Texas recognizes 911 dispatchers as first responders: Now it's time for Washington to do the same

On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill recognizing 911 dispatchers as first responders.

House Bill 1090 will go into effect on Sept. 1.  The bill changes the definition of a first responder to include "an emergency responder, operator or emergency services dispatcher, who provides communication support services."

Now, it's time for the federal government to do the same.

The men and women who answer 9-1-1 calls are consummate professionals. When the unthinkable occurs, they are the first contact many of us have with first responders. Before a blue and red light flashes, a siren blares, or an ambulance races, they are the individuals organizing emergency response.

However, Washington does not treat 9-1-1 operators with the respect they deserve because the Office of Management and Budget classifies them as clerical workers. This is wrong — and it’s time to correct it.

Today’s 9-1-1 professionals look nothing like the past. They use sophisticated tools, like computer-aided dispatch, geographic information systems, and automatic vehicle location technologies. Training to use these services is extensive.

Operators often undergo background checks and psychological testing to ensure that they are fully equipped for the stress of the job. Those who make the cut learn to not only ask questions but also to pick up on small audible cues — like the sound of a weapon reloading or the cries of an injured child.

As a result, they know how to send appropriate response even when communication is limited. Many also have life-saving skills they have put to use while on the line, offering instruction to prevent choking with the Heimlich maneuver and providing help with cardiopulmonary resuscitation. Some have even assisted with emergency birth.

911 dispatchers do more than just dispatch first responders, and that is part of why some legislators and officials want to reclassify dispatchers in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) System.

Bills in the House and Senate would do just that — reclassify dispatchers from a non-protective service occupation to a protective one like first responders. Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced the 911 SAVES Act in the Senate. Rep. Norma J. Torres, D-Calif., herself a former dispatcher for 17 years, introduced the 911 Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act in the House.

Those arguing for reclassification say that dispatchers provide life-saving instruction, and their negotiating skills can be the difference between life and death in a hostage situation or when a suicidal person is on the line.

Furthermore, the work is extremely stressful and has an emotional and physical impact, worsened by the around-the-clock nature of the job and the long hours.

The SOC classifies dispatchers in the Office and Administrative Support Occupation category. Advocates for reclassification want dispatchers classified in the Protective Service Occupations

Groups like first responders and prefer to call them “public safety telecommunicators.” The Protective Service Occupations group includes law enforcement; firefighters; transportation security screeners; crossing guards; lifeguards; animal control workers; fish and game wardens; and others.

As the 911 system has evolved to include more technology, so too has the dispatchers’ job. Although it makes receiving calls and providing emergency assistance over the phone more efficient, it also requires more of the call taker. For instance, at a small agency, a dispatcher may simultaneously be questioning the caller, dispatching first responders and using other technologies, such as call location tech or searching medical histories.

Oklahoma 911 state coordinator Lance Terry told The Norman Transcript that providing proper recognition to dispatchers could help with filling vacant spots and help to create more flexibility with the hours they work. In Oklahoma, 16 percent of dispatcher positions are unfilled.

“They help give directions to first responders and provide direction to callers,” Terry said. “They walk people through performing CPR, delivering babies and stopping bleeding.”

The Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) has been trying to get dispatchers recognized as first responders for several years.

“It’s really about getting the appropriate recognition and respect for APCO’s members and all the other public safety telecommunicators in the country,” said Mark Reddish, senior counsel and manager of government relations for APCO.

“The work they do is absolutely life-saving and takes a great deal of dedication,” Reddish said. “The idea that the federal classification basically ignores the protective aspect of it, the life-saving aspect of this job and instead labels it as clerical, is unfortunate and inappropriate.”

The phrase “public safety telecommunicator” is the preferred term for dispatchers by APCO and other professionals in the industry, who say it encompasses call taking, dispatching and other tasks associated with coordinating emergency response, according to APCO.

Reddish is optimistic that the legislation in the House and Senate will finally lead to dispatchers getting the credit they deserve.

“The fact that we have identical bills in the House and Senate, both with bipartisan support and really good growth is reason for optimism,” he said. “It certainly would provide a nice morale boost in the sense that [public safety telecommunicators] would finally be recognized as a profession for the protective work they do and the life-saving nature of the work.”

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