They’re the first voice of reason you’ll hear when tragedy strikes, maintaining a calm steadiness all the while also ensuring first responders get to you in the safest and most efficient manner.
They’re public safety telecommunicators or 911 dispatchers though Donald Dinse, president and lobbyist for the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 2498 union, said the term “dispatcher” is misleading and misclassifies the occupation into industries where people, for example, “dispatch” a taxicab or others.
“The largest issue is how they’re classified on a national level,” Dinse said. “911 dispatchers…are classified as secretarial and we use this term ‘dispatchers’ loosely which has caused them harm over decades.”
There’s nothing wrong with being a secretary, Dinse clarified, but the general public and police, fire, paramedic especially depend on the people who answer the call for 911.
“When that alarm goes off that dispatcher is going to be able to tell you if the guy has got a gun in that house. That he just killed his wife and he’s waiting for you to walk through the door,” he said. “They’re going to be able to tell you that truck that’s on fire is carrying explosives. That’s how much we rely on these dispatchers, for our lives.”
It’s the reason Dinse, a retired York County firefighter, along with four other lobbyists who represent union firefighters, EMS, and dispatchers from York County, James City County, Poquoson, and Williamsburg are pressing state legislators in Richmond to pass H.B. 480, “Virginia Retirement System; enhanced retirement benefits for 911 dispatchers,” on the local level.
U.S. Rep Elaine Luria (D-2nd) has signed on as a co-sponsor of the bill and dispatch centers including the Newport News Communication Center has publicly shown its support.
Even so, the bill has been sitting in the House Committee on Education and Labor since last March and locally was passed earlier this month but “tabled” in House Appropriations.
Reclassifying 911 dispatchers as first responders is just the first step in a long process to granting the pay, job protections, and benefits Dinse said would allow for the treatment of occupational-related conditions like post traumatic stress disorder.
“They’re on these calls from the time the 911 call comes in until the end hearing horrific things like people dying, people killing themselves, hysterical parents…drownings in pools,” Dinse said. “Firefighters, paramedics, and law enforcement do a great job but…we get that pat on the back from time-to-time and it’s needed while [dispatchers are] nowhere to be found in that ‘thanks’…they are not considered part of that first responders’ family.”
The bill becoming law would also make being a public safety telecommunicator more than a job but a career, possibly providing some relief to the high turnover rates.
While 97 percent of first responders will retire at 50 years old with about 25 years of service, 97 percent of 911 dispatchers won’t work in the job long enough (30 or more years) to make it to retirement, according to APCO International, the resource and advocacy organization for professional public safety communicators.
The pay also doesn’t match a professional who typically works beyond their scheduled 8- to 12-hour shift. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported emergency dispatchers in Virginia earn an average of about $39,000 per year or $18.75 an hour while other employees in protective service occupations earn an average of more than $47,800 annually.
Training inconsistencies are also apparent for the occupation without national formal training standards. According to APCO, state laws govern training for public safety telecommunicators although nearly 20 states in the U.S. were reported to have only “voluntary training standards.”
In Virginia, 911 dispatchers are required 40 hours of on-the-job training in their local centers and 40 hours of classroom instruction through regional academies provided by the state’s Department of Criminal Justice Services.
Classroom instruction primarily focuses on law enforcement dispatching although “regional academies can incorporate fire and EMS dispatching techniques into curriculums”, according to the APCO website.
“Some of the large localities (e.g., Fairfax County, City of Virginia Beach) have their own academies and do not participate in the regional academy,” the site reads.
Changes through legislation don’t come quickly or easily. Dinse said “it takes years…” especially when you’re lobbying for an occupation people don’t yet recognize as a career.
More than 250 first responders plus retirees are members of IAFF Local 2498.
And although there are about 60 dispatchers in the York, Poquoson, Williamsburg merged communication center and James City County’s Emergency Communication department who are eligible for union membership, only five belong to the local union — another reason Dinse said it’s necessary for the job to be reclassified as employees will be more likely to have a draw to the union and garner greater representation in Richmond.
“It’s slow-going but we’re not going to stop,” he said. “We’re just going to keep chipping away at the wall and it’ll come down but you have to stay in the fight.”