911 Dispatchers: New classification, enhanced role

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JOHNSON COUNTY, Ind. -- Indiana’s 911 emergency dispatchers will soon be classified as first responders at a time when they are serving a crucial role in the fight against the spread of coronavirus.

Governor Eric Holcomb signed a bill last week to designate 911 dispatchers as first responders, rather than clerical workers. The law and new classification will become official on July 1.

“This means so much to the people who do this job every day,” said Johnson County 911 Executive Director, Heath Brant. “To be considered clerical workers doesn’t really truly define the work that’s being done.”

The last several years have seen 911 operators receive more recognition for the life-saving, and sometimes traumatic work they do each day. Dispatchers frequently take calls from people experiencing the worst day of their life, often talking in real time with individuals in the midst of a traumatic experience.

Post traumatic stress is commonly recognized as an effect of the job of a dispatcher. The new law and classification will open the door to future talks about salaries, benefits, pensions and mandatory training.

“This is the first step, but it is the step in the right direction,” Brant said. “This is what has to happen for the rest of it to happen.”

The new first responder classification comes as 911 dispatchers are serving as a first line of defense in the spread of COVID-19.

“This pandemic that we’re dealing with right now is highlighting the importance of the dispatcher,” Brant said.

Since the spread of coronavirus started taking hold of communities across the nation, 911 operators have enhanced their call screenings to include more questions about signs and symptoms of the virus.

The information gathered by dispatchers tells emergency medics, firefighters and police officers about what precautions they need to take against the virus when responding to a call for help.  Precautions include first responders wearing personal protective equipment against viral infection.

“We are screening every single call that comes in for possible exposure to our field units,” Brant said. “That they have all the information they could possibly need to make an educated decision on how to approach the situation that they’re going into.”

“Making sure that we’re keeping our first responders safe out on the field,” said Johnson County 911 Dayshift Supervisor, Amber Joseph. “We don’t want them to catch anything or have to be quarantined for a long period of time.”

Brant said the screenings are done on every emergency run, regardless of the nature of the call.

“If someone calls and says ‘I fell off a ladder,’ we’re still going to ask those questions because it’s important,” Brant explained. “The person may be calling because they’re injured because they fell off a ladder, but at the same time that person may be still experiencing these symptoms.”

Concern about such exposure came into focus a couple weeks ago when 10 White River Township Firefighters went into isolation after exposure to a potential coronavirus patient.  Testing for COVID-19 came back negative a few days later, and all 10 firefighters have been released from quarantine.

Information gathered by dispatchers, and confirmed on site by responders can also trigger the use of a specially designated ambulance used only for transporting possible coronavirus patients. And the information needs to be gathered quickly.

“Because sometimes it doesn’t take them but two or three minutes to get there,” Joseph said. “And if we’re still on the phone with them when they arrive, we don’t want them to walk into harm’s way.”

Brant says the enhanced screenings will be part of the job for the foreseeable future, as dispatchers work to protect the public and their fellow first responders.

“A much more important role in the life-saving process and the life-preserving process than it ever has been,” Brant said.

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