It’s time to give 9-1-1 professionals the respect they deserve

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“9-1-1, where is your emergency?”

These five words are spoken more than 650,000 times every day across America. They are words of reassurance in some of the most terrifying moments of our lives. Odds are you or someone you love has called 9-1-1 and received help in a moment of crisis.

The 9-1-1 professionals who answer these calls are hard-working, dedicated public servants. They are super-multi-taskers who ensure the rapid, safe arrival of field responders, and so much more. On any given day, they may be called upon to provide medical instructions to save people from choking and heart attacks. They help people on the verge of suicide get the help they need. They analyze the stress in a caller’s tone of voice and background noises to assess situations they cannot see. They coordinate the activities of police, fire and emergency-medical crews dealing with active shooters and other potentially-deadly hazards on the scene.

But despite the vital role that 9-1-1 call takers play in almost every emergency situation, they almost never gain the closure that comes with learning what happens after a call ends. The stress can be particularly acute during events such as mass shootings and child births. Nor is it unusual for 9-1-1 dispatchers to remain at the office for days during natural disasters like hurricanes and wildfires, eating and sleeping at their desks and putting their communities’ needs above those of their own families.

In short, America’s 9-1-1 professionals may be the most important people you will never meet. They are the first responders among first responders.

And yet the very fact that they work out of sight means that these hidden heroes tend to be taken for granted by the public and by decision makers at all levels of government.

One need look no further than the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Standard Occupation Classification System (SOCS), which categorizes public safety “telecommunicators” (the industry term for frontline 9-1-1 professionals) as “Office and Administrative Support Occupations.”

That’s right: Your government views the person who may save your life as no different from an office clerk, and equates their daily duties to those of a taxi-cab dispatcher. 

This is a misinformed view of the work performed by 9-1-1 professionals. It fails to recognize 9-1-1 call taker’s central role in public safety, the specialized training and skills that are required to do their job, and the uniquely stressful work they perform. 

To fix this problem, Reps. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) – herself a former 9-1-1 professional – and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a former FBI agent, introduced the Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act (911 SAVES Act). This bipartisan bill, which recently passed the House as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, would reclassify public safety telecommunicator as a “Protective Service Occupation,” alongside law-enforcement personnel, firefighters, security guards, lifeguards, and others whose job it is to protect our communities. 

This small change — which would cost nothing — would improve the government’s data collection and analysis efforts. More importantly, it would give an estimated 100,000 public safety telecommunicators located in every community across America the respect and support they deserve.

As this bill comes before House and Senate negotiators for final consideration in the coming days, we hope all members of Congress will back this bill and show their support for the unsung heroes of public safety.

Brian Fontes is the CEO of NENA: The 9-1-1 Association (www.nena.org), the nation’s only nonprofit professional organization solely focused on improving 9-1-1 through research, standards development, education, outreach and advocacy.

Tags Brian Fitzpatrick Norma Torres

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