Federal bill could give Prescott dispatchers first responder status
‘A dispatcher is truly the first responder’
Robb Martin vividly remembers helping a woman over the phone perform CPR on her husband.
She had woken up to find her spouse unconscious and called 911. Martin, a 911 dispatcher with the Prescott Regional Communications Center (PRCC), answered the call and calmly told the woman what to do until paramedics could respond. Unfortunately, the man didn’t survive and Martin simply had to apologize for the woman’s loss, hang up and keep answering 911 calls.
“The very next call I took was a citizen complaining about a neighbor’s trash blowing in their yard,” Martin said. “To go from one extreme to the other was difficult. It’s hard not to think, ‘Why are you complaining when someone died on the phone just before you,’ but they don’t realize that, and I still have to have compassion for what that second caller is going through, because to him it was a big incident.”
For 911 dispatchers, having to process loss of life and then quickly switch gears is not uncommon.
“It’s a very high-stress job,” said Martin, who is currently PRCC’s interim director.
Yet, those who answer these emergency calls in Arizona and throughout the nation are not considered first responders. Rather, they’re classified as administrative support staff.
This is significant because that distinction affects their pay, benefits and overall recognition.
“A dispatcher is truly the first responder,” Martin said. “They’re the ones that take that initial call and talk to that person on the phone on their worst day. People don’t call 911 because they’re having a good day. Dispatchers have to deal with people’s worst days all the time.”
Members of Congress are looking to address this perceived disparity. A bill titled the 911 SAVES Act is currently waiting to be considered by the House of Representatives after it was introduced in March with bipartisan support.
Arizona Reps. Greg Stanton and Raul Grijalva, both Democrats, are two of the 103 co-sponsors of the bill; that group includes 69 Democrats and 34 Republicans.
That said, the bill has yet to get much traction. Using predictions by a company called Skopos Labs, the website GovTrack.Us gives the bill a 3% chance of being enacted.
Martin said the discussion of reclassifying 911 dispatchers as first responders has been ongoing for at least a decade, but it’s only just starting to pick up some speed.
“It’s definitely building more momentum,” he said. “You’ve seen it in a lot of the government talks and it’s definitely getting more attention.”
When asked if he and his colleagues support the effort for reclassification, Martin said they absolutely do.
“This whole center is for it,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to anyone that is a dispatcher or who runs the center who says they don’t feel like we should be.”
The PRCC is operated by the City of Prescott, but serves the majority of law enforcement and fire agencies within the region, including the Prescott Valley Police Department, Yavapai Community College District, Yavapai-Prescott Tribal Police, Central Arizona Fire & Medical Authority (CAFMA), Groom Creek Fire District and Walker Fire Association.
Prescott Police Department Deputy Chief Amy Bonney helps oversee the center. She said no significant discussions have taken place within her administration about how a reclassification of dispatchers might impact local government’s budgets.
“Since this is being introduced at the federal level, it is premature to predict what budgetary impact this might have at the local level,” she said. “The City will support whatever is mandated by law, and will comply with federal and state directives as required.”
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