker, you receive a call from a citizen. They are distraught, upset, and curse your gender, your race, and your mother’s background. How would you handle that call? Focus on the caller’s problem, and solving it. Ignore the name-calling, and keep moving the caller towards a solution, whatever that is.
  • You’re working alone at 3 a.m. when you answer a 911 call reporting a heart attack. At the same moment, an officer asks for help on the radio. What actions do you take, and in what order? There’s no really wrong answer, but you should be able to back up your decision with detailed, thoughtful reasons when the interviewers start asking “Why?”
  • (Follow up:) What would be your second priority?
  • You’re working next to another call-taker, when you hear him/her curse at a caller and hang up. Would you report the co-worker to a supervisor, or how would you handle the incident? Problems like this are best handled informally with a co-worker first, expressing surprise (“Wow, that caller really ticked you off!”), and perhaps disapproval, with the possibility of reporting to a supervisor if it occurs again.

For a longer list of possible questions (2,000!), check the HR-Guide on-line site, or this list of tech-related questions that also could apply. Also be aware that only certain questions are acceptable or legal — an interviewer cannot ask about your age, sexual orientation or religion, for example. The University of Alabama and Wall Street Journal offer advice on handling illegal questions that may be posed to you. Check this Web site for an employer’s perspective on legal and appropriate interview questions, and this Web page for more on allowable interview questions. The federal Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (EEOC) has posted pre-employment inquiry advice on its Web site that includes interview and written questions.

The HR World Web site has a list of 30 questions that cannot be asked during a job interview, but goes on to suggest other questions that can elicit the same information from a candidate.

Here is a sample rating sheet for an oral interview–your performance boils down to several categories, each assigned a numerical score. (Acrobat, pdf, format)

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Promotional Interview

All of the above advice applies to a promotional interview, whether at your own or another agency, for a supervising position. But the interviewing agency will probably want to test you more thoroughly for particular skills and knowledge you’ve obtained while you’ve been a dispatcher. There are several ways to accomplish this:

  • Simple interview by a panel of current supervisors, members of your customer agencies (law enforcement, fire, EMS). The format and questions are similar to an entry-level interview, but would focus more on the required knowledge of a supervisor.
  • More complex interview by a panel, with questions being more formal and including a written answer section. For example, you might be asked how to handle a certain type of police or fire incident that requires specific notifications, or a specific type of unit response.
  • A so-called assessment center or in-basket process, during which you’re presented with several situations, problems or incidents, and given time to write, review and handle them. In some cases, the process is performed at “stations” within a room. You work your way around to all of the stations, perform the task and leave your work, and move on to the next station. For example, at the first station you find a trainee’s weekly performance evaluations and are given 15 minutes to prepare a final evaluation report to the comm center manager. At another station, you’re presented with statements from three dispatchers about a dispatching error, and are given 20 minutes to write a summary report to the comm center manager. Other tasks might include completing the normal supervisory paperwork generated by the comm center–time cards, absence reports, vacation schedules, evaluations, etc., or handling a common equipment problem or glitch. Some agencies ask the candidate to prepare a five-minute class or speech on a 911 or comm center-related topic, or write a performance evaluation.