Op-Ed - 911 dispatchers are not clerical workers
On any given day, a 911 dispatcher might direct police as a crime is in progress, provide lifesaving first aid, or speak to a caller on the brink of suicide. Dispatchers are critical members of the first responder community who use their specialized skills and training to save lives and keep communities safe. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has recently proposed that the position of “Public Safety Telecommunicator” be classified as an “Office and Administrative Support Occupation.” Such a classification is more than just grossly inaccurate. It diminishes the vital role dispatchers play and perpetuates a stereotype that impacts the resources available to dispatchers and 911 systems, particularly at a time when rapid technological changes are increasing demands on dispatchers.
As a former 911 dispatcher for the Los Angeles Police Department, I know that public safety telecommunicators are not just support staff. They are critical partners to our first responders who do far more than simply answer a phone and send for help. My fellow dispatchers work during life-or-death situations, often talking to callers in their greatest hour of need. They may be required to act as hostage negotiators, and as conversations between dispatchers and suspects are often Miranda exempt, testimony from dispatchers can serve as critical evidence during court proceedings. And during critical incidents such as large fires, civil unrest, or major weather events, telecommunicators are mobilized just like police and fire personnel.
The decisions that dispatchers make not only impact the lives of callers, but the lives of many others. For example, in the immediate aftermath of the San Bernardino shooting, it was a 911 dispatcher who took the initial emergency call and helped law enforcement track down the shooters. Just like other first responders, public safety telecommunicators must remain calm and use their training to think quickly about how best to respond to an emergency, oftentimes when lives are on the line. Without the unique skills and abilities of our dispatchers, first responders would simply be unable to do their jobs.
You would be hard-pressed to find personnel with this same support staff classification who are required to receive the kind of specialized training as public safety telecommunicators. Dispatchers must either obtain national or state certification, or a combination of the two, and national dispatcher certification associations often require advanced coursework to complete certification. For example, the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) offers an emergency medical dispatcher certification which requires courses in anatomy and physiology, legal and liability issues, and stress management. Additionally, dispatchers often have to take additional exams offered by their potential employers, including a written exam to ensure knowledge of local law enforcement rules and procedures and are often tested regularly by their departments for knowledge of local, state, and federal laws.
Initial and ongoing training is a vital part of a 911 dispatcher’s career, and these requirements clearly demonstrate that dispatchers must possess a level of knowledge and education that far exceeds what is generally required of administrative personnel. This is a specialized position that requires skilled professionals to use extensive training to make quick decisions in life or death situations.
I recently wrote to OMB urging them to take this into account and appropriately categorize public safety telecommunicator as a “Protective Service Occupation.” If OMB intends to develop an accurate occupational classification structure, they should make this change and give our dispatchers the recognition and respect they deserve.