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How Long Should Training Take?

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By Paul Logan

Originally Published in our March 2008 issue.

There is a question I hear again and again and often see posted to the various 9-1-1-related newsgroups.  Let's examine this question: how long should it take to train a public safety dispatcher?

The question is not as simple as you might think.  Sure, it’s easy to say, “We can train a dispatcher in six weeks,” but what exactly does “train” mean?  Is the dispatcher ready to handle normal Tuesday night business, or is he or she ready for “the big one” that we all know can come at any time?

After considering this question in detail, I have concluded that there is no “one size fits all” answer.  In fact, this question is one that each agency needs to take time to examine and reexamine on a routine basis. 

Training programs should evolve as technology, equipment, and policies and procedures change.  No agency should try to model its training program on another agency’s program simply because they are similar in size or mission because, for most agencies, that’s where the similarities end!

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After nearly 18 years in the business, it’s my experience that the only way to accurately determine how long training takes, or should take, is to conduct a detailed task analysis of what <I>your </I>dispatchers do.  Look closely at the tasks handled by your dispatchers; look hour by hour, shift by shift, and day by day.  Include the most miniscule tasks as well as those tasks that may not be done at every shift – the tasks that only happen once a month, such as testing generators or other systems.  Scour your policies and procedures manual to make sure that you haven’t left anything out.  This is a good time to involve your most senior (or seasoned) staff and your trainers.  Have them make notes for a few days. You’ll be amazed at the list of tasks they come up with.

Once this detailed task analysis is complete, sit down and really study it.  Take the time to compare your newly created list with your current training program and ask yourself, “Does our current training cover everything that’s on this list?”  If the answer is yes, then your current training program is probably in pretty good shape and maybe just needs a little fine-tuning.  On the other hand, if you see a lot of tasks that seem to be missing from your current training program, it’s time to make some updates. 

Now that you’ve taken the time and energy to complete your detailed task analysis, the next step is to review the DORs (daily observation reports) from your most recent trainee(s) and see how they did during each phase of training.  What tasks did they struggle with?  What tasks were easy?  If they breezed right though training, chances are pretty good that as soon as he or she was “signed off,” there were some problems with a particular task or procedure that the trainer <I>swears </I>was covered in training.  This is a common scenario; just as in EMS, “If it’s not written down, it didn’t happen!”

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Why does this happen?  It could be that historically our training programs have not done a great job of measuring both <I>what </I>our trainees have learned and <I>whether they retain </I>what they have learned.  One method to determine what is being retained is to establish goals or “milestones” for your training program based on an examination of your tasks, broken down into three categories – basic, advanced, and expert.

Ask your staff – your trainers, and your supervisors – in a real-life best-case scenario, how long should it take a trainee to master the basic tasks?  What about the advanced tasks?  Finally, what about the expert tasks?  After you have your answers, you can begin to develop a goals or milestones document that might look something like this:

Goals of the First Phase of Call-Taker Training

By the end of the first phase of training, the trainee should be able to perform the following tasks with little or no assistance:

Phones:     Answer 9-1-1/Red Line/Green Line/Direct Line with proper identifier

      Determine incident location and caller’s location

      Obtain caller’s name, address, and phone number

Triage a call:    Determine if it’s a call for service, referral, or information

      Transfer calls to other agency/unit/department

CAD:  Create CAD incident for a routine call for service

      Include required information in calls

      Upgrade an active CAD incident

      Know frequently used incident types

      Use ID and PD files

Radio:      Operate Motorola CentraCom Elite radio console equipment, including selecting channels and volume adjustments

Knowledge:  Spell using phonetic alphabet

      Name/abbreviate all jurisdictions dispatched from this center

      Locate reference maps, directories

      Read/send email

      Navigate Internet reference sites

Obviously, your agency’s tasks will be just a little different, but you get the idea.

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Deciding on a time frame can be a challenge, and this should be reexamined after the first training cycle using the new program to see how everything worked.  Keep in mind that we need to establish our goals on an “average” trainee, not that rare exceptional trainee who seems able to do and remember everything after only being shown once.  On the first cycle through the new program, you may decide that two weeks is enough time to master most basic tasks, but in reality your trainees took closer to three weeks.  The next time, give them three weeks and see how it goes, and so on.  Remember, your training program should be growing and evolving based on the needs of your agency and the needs of your trainees. 

What happens when a trainee fails to achieve the stated goals?  If, at the end the allotted time, a trainee fails to achieve the stated goals for the phase, the trainer and the training supervisor must meet to determine a course of action.  Some possible courses of action might include extending the current training phase with some remedial training for those tasks not mastered, completely repeating the phase, or termination.  Obviously, termination is a last resort as we want to make sure we give our trainees the tools and opportunities they need to succeed at each phase of training.  On the other hand, we do no one a favor by retaining a trainee who continues to struggle during each phase of training. 

Hopefully, this article has given you some ideas and will encourage you to reexamine your agency’s training program. It is only by constantly reviewing what we are doing that we can evaluate our program’s effectiveness and know if it’s working. 


Paul Logan is a communications training officer with the Dane County Public Safety Communications in Madison (WI), where he has been employed since 1993.  He is currently president of the Wisconsin chapter of APCO.  An NAED Certified Instructor of the 40-hour Emergency Telecommunicator Course, Paul also serves on the Instructional Services Team for First Contact 9-1-1. 

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