An estimated 240 million calls are made to 911 call centers, also known as public safety answering points or PSAPs, in the U.S. annually. The 911 telecommunicators who answer those calls are responsible for setting in motion the emergency response process, which requires more than simply answering a telephone and pressing a few buttons, as they may also handle tasks like dispatching emergency medical services, conducting specialized training and providing life-saving advice to callers. However, tracking and reporting exactly how PSAPs nationwide manage these emergencies is difficult because protocols and data collection methods can vary by call center.
The duties of 911 telecommunicators also continue to evolve as technology advances and Next Generation 911 is integrated nationwide. What was once a role that relied heavily on telephone voice communication to determine the appropriate response to an emergency can now involve integrating different types of media such as texts and videos.
The strength of the emergency response process relies heavily on a consistent, highly trained 911 workforce; however, the ongoing demands of being a 911 telecommunicator can make it difficult for PSAPs to recruit and retain employees. Local call centers nationwide reported that pressures such as the COVID-19 pandemic created staffing shortages, frequent procedural changes and other challenges.
States recognize the critical role that 911 telecommunicators play in saving lives and several have enacted legislation to bolster the profession. In the past few years, legislatures have focused on reclassifying 911 telecommunicators, improving workers’ compensation benefits for mental health and increasing training standards, among other policy issues.
Reclassifying 911 Telecommunicators
Some states classify 911 telecommunicators as clerical workers, unlike police, firefighters, lifeguards and other key public safety officials who fall under a more accurate classification such as emergency first responder. Reclassifying 911 telecommunicators as first responders or a related title is viewed as an easy method to better reflect the central role they play in public safety and homeland security. Additionally, reclassification may help in recruiting and retaining staff due to more accurate expectations of the role and increased benefits that may emerge under a new classification.
Currently, 18 states have enacted legislation or adopted resolutions to classify 911 telecommunicators as first responders or other public safety occupations. Oklahoma (HB 3278, 2022) is the most recent state to designate 911 telecommunicators as first responders. Other states have added their respective titles for 911 operators to existing statutes defining first responders. For example, Indiana (HB 1198, 2020) classifies them as “public safety telecommunicators,” and Texas (HB 1090, 2019) refers to them as “dispatchers”; both states included these titles in their definitions of first responder.
Improving Workers’ Compensation
911 telecommunicators’ repeated exposure to tragic events can have lasting mental effects. States commonly meet the mental health needs of 911 professionals by using reclassification or other legislative approaches to qualify telecommunicators for workers’ compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder.
Nevada (AB 492, 2019) and Idaho (SB 1028, 2019) added telecommunicators to their definitions of first responder, a profession that qualifies for workers’ compensation for PTSD. Oregon (SB 507, 2019) added “full-time paid emergency dispatcher or 9-1-1 emergency operator” to the designated list of public safety disciplines eligible for workers’ compensation for PTSD.
While Colorado has not reclassified telecommunicators statewide, the state closed a loophole (SB 026, 2020) that prevented them from receiving workers’ compensation for PTSD. The law grants workers’ compensation to 911 professionals who experience audible psychological trauma, such as through the phone. Previously, compensation for such trauma was limited only to first responders who visibly witnessed bodily injury or death.
Enhancing Training Requirements
Some states and counties have yet to establish minimum or standardized training requirements, which can make it challenging for 911 telecommunicators to meet the demands of their jobs. As a result, states use reclassification or standalone legislation to create specialized training opportunities for 911 telecommunicators.
Florida (HB 593, 2022) and Georgia (SB 505, 2022) are the most recent of several states to enact training requirements for 911 telecommunicators to learn telephone cardiopulmonary resuscitation, allowing them to deliver CPR instructions to callers until paramedics or other assistance arrives.
Washington (SB 5555, 2022) created a certification board within the state’s 911 Coordination Office to establish a training and certification process for telecommunicators. The bill also classifies 911 operators as first responders.