Thousands of 911 dispatchers working throughout New York may soon be classified as emergency first-responders, according to Brooklyn Assemblyman Peter Abbate, one of the prime sponsors of a bill giving them that status that was approved June 9 by both houses of the State Legislature.
"When you think about it, they are the first person to get the response," Mr. Abbate, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Employees, said during a June 14 phone interview. "People are calling into them and they are the first person to be really aware of what's going on, so we want to make sure they get proper credit."
He continued, "Just think of it, how many times does the operator get on the phone with a child or a husband and they hear 'my mother has passed out 'and they are relaying that information, whether it be the fire department or an EMS driver going to the scene."
The measure heads to Governor Cuomo's desk for action. An email looking for comment on the measure's prospects was not returned.
The legislation was initially introduced by Assemblyman Joseph DeStefano and State Sen. Monica Martinez. It covers the titles Emergency Operators, Emergency Services Dispatchers, Public Safety Dispatchers and Emergency Complaint Operators who work for municipal, county and regional agencies handling millions of calls a year.
Mr. DeStefano served for 27 years a as a Public Safety Communication Supervisor in the Suffolk County Sheriff's Office for 27 years. "I know first-hand how important these dedicated individuals are to our emergency-management system," Mr. DeStefano said in a statement, describing those operators as "a calming, knowledgeable presence in the time of an emergency. They make sure help arrives."
A 2012 Northern Illinois University national research study found that dispatchers handling high-stress calls involving suicide attempts, abused children, and fatal shootings were at an elevated risk of experiencing mental-health issues.
"Dispatchers frequently have pretty strong emotional reactions to the phone calls they handle," Michelle Lilly, an NIU Psychology Professor and co-author of the report, told the Chicago Tribune. "Our sample reported just as much emotional distress and reaction to [traumatic] calls as police officers have."
The legislation was championed in Albany by Daniel C. Levler, president of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees, which represents 230 Emergency Operators. "Emergency Operators and Dispatchers are undoubtedly the first-responders of first-responders, serving at the nucleus of emergency events, 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.
911 dispatchers have been granted first-responder status in Texas and California. In 2019, Idaho joined a dozen other states that provide Workers' Compensation for 911 emergency dispatchers suffering with post-traumatic-stress disorder.
Could Tap Feds for Grants
During a June 11 phone interview, Mr. Levler said that in addition to "actually being recognized by the law as first responders," they would also be eligible to "secure Federal grant money for training."
"Suffolk County's finances haven't always been great," he said. "The Federal Government will provide money for first responders for training that otherwise would not be there."
He contended that the upgrade in classification would offer some additional leverage at the bargaining table in securing "adequate compensation and sufficient time off."
District Council 37 spokeswoman Freddi Goldstein noted, "A majority of these operators are women of color and heads of their households. Their inter-borough commute is long, they work at least 12-hour shifts, weekends and holidays. They're the first person a New Yorker in distress speaks with—a clear first-responder. It's about time they're recognized as such."
Her union represents more than 1,300 NYPD 911 Dispatchers and Supervisors. Firefighter and Emergency Medical Service operators would also benefit if the measure was enacted by Mr. Cuomo.
In 2019, NYPD 911 operators settled for $560,000 a Federal class-action suit they brought in 2013 against the city for allegedly forcing them to work excessive overtime hours and canceling their sick leave.
"I mean you would go to work and you did not know when you were coming back home," Waleska Layes, a retired 911 operator and dispatcher, told NY1. "We females going home three or four o'clock in the morning to take the train, the bus—it's dangerous."
According to the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national median salary for a 911 operator is $43,290, or $20.82 an hour. Turnover in the job is a chronic problem, as is retention, with vacancies reported all over the country. Nationally, there are almost 100,000 911 dispatchers.