911 Operators — First Of The First Responders

October 25, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

October 28 marks National First Responders Day in many parts of the country — a day that is meant to celebrate the many hundreds of thousands of people that make up the fabric of the emergency response system in the U.S. Over the last 18 months, in particular, there has been greater appreciation for the work done by such essential frontline workers, as we watched them go to work to help Americans, often at great risk to themselves.

In general, the federal definition of the Emergency Services Sector (ESS) encompasses those agencies involved in law enforcement, fire and rescue services, emergency management, public works, and emergency medical services (EMS). It can also include SWAT, bomb disposal, canine, medevac helicopter, HAZMAT, and search and rescue teams.

Emergency Services Sector graphic
Image source: CISA

The ESS provides “a wide range of prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery services during both day-to-day operations and incident response.” Departments involved can range from city police departments and fire stations, all the way up to Department of Defense police and fire departments.

There is one crucial cog in this well-oiled and crucial public safety mechanism that often goes under-noticed and underappreciated — 911 call center employees.

Every year, there are about 240 million calls made to 911, averaging out to about 600,000 calls per day. As of Feb. 2021, there were 5,748 local public safety answering points (PSAPs), in addition to over 3,000 counties that have their own local call center. Each of these is limited to its own system and can only respond to calls within a designated area. 

Around 98.9% of the American population is covered by 911 services, with just a fraction less being covered by systems that allow an operator to peg down a physical address, in addition to the phone number. This last point is particularly salient when considering that emergencies may involve people who do not know their address or may be in too sensitive a situation to disclose their address.

The concept of a central, universal emergency response number was initially floated in the late 1950s when fire chiefs began to demand a single number to report fires, the lack of which was complicating an already-difficult occupation. At that point, people had to memorize or have handy the numbers for their closest fire and police departments. These 10-digit numbers were often used for both emergencies and non-emergencies, making wait times and poor response rates a real possibility.

In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice recommended a single, easy-to-remember number be implemented for all emergency needs. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and telecommunications giant AT&T worked together on the project, culminating in the official establishment of the 911 helpline. The first call was made Feb. 16, 1968 in Alabama. The system being analog, it took a while to spread. By 1989, just a little over three decades ago, only 50% of Americans had access to 911.

Over time, of course, the sophistication of the system grew, as did the sprawl of it. Though it is such an important aspect, the appetite for the job isn’t enough to meet demands within the industry. Necessary qualifications for becoming a 911 employee vary greatly, but it is often stressful and challenging work across the board.

Some positions or departments may require specialized medical training. But, in general, requirements include an aptitude test, psychological evaluation, training for several weeks, and on-the-job training for months after. While many double up as call-takers and dispatchers, some departments separate these two positions.

Around 64% of states require a state and/or federal background check for aspiring EMS professionals to receive their initial license, with 43% requiring an additional check when the license is up for renewal. However, four states require no check at all, even for the initial license, while over 15 don’t require it upon renewal. Some states, like Delaware, require self-reporting of any incidents after the initial certification is handed out. Others, like Iowa, also depend on self-reporting, though in that case the incident will be investigated by the EMS agency in question, not law enforcement. Some departments also require polygraphs.

A criminal history can be disqualifying for the job, depending on individual rules. Given the sensitive nature of the information and situations 911 operators deal with, a criminal history can prove to be problematic. For instance, just a few weeks ago in New Orleans, a high-ranking supervisor at the agency that operates the city’s 911 call center was found to have access to the highly sensitive National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, including criminal rap sheets and warrants, despite the fact that she herself had been convicted in 2015 for wire fraud. Legally, her felony conviction would bar her from accessing NCIC’s records.

Currently, 911 dispatchers and operators are classified as clerical workers by the Office of Management and Budget. There is, however, a growing pressure to reclassify them as working in “Protective Service Occupations,” especially in the context of Covid-19.

Advocates argue that being a 911 operator can be just as stressful as any other first job. Often called the “first of the first responders,” they directly deal with life and death situations, having to talk people through administering urgent, life-saving treatments like CPR or first aid, or even having to talk down people from committing suicide. As such, the attrition and PTSD rates within the profession can be as high as 25%. 

In addition, 911 operators have played a crucial role in protecting other first responders during the pandemic, just by identifying if a particular caller had been exposed to the Covid-19 virus and thereby determining the level of PPE and safety protocols needed at any given call. Often, this was done at great personal risk.

Multiple reports have emerged in places like New York of call center workers being forced to come into work (due to being classified as essential/frontline workers). Of course, 911 had to continue to be operational 24×7, despite lockdown orders, and a previously existing labor shortage in the industry was further exacerbated by the pandemic, forcing many to even work overtime.

In Phoenix, Arizona, Pamela Cooper was mandated to work a 15-hour shift (including five hours of overtime), despite having just spent five weeks recovering from the Covid-19 virus. Just after she clocked out for the day, she was rushed to the hospital, and died on March 5, after spending nearly a week on life support. Similarly, in Chicago, Guadalupe Lopez, 58, died in November 2020 from Covid-19, after 30 years on the job as a beloved police-emergency dispatcher.

Stories like this have only heightened calls within the first responder community to recognize the work done by 911 operators. Luckily, there has been legislative movement on that front as well. Earlier this year, in April, the 911 SAVES Act was reintroduced in Congress in a bid to change the official federal classification, though a number of states, cities, and counties have already made this move at their local level. The reclassification costs nothing but can have a significant impact. Beyond just validating these professionals and their efforts, the categorization also affects access to training, mental health resources, equitable wages and benefits, etc.