Dispatchers could be reclassified to protective services
TRACY MCKITTRICK PHOTO
The 911 SAVES Act is a bill currently going through Congress. If passed, this piece of legislation will reclassify dispatchers and place them in the protective Service Occupations classification, the same as police and fire.
This update seems like common sense and the state of Indiana appears to agree, having reclassified dispatchers as First Responders in July of 2020. “I truly believe this is something that should be done nationwide. The 911 SAVES Act would do this. It would potentially allow us access to certain benefits, including mental health benefits,” said Amy Carroll, a dispatcher from Delaware, Indiana.
When I contacted her to discuss the 911 SAVES Act, Carroll was kind enough to invite me to see first-hand the work that dispatchers do. What first struck me was the amount of technology involved. Carroll and one of her fellow dispatchers, Tanner Resch, took the time to explain the myriad capabilities of these computer systems.
Dispatchers have access to a database containing warrants and contact information of most people in their county. Additionally, Carroll explained, there are GPS units in all police cars that dispatchers can watch and track on a digital map. This took is vital in finding police officers if they are caught in dangerous situations. The same mapping system uses satellites to locate properties and find information about them, which is helpful during house fires when trying to discover the owner and the associated energy company. There is a nationwide communication system that allows communication between dispatchers and emergency services in different states.
Within the last year, Carroll’s department upgraded to a new system called Spillman. “We had three days of training before we started with our new system,” Carroll said. Resch adds, “COVID really set us back on training. It was supposed to be earlier in 2020, but the pandemic set us back a few months.”
Carroll explained how her department is currently revamping its training program in an effort to improve retention rates. Nationally in dispatch circles, she said, the average retention rate is about three-and-a-half years. “We’re looking to make it (training) three to six months. You should e able to function at that point without a trainer…If you are computer literate, you will be able to learn the system. The hard thing to learn with this job is that it’s not black and white, there’s a lot of grey. We have procedures and questions we ask on calls, but you also need the knowledge and the common sense to handle these situations well…You will never take the same call twice.”
Carroll and Resch explained how the job is largely sedentary and involves emotionally draining 12-hour shifts. “I believe the majority of us are on some kind of blood pressure medication and many of us are overweight,” Carroll said. “There is a high incidence of PTSD, depression and anxiety.”
“Mental health and physical health are the two biggest problems we face,” Resch said. “Which all contributes to the short retention period.”
The general public has several misconceptions about what dispatchers do. Carroll said, “Multiple people that think we ‘just answer phones’ and they couldn’t be more wrong. My workday consists of others’ worst day ever. Any phone call we answer could be a life or death situation and a lot of time it. While we might not be on scene, we are there. We hear some of the most horrible things people can hear. And when we do, we are the calm voice that is always there, reassuring help is on the way…Sometimes our imaginations can be worse than actual scenes. We do all this without knowing outcomes most of the time.” She added, “If a job can give you PTSD, you’re a little bit more than a secretary.”
Kyle Negangard, Osgood fire chief, also disagrees with the characterization of dispatchers’ work as clerical. “Our dispatchers are our lifeline. Dispatchers are our liaisons to communicate with other agencies and resources. Without dispatchers, our scenes would be so much harder and near impossible. Our dispatchers gather as much information as possible for us so we can start to execute our plan for that particular event before we ever actually see it with our own eyes,” he said.
Resulting from this lack of recognition, Resch explained how it is a challenge for dispatchers to advocate to county leaders for things they need since their work is misunderstood and viewed as dispensable when it is actually indispensable.
Carroll and Resch further admitted that the difficulties of dispatching are not exclusively psychological. “As a whole, dispatch is not a profession you will ever “get rich” in,” Carroll said. They both explained how pay at Walmart is higher than the starting pay for dispatchers. The stakes, however, are obviously different. “You mess up something at Walmart, chances are no one is going to die,” Resch said. “But our mistakes can lead to death.”
In a phrase she repeats like a mantra, Carroll said, “We don’t get paid to be busy, we get paid to be good when we are busy.”
As an important note to the general public, Carroll said, “Please be aware when you give an old cell phone to a child to play with, it can still call 911, even if it doesn’t have minutes or a plan attached. Please take the batteries out. Calls like this happen multiple times a day and tie up emergency lines,” Although a small nuisance, this is just another example of problems dispatchers deal with.
Al of these factors – mental, physical, financial – point to the importance of the 911 SAVES Act and the impact it can have for dispatchers. J”I don’t know that it would make our jobs easier,” Carroll said, ”But it will give us recognition we deserve. During a crisis like the pandemic we are currently in, being classified as protective services could potentially help secure federal funds like Cares Act funds. These can be used to help cover additional expenses of PPE, sanitizing supplies, overtime, etc.”
Negangard is supportive of this bill too, stating, “I have always shown support for our dispatcher to be classified as the same. Dispatchers are the first communication to anyone in need of help. They provide life-saving information to families and bystanders on the other end of the line. They provide directions when needed and keep accountability on all first responders for an extra bit of safety for all.”
The two sponsors of the 911 SAVES Act are Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Norma Torres (D-CA). Reflecting the politics of its sponsors, support fo this piece of legislation has been largely bipartisan. The passage of this bill would be a productive, uncontroversial piece of progress and a show of appreciation for our nation’s dispatchers. If you would like to see this bill passed, contact U.S. Representative, Greg Pence, and let him know about your support. The Columbus office phone is 812-799-5230.