Congress should pass bill reclassifying 9-1-1 dispatchers
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When most people think of first responders, they think of firefighters battling a blaze, EMTs rushing to save lives, or police officers keeping our streets safe. All too often, we overlook a vital link in the responder chain – the voice at the other end of the line when someone calls 9-1-1.

Nothing could be more important to a successful emergency response than the person coordinating it. Every time a 9-1-1 dispatcher answers the phone, they are thrust into a potentially life-or-death situation, and the outcome depends on what they say and do. In a fleeting instant, they assess the situation unfolding in their ears, determine the response it requires, and turn that plan into action. If they misread the situation, miscalculate the response, or simply react slower than the moment demands, the unthinkable can become reality in the blink of an eye.

As someone who worked as a 9-1-1 dispatcher for 17 years, I know firsthand that the pressures of the job are immense. Dispatchers go to work each day knowing they may save a life before the end of their shift, but they also go to work knowing it’s possible to lose lives too. There’s little time to celebrate successes, but I remember the lives that couldn’t be saved all these years later as if I’m still on those calls.

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Most dispatchers are female – often times single moms working a job that requires graveyard shifts and being on-call around the clock. Imagine trying to find a babysitter to accommodate that schedule. Imagine trying to stop the sounds of physical violence and gunfire from replaying in your mind at the end of a shift, and trying to simply be Mom again when you get home. That’s an impossible switch to flip, especially when there’s no closure for dispatchers – once a response is in motion, they never know the outcome.

It is human nature to feel heartbreak in the face of tragedy, but heartbreak is an emotion dispatchers can’t afford. They have to stay focused on processing the information they’re absorbing to handle the situation.

Day-in and day-out stress, combined with pent-up emotions, lead to extremely high attrition and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rates ranging from 18-24 percent. Some call centers offer peer-to-peer counseling to help new employees thicken their skin – it’s vital for retention because many call centers are understaffed to begin with.

Despite all that 9-1-1 dispatchers do, the federal government classifies them as “Office and Administrative Support Occupations.” That’s the same classification as secretaries, office clerks, and taxicab dispatchers. As honorable as all of these professions are, they’re simply worlds apart from what 9-1-1 dispatchers do.

Meanwhile, lifeguards, fish and game wardens, playground monitors, and even parking enforcement workers are classified as “Protective Service Occupations” – the same classification as firefighters, EMTs and police officers.

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There’s an injustice here, even if in name only. Reclassifying dispatchers with their fellow protective services would not cost a dime, and would give this vital occupation the dignity and respect it deserves. That’s why I introduced the 9-1-1 SAVES Act, a bipartisan bill to do exactly that. And it’s why I’m excited to welcome 9-1-1 dispatchers from across the country to Washington today, as they fly in for an annual advocacy day with the National Emergency Number Association (NENA).

No hero should go un-sung, and while dispatchers will save lives whether they receive accolades or not, they shouldn’t have to. As NENA’s membership takes to the Halls of Power to meet with lawmakers and their staffs, I hope everyone on Capitol Hill recognizes that we are all safer thanks to the professional, dedicated, and selfless work they do.

Torres represents California’s 35th District and is a member of the NextGen 9-1-1 Caucus.