The House has advanced multiple efforts this session to recognize the service of, and difficulties faced by, 911 dispatchers. Three House bills include language that would add dispatchers to state statute’s definition of “first responders,” which would give them access to more support and benefits. A bipartisan group of lawmakers thinks it’s about time.
Legislators say dispatchers are vitally important and are the first link in the chain of emergency response.
“They’re the first contact when you call 911,” said Representative Robert Sauls (D-Kansas City), who offered one such amendment to a bill that was sent to the Senate (House Bill 1637). “Obviously you talk to an operator, and they have to go through a lot of stuff. They have to go through a lot of turmoil, subject to very high intensity, stressful situations.”
Because dispatchers aren’t considered “first responders,” they aren’t afforded benefits seen by EMTs, firefighters, police, and others. That includes health and retirement benefits, but also help to deal with the stress of their job. Lawmakers think that needs to change.
Representative Lane Roberts (R-Joplin), whose extensive law enforcement career included time as Joplin’s police chief and director of the state’s Department of Public Safety, said, “I was a police officer for 43 years, and in my wildest nightmare I can’t imagine doing what those people do.”
“The fact that we have failed to recognize them as an integral part of the first response community, I think, is a real disservice to them. They do their share and then some. They’re often underappreciated. They’re just a voice at the end of the radio frequency and people just forget how important they are. Without them a lot of people get hurt.”
Representative Chad Perkins (R-Bowling Green) worked for four years as a dispatcher. He filed one of the bills to make dispatchers “first responders” (House Bill 1676, approved by one House committee). He said this is the most stressful job in the field.
“The phone is ringing and its multiple phone calls, especially in one of those really high stressful situations. You’ve got the phone ringing off the hook, a dozen people calling you, someone screaming at you in their greatest moment of need, you can’t visualize what’s happening because you’re not actually there but you’ve got to get that information, you have to take it down well and effectively and then put that information back out clearly to someone else who’s going. It is an incredibly stressful job. I think it is the most high-stress job in all of emergency services. A person has to multitask at a very high level.”
Roberts agreed, “Any time as a police officer I got a call, particularly for something of an emergency, we got that adrenaline rush that anybody else gets. The dispatchers got the same adrenaline rush when they’re on the phone. The difference is that when I got to the scene of that emergency that adrenaline is something that helped me deal with the issue. The dispatchers, on the other hand, simply hang up and go on to the next emergency. At night they’ll take all that adrenaline, those chemicals that come with that rush, and take it home with them. They don’t get that same opportunity to use that.”
Roberts and Perkins agree that dispatching is more than answering the phone and relaying a call. Operators receive training for multiple contingencies and emergencies.
“I’ve heard them do CPR instructions over the phone. I’ve heard them talk about getting people out of fires over the phone, delivering babies over the phone,” said Roberts.
Because of the high stress they face, on top of regularly updated training and often low pay, advocates say people who work as dispatchers rarely do it for very long. Some areas of the state are having a hard time filling vacancies in call centers.
Perkins said by adding them to the definition of “first responders,” they would be afforded more state benefits. This could be part of a larger effort to recruit and retain operators.
“You have some health-related benefits to it but there’s also, for the most part in the State of Missouri, first responders can retire on the LAGERS system at 55, so that would be something that would also be an added benefit as opposed to having to retire at 60 or 62.”
Representative Shane Roden (R-Cedar Hill) is a firefighter and paramedic as well as a reserve sheriff’s deputy. His House Bill 2381 has received initial approval in the House and contains the “first responder” definition language.
He told his colleagues, “For the dispatchers that have always been there for us this is a step in the right direction, to acknowledge that they are the first responders that they are.”