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911 Dispatchers Get First-Responder Status in 2 Colorado Counties

Arapahoe and Pitkin counties got tired of waiting for Congress to move on the 911 Saves Act and designated their 911 dispatchers as first responders, providing workers’ comp and pension benefits that police, fire and EMS get.

Two counties in Colorado are officially designating their 911 dispatchers as first responders and will give the call-takers the same workers compensation and pension benefits — and respect — that the first responders in the field have enjoyed.

Arapahoe and Pitkin counties’ boards of commissioners approved the reclassification of 911 dispatchers as first responders, giving them the same benefits as sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics. A few counties in other states have already done so and a handful of states have passed or introduced resolutions to designate 911 call-takers as first responders.

A bill in Congress, the 911 Saves Act, has stalled, prompting some of these states and locals to act on their own.

Brett Loeb, emergency dispatch commander for Pitkin County, said the county could no longer wait for Congress to deliver. When he learned that Texas had elevated its dispatchers to first responder status, he thought, “Why not us,” and contacted the sheriff and county administrator.

“They both were very supportive and asked me to write it up [it was mostly already written] and set the proclamation date, way easier than I thought,” Loeb wrote in an email. “But I think having the groundwork laid in advance and a very supportive public safety team in our county helped a lot.”

Loeb said the designation doesn’t change much for his staff but, “gives us access to some PTSD and mental health resources and trainings that are specific to first responders, and helps with retirement benefits and in looking at changing the work schedules.”

He said the long-term benefit is a boost to morale and help with recruitment and retention as dispatchers continue to get more recognition for their work.

“It’s commensurate with being part of the law enforcement pension plan, getting the same access to workers compensation benefits,” said Monica Million, president of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “In our state [Colorado] legislation was passed last year that provided mental health and PTSD benefits to police and fire and EMS services, but excluded us,” she said.

The added benefits and acknowledgment of the first-responder status of dispatchers should help with retention, a big problem in the profession. Million said that the national attrition rate is about 25 to 30 percent. “When you start talking about the training time it takes to prepare a 911 professional, that is a significant amount of money — I would argue $150,000 to $200,000 in some cases.”

Dispatchers undergo six months of training before they are able to answer calls without supervision. The added benefits that dispatchers will receive from state and local governments will cost those entities but, “it’s the right thing to do,” Million said.

She said that in light of Congress’ inaction on the 911 Saves Act, NENA is trying to help state and local governments move on their own. “We’re doing everything in our power to help state and local jurisdictions get data and information. The states and local jurisdictions that have been successful have been sharing their information with us so we can share across the country.”

States, including California, Tennessee, Georgia, Indiana Kentucky, Maryland, Ohio, Texas and West Virginia are working to designate dispatchers as first responders. Colorado is a home rule state, where local governments can pass laws to govern their own jurisdictions and thus, the Arapahoe and Pitkin county 911 designations.

“It’s really not a clerical job,” Million said. “We’re an integral part of the public safety response, and to be on equal footing with our public safety partners is of critical importance.”