Congresswoman takes up fight to classify 911 operators as first responders
Congresswoman Norma Torres, who previously worked as a 911 operator, wants to upgrade the status of 911 operators from clerical workers to first responders
U.S. Rep. Norma Torres, D-Ca., remembers the call that sent her down a path that would eventually lead to Washington. Torres, who worked as a 911 operator for 17 years with the Los Angeles Police Department, says it’s a call she will never forget.
While she was working the graveyard shift one night, a call came in that required a Spanish speaker. With so few bilingual operators available, the call was placed on hold for nearly 20 minutes before Torres was able to answer.
“All I could hear was thumping and just terrible screams in my ears,” Torres recalled. “It was a young girl, saying, ‘Uncle, please don’t kill me, it’s not my fault.’ The thumping was her head being bashed into the wall, followed by five shots. She was shot point-blank by her mother’s boyfriend.”
For this 911 dispatcher: a call of a different nature
Spurred on by the traumatic nature of that one emergency phone call, Torres dove headfirst into the world of lobbying and politics, seeking to elevate the importance of 911 operators and provide them additional training, regulations, standards, education and status.
In the months and years after the phone call that changed her life, Torres taught herself to lobby the Los Angeles City Council for more resources for the 911 call center, which included a grant that prioritized incoming calls based on severity, as well as the creation of a community program to educate citizens on the proper use of 911.
“I’m very proud of that work,” Torres said. “It shouldn’t have taken a little girl to lose her life in order to make those changes to the LAPD.”
Now, Torres wants to bring change at the national level, by upgrading the status of 911 operators from clerical workers to first responders, a move that would have to be authorized by the Office of Budget Management.
A recruitment and retention crisis in 911 call centers
In an op-ed piece published on The Hill, Torres and Federal Communications Commission member Jessica Rosenworcel brought to light the struggle with recruitment and retention call centers across the country face. The staffing woes are a direct result of not putting enough emphasis on 911 operators and their contribution to each call that comes in and is dispatched, they wrote.
“When major incidents happen and first responders are called to duty, they don’t exempt 911 dispatchers. They have to report,” Torres said. “When there’s a fire, when there’s been an earthquake. When I was a 911 dispatcher, my days off were cancelled just like the police officers’. I was urged to come to work and I had to stay at work, whether it was 12 hours or 14 hours, until the next watch was able to come in. Don’t tell me that is not a first responder.”
The classification change Torres is lobbying for would give 911 operators access to more opportunities to apply for grants for training and recruitment purposes.
“I think the general public knows very little about what is at stake here,” Torres said. “If I am a victim of a crime, or I need emergency medical assistance, I want to make sure that the person answering my call, my emergency call, has been trained properly and is being taken care of.”
A classification change would protect 911 dispatchers from budget issues
Changing the status of 911 operators would also protect them during times when federal workers are placed on mandatory leave due to state and federal budget issues.
During a year with a budget deficit, as a state legislator, Torres spent three months convincing then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger that including 911 dispatchers in a furlough order that exempted first responders was, in her words, “short-sighted.”
“I had to show him a pattern of 911 calls that were not being answered,” she said. “That these were critical calls that were coming into the 911 system. It opened the state up for a huge liability should somebody die in that process of not being able to reach a 911 dispatcher.”
First responders often have the benefit of an organization lobbying on their behalf, something that 911 operators lack, which, Torres believes keeps them at a disadvantage.
“With police officers, warrant officers and fire personnel, each of them have a union that is usually very strong,” she said, “and through collective bargaining, they’re able to manage a lot of the challenges that each of those professions have. They’re able to work at a statewide level, not just within their jurisdiction, and they’re able to work even at the national level because they have national representatives.”
A lack of representation is exactly why Torres feels 911 operators have been left behind.
“There isn’t one umbrella, one labor organization that represents them,” she said. “I feel strongly that it is because of that, they haven’t really had a champion to highlight the work they do, and the importance of that work.”
Increased training for dispatchers
One place to start is by standardizing and increasing training, according to Torres.
A lack of across-the-board standards when it comes to 911 dispatcher training requirements prevents workers from being on the same page. Training standards differ by jurisdiction, where one area might require dozens of hours of one-on-one training, versus another that only requires a few hours.
“I don’t think that’s safe,” Torres said. “I think that’s misguided.”
From her time in the California state legislature, Torres believes the best way to supplement training on a national level is to “temporarily expand the use of the 911 surcharge to allow it to be utilized for recruitment and training of personnel for a short period of time.”
However, first things first: getting the coveted classification change. Torres sums up the argument for reclassifying 911 dispatchers as first responders with a simple reminder:
“People forget that you can’t get a police officer to your emergency or a paramedic to your location unless someone answers the call, first.”