Rosenworcel: Let's give 911 professionals the classification they deserve

Rosenworcel: Let's give 911 professionals the classification they deserve
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One year ago today, a shooter fired off dozens of rounds at a congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, Virginia. The images from that day are still haunting here in Washington and across the country. Thankfully, no lives were lost on the field that day. That’s thanks to quick action by a number of heroes — from members of Congress and their staff to bystanders on the scene to first responders who arrived within minutes.

However, it’s also important to recognize the stars from that day who do not always get the glory they deserve — the 911 operators who organized the extraordinary emergency response.

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When I returned to the Federal Communications Commission last year, my first visit was to the 911 center in Alexandria that fielded the calls on that fateful day. I sat down with the 911 professionals who responded to what happened on the baseball field. Renee Gordon, director of the Department of Emergency Communications for the City of Alexandria, described how shortly after 7:00 in the morning the first calls about the shooting came tumbling in and the operators knew instantly they had an emergency that required an immediate and coordinated response.

 

Within three minutes of the first 911 call, help was dispatched and arrived on the scene. Over the next thirty minutes her team received over two hundred calls. At the same time, they were busy coordinating all aspects of response from alerting the local school to lock down, telling bus services to avoid the area, contacting air transport, and notifying area hospitals of the incident. Meanwhile, another 400 calls came in that morning, about everything from a stalled elevator to a gas leak.

I’ve had the privilege of visiting over two dozen 911 call centers — from California to Colorado, Alabama to Alaska, and many more place in between. Some are big and vast, like in Alexandria. They have gleaming new equipment, complex phone systems with lots of lights, and flat computer screens that glow with calling information and mapping databases. Other centers are tiny, with a single table in the corner at a police station where the lighting is dim to help the 911 operator focus. But no matter the location or size of the center, some things are constant. Emergency operators always inspire and amaze. When crises mount, they answer every call with a steely calm and then marshal resources to ensure help is on the way.

These operators keep us safe. They save lives. They are everyday heroes. Unfortunately, Washington does not threat them that way. The Office of Management and Budget is responsible for a program known as the Standard Occupational Classification. This system is one of the best occupational data sets the government has and it is widely used by federal and state agencies nationwide. But it has a serious flaw. It classifies 911 professionals as “clerical workers.” This is not right — and it needs to be fixed.

911 operators are among our most essential first responders. Before a whistle on a fire station blows, an ambulance races, or an air horn blares, it is a 911 professional who takes in a call and sets emergency response in motion. They deserve to be classified, like their public safety peers, as “protective service professionals.” Calling them anything else overlooks the life-saving efforts and assistance they provide in crisis. They coordinate effective response from police and fire officials. They provide medical advice before paramedics arrive. In short, they connect those in harm’s way to those who can help.

So today, as we reflect on what happened a year ago, we should do more than celebrate the work of the first responders who helped so many stay safe on the baseball field. We should do what the bipartisan chairs of the 911 congressional caucus have urged: give 911 professionals the dignity of the public safety classification they deserve.

Jessica Rosenworcel serves as a commissioner on the Federal Communications Commission.