House acts to recognize and support 911 dispatchers

      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.

Representative Shane Roden (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      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.

Representative Robert Sauls (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      “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.

Representative Chad Perkins (Photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

      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.”

Anti-doxing bill would protect Missouri first responders

      Missouri House members are being asked to protect law enforcement officers and other first responders and their families by protecting the personal information of those individuals.

      House Bill 59 has been called the “First Responders Protection Act.”  It would bar counties from disclosing the address or personal information of law enforcement officers and first responders, upon their request.  This would be directed at county clerks, collectors, treasurers, auditors, and recorders of deeds. 

Representative Adam Schnelting (photo: Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications, 03-10-2020)

It would also make illegal the “doxing” of those individuals; that is, the posting of such information on the internet with the intent of causing harm to them.

The bill’s sponsor, St. Charles Republican Adam Schnelting, said such information has been used to target law enforcement officers and their loved ones.

      “Our first responders and our law enforcement officers leave their families every day to protect our own, so I think the least that we can do is to back them up, protect them so that there’s one less avenue through which their families can become a victim,” said Schnelting. 

      Dale Roberts with the Columbia Police Officers Association said Columbia officers have been targeted by those they’ve arrested.

      “They track our officers down.  They called our officers after being arrested and said, ‘I know your daughter, Amanda, goes to Grand Elementary School.  I know you live at 309 Pine Street,’ and threaten the officers and their families,” Roberts told the House Committee on Public Safety.

“We go to work every day and we understand the responsibilities, the duties, and the dangers of our job,” said Missouri Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police president Rick Inglima.  “A bill like this would be paramount in helping our officers protect themselves, to keep their information undisclosed – either online or by going through the county records, to keep our officers and their families safe.”

Backers said the legislation could save local law enforcement agencies money that is expended to protect officers who have been targeted due to access to their personal information.

The Recorders Association of Missouri testified against the bill.  Speaking for the Association, Jessica Petrie stressed that it supports the intent of the legislation but implementing it wouldn’t be practical.

“Under Missouri statute recorders do not redact records.  We don’t have the processes, we don’t have the software, we don’t have the systems in place to redact,” said Petrie. 

      She said the bill’s prohibition on the release of any data related to an officer’s address could interfere with the sale of property.

      “If you redact parcel numbers or legal descriptions you might interfere with title searches, which is a big function of our office, and if people can’t prove that they’re the only ones with claims to a title that makes the chain of property ownership very messy.”    

      Petrie said with the range of capabilities and technologies across Missouri’s 114 counties and the city of St. Louis it is hard to predict what it would take – especially in terms of cost – for all of them to get software or other items necessary to comply with the requirements of HB 59.

      The Missouri NAACP also opposes the legislation, saying it would create crimes and penalties redundant to current Missouri law.  Sharon Jones with the Association joined the Recorders Association in suggesting that many of the bill’s goals could be met by extending to law enforcement officers the Safe At Home Program, which allows survivors of domestic violence and other crimes hide their address. 

The bill’s supporters note that Safe At Home’s protections are not retroactive, so records already available through county offices would stay that way.

      The committee has not voted on HB 59.

Missouri legislature proposes statewide funding mechanism for 911 services

An issue that has faced lawmakers and the state’s counties for about two decades might finally have been addressed, as the Missouri House on Friday completed passage of a proposed statewide way to pay for 911 services.  This makes the first time such a bill has been approved by the legislature and sent to a governor.

An emotional Representative Jeanie Lauer presents a proposal for statewide funding for 911 that became the first such bill sent to a governor, after nearly two decades that the issue has been debated in Missouri. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The issue consumed much of Representative Jeanie Lauer’s (R-Blue Springs) eight years in the House.  On Friday, as she is about to leave the chamber due to term limits, she got to see her work culminate in the passage of House Bill 1456.

The heart of the issue is that most 911 services in Missouri are paid for by charges on landline phones.  As fewer and fewer people have landlines, the amount of money each county receives to support local 911 has diminished, but efforts to charge the ever increasing number of cell phone users often met with too much resistance to pass.  Missouri has for years been the only state that doesn’t have a statewide 911 funding mechanism.

Lauer said that’s because there are so many players involved in deciding what such a mechanism should and should not include, it took years to come up with something they – and legislators – would all support.

“We have 114 counties and 163 representatives and 30-some senators, and everybody has something different that we’re trying to address and make sure that we can accommodate in the legislation so that everybody can be safe in Missouri,” said Lauer.  “It has been rather complex – a little bit like a Rubik’s Cube putting it together – but it came together and it is so, so exciting to have that done.”

The funding plan in HB 1456, Lauer hopes, will not only allow Missouri to have 911 service statewide – a handful of counties have no service at all – but will also allow counties to have the latest 911 technology.  That would allow emergency responders to do things like locate cell phones when a caller can’t give his or her location, receive texts, and other upgrades and functions that many Missouri counties haven’t been able to afford.

The issue has been an emotional one for Lauer.  In the eight years she’s worked on it she’s heard multiple stories of people who were in need of emergency services and their outcomes were worsened because they were in a part of Missouri where no 911 service exists, or they couldn’t be located because the 911 service hadn’t been upgraded.

“This has never been about a bill … it is about what it does,” said Lauer.  “Of all the things that we’ve done here in the Capitol and that I’ve been personally involved with, this truly has significant impact on the life and wellness of people, and I couldn’t be more gratified.”

Lauer and other lawmakers have seen several 911 funding proposals fail over the years, either for lack of support or by running out of time in the final days of a session.

HB 1456 would allow counties and certain municipalities in Missouri to seek voter approval for a fee of up to $1.00 on any device that can contact 911.  Areas adopting this new funding source would replace their current 911 funding source; they could not keep both.

Representatives Elaine Gannon and Glen Kolkmeyer congratulate Representative Jeanie Lauer upon passage of her 911 funding legislation. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

The bill would create a 3-percent charge on the purchase of prepaid phones, to go toward 911 funding.  A portion of that money would go to 911 service in the county the phone was bought in; the rest would go to a statewide fund to support and improve 911.

The bill would also address the need for 911 facilities in many parts of the state to consolidate.  Lauer said in Missouri’s 114 counties there are 185 Public Safety Answering Points, or PSAPs.

Under the bill, where consolidation is needed, voters could not be asked to approve a new funding stream unless a plan for consolidation is developed.  Lauer says some locations are ready to consolidate but need the bill to be passed to make it possible.

Now that legislature has voted to send the bill to Governor Eric Greitens, Lauer is hopeful it will be signed into law.

“He has been supportive at the very beginning.  I have continued to talk to his staff and they have continued to assure support, so I would certainly hope that he would find this important,” said Layer.

Greitens could sign the bill into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without his consent.

Earlier story:  Term-limited House members hopes for, at long last, statewide 911 funding solution’s success