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.
Fifty years ago, the first 9-1-1 call was made in Haleyville, Ala. From there, 9-1-1 service took off across the country. Over the next few years, public safety officials in the largest cities and smallest towns set up systems to take in emergency calls. During these early days, it was not uncommon for a telephone operator in the police department or sheriff’s office to answer the line, take a few notes, and then pass the essential details on to local first responders.
This history is important, but times have changed. 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.
In August, we visited the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) Metropolitan Communications Dispatch Center and spoke with the 9-1-1 professionals who spend every day protecting Southern Californians. They are the first lines of defense when the worst happens in our communities. However, with it becoming harder to recruit new workers, it is time for Washington to give 9-1-1 operators their due — and classify them along with their public safety peers, as protective service professionals.
The men and women who serve in these roles deserve this classification. Their work is no longer clerical, it is an essential part of our emergency response. Just as we rely on our police, firefighters and correctional officers, 9-1-1 operators go to work every day to keep our communities safe.
The failure of the Office of Management and Budget to update the status of these professionals has more than semantic consequences. According to public safety experts, there is a growing shortage of 9-1-1 operators. Across the country, 9-1-1 call centers are having a difficult time filling new operator roles. This is troubling because call volumes are increasing with the rise of wireless phones. In fact, over the course of the next decade, our nation will need thousands more 9-1-1 operators on the job and on the line. In the meantime, with fewer trained professionals able to answer the line, wait times are increasing in communities nationwide. When you consider that Americans already make 240 million calls a year, slowing down response can put a lot of lives at risk.
As the only former 9-1-1 operator serving in Congress and as a Commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission, we have seen the work of these public safety professionals up close. They are skilled individuals who labor in stressful environments. Every call is a crisis. Every choice about dispatch can have life or death consequences. We know these operators play an important role in our safety in communities nationwide. We also know that across the country, filling these positions is challenging and the failure to accord these professionals public safety status is not making the task any easier.
Since the early days of 9-1-1 in Haleyville, the national emergency number has been a largely local affair. However, Washington can and should do more to assist with the update of 9-1-1 systems nationwide. This is a long and necessary conversation — and any effort to address funding for essential infrastructure should also include the modernization of our nation’s 9-1-1 call centers and a plan for making sure they are fully staffed. But the simplest way to start is to change the status of 9-1-1 operators by the Office of Management and Budget. They are first responders—and having policymakers recognize them as such will better reflect the work they do and provide them with the dignity they deserve.
Torres represents California’s 35th District and is a member of the Congressional NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus. Jessica Rosenworcel is an FCC commissioner.