When you think of first responders, do you think about police officers, firefighters, and EMTs? But what about 9-1-1 telecommunicators? Texas Governor, Greg Abbott, recently signed a bill that would change the definition of a first responder to include telecommunicators who provide emergency communication services. This makes the state the first to lead the way in recognizing telecommunicators as first responders.
The new definition of a first responder in Texas now includes peace officers, fire protection personnel, volunteer firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, emergency response operators or emergency services telecommunicators who provide communication support services, and other emergency response personnel employed by an agency.
The National Emergency Number Association (NENA) estimates that 240 million calls are placed to 9-1-1 each year in the United States. For the past 50 odd years, telecommunicators have been unofficially on the front line.
Texas’s bill, which goes into effect on September 1, 2019, is leading the country. The Association of Public Safety Communications Officials-International (APCO) has been pushing a similar ask on the national level for years. APCO aims to have the Department of labor classify 9-1-1 professionals in the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) major group for “Protective Service Occupations."
Since 2000, telecommunicators have been defined in the SOC as a person who “operates radio, telephone, or computer equipment at emergency response centers. [Telecommunicators] receive reports from the public of crimes, disturbances, fires, and medical or police emergencies. [They] relay information to law enforcement and emergency response personnel and may maintain contact with caller until responders arrive.” By that same definition, 9-1-1 professionals have been classified in the SOC under “Office and Administrative Support Occupations.”
Why is “Protective Service Occupations” more fitting? It’s the same category that is home to firefighters, law enforcement workers, casino gaming surveillance officers, TSA screeners, and many more. 9-1-1 professionals should be classified as “Protective” because they:
- Coach 9-1-1 callers through first aid
- Coordinate police, fire, and EMS to keep them and the public safe
- Operate specialized systems for tracking field responders, locating 9-1-1 callers, and communicating in emergencies.
- Deal with the stress of life or death situations. If a Public Safety Telecommunicator makes a mistake, it can cost lives. Members of the public might not get the help they need, and first responders might walk into a trap or might not receive the help they need.
The call for reclassification of public safety telecommunicators has been long overdue. Congressional bill H.R. 1629, or 911 SAVES, is following in the footsteps of Texas. House Representative Norma Torres, a former California telecommunicator, and Representative Brian Ftizpatrick, a former FBI Special Agent and federal prosecutor, introduced the bill in early March in the hopes of “correcting an inaccurate representation in the SOC and recognize telecommunicators for the lifesaving work they perform.”
The misclassification is more than just someone’s title-- it’s a misunderstanding of what 9-1-1 professionals do. “Telecommunicators are the first people on scene, regardless of their physical location,” Jennifer Kirkland, a 9-1-1 operations administrator with Vail Public Safety Communications Center said in an article. “They determine the response that will be dispatched, they manage the scene throughout the incident, they relay vital situational awareness and, in many cases, provide life-saving instructions to the caller before first responders arrive.”
A telecommunicator hearing gunshots in the background of a call and relaying the information to en route law-enforcement officers is just an example of how vital their role is. As Next Generation 911 (NG911) technology, such as caller profiles, is implemented in the nation’s public-safety answering points (PSAPs), we can only expect the importance of a telecommunicators job to grow.
This is not new. In 2016, the #IAM911 movement brought international attention to the issue of SOC classification. The trending Twitter hashtag brought in thousands of stories from telecommunicators. Since then, significant progress has been made, but there is still so much further to go.
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