Western Colorado Community College developing degree for 911 work

Christine Gaty,  911 dispatcher, works in a new emergency communication center.

A two-year associate degree program for 911 dispatchers could make its way into Western Colorado Community College’s list of degree offerings within the next few years.

The community college is “in the process” of creating an associate of applied science degree program for 911 dispatching, according to Brigitte Sundermann, the school’s vice president of community college affairs. Sundermann said she’s not sure how long it will take for the program to gain approval from a curriculum committee and Colorado Mesa University’s board of trustees.

If the program clears those hurdles, she has a precursory idea of how the program will work: with a blend of existing general education, criminal justice and other courses paired with hands-on experience in the local 911 communications center or a simulation lab.

Grand Junction Police Chief John Camper said he and a few of his colleagues suggested a 911 dispatching program at a Colorado Mesa brainstorming session that invited local leaders to share concepts for degrees that would benefit the business community. Only a high school diploma or its equivalent are required to become a 911 dispatcher in Grand Junction and emergency medical dispatch certification courses are available on the Front Range. Even with an associate degree, Camper said it’s unlikely 911 dispatcher candidates will be able to cut back on the months of training required to work at the local 911 communications center. But he wants to see a higher-level associate degree program so potential employees will see dispatching as more of a career goal than a temporary job.

“You just don’t talk to too many people who say, ‘When I grow up, I want to be a dispatcher.’ I think it’s because we haven’t made it a career path. It’s more of an afterthought for some people,” he said.

An associate degree in dispatching is a rare find in the U.S. Hutchinson Community College in Hutchinson, Kan., offers an associate degree in emergency medical services,  emergency dispatch. Grossmont College in El Cajon, Calif., offered the same degree, but suspended classes in the program this fall due to budget cuts.

Camper said he envisions coursework in the WCCC program including psychology, public speaking, negotiation and Emergency Medical Technician-related courses to help dispatchers learn communication skills, understand ambulance operations, and better handle speaking to people in distress. Camper said he doesn’t see deficiencies in these areas among his current personnel, but he does see a high turnover rate due to the stress of the job.

“I have to believe if someone went into the occupation with the intention of becoming a dispatcher and went to school for it, it enhances the likelihood of success” and longevity, he said.

Police, fire and ambulance dispatch jobs are expected to grow by 12 percent between 2010 and 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Sundermann said she is OK with being one of the few schools to offer an associate degree in emergency dispatch if it meets a need in the Grand Junction 911 center.

“It is a growing field,” she said. “I think that’s what community colleges do, provide unique programs because we’re constantly trying to meet community needs.”


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