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‘Stay on the line, I’ll tell you what to do next’

Paying homage to our heroes in headsets during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week


The bystander that called 911 will always seek out the person they were speaking to in those few minutes when the bystander’s world consisted solely of a body and a voice in their ear offering calm but firm instructions on what to do next.

Photo/Rob Lawrence

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week (NPSTW), the second week of April, is a chance to honor all our wonderful telecommunications personnel in the public safety community. Having been a public safety leader on both sides of the Atlantic, I have had the privilege of watching these cool professionals deliver their essential lifesaving service for two decades, and I am constantly in awe of them.

If you want to understand the value that our heroes in headsets bring, attend a cardiac arrest survivor event. I have presided over many such gatherings and the one thing that strikes me every time is the lasting effect the voice on the end of the telephone has on the survivor and their family. You would think that the biggest bond at these events is created between the crew and their survivor – but you would be wrong.

The bystander who called 911 will always seek out the person they were speaking to in those few minutes when the bystander’s world consisted solely of a body and a voice in their ear offering calm but firm instructions on what to do next.

About National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

NPSTW was initially set up in 1981 by the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in California and is a time to celebrate and thank those who dedicate their lives to serving the public. It is a week that should be set aside so everyone can be made aware of their hard work and dedication.

Hopefully, our dispatchers are getting the recognition they deserve this week from proclamations at city halls to a hearty “thank you” from all those who surround them and depend on their service.

We must also take a moment to reflect that our call takers have also been impacted by COVID-19, and sadly, some of the names of those who have perished in the pandemic have been from our communication centers.

Classifying telecommunicators as first responders

As we celebrate this week, we should look to the future. As I have described, these amazing individuals are indeed our first, first responders but in many places, and from a legislative perspective, they are classified as mere office workers. That’s right, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics Standard Occupation Classification System (SOCS) categorizes public safety telecommunicators as “Office and Administrative Support Occupations.”

In many states, public safety communicators have now been reclassified as first responders. California Assembly Bill 1945 was signed into law in 2020. Assembly Member Rudy Salas noted that, “For years, dispatchers have been misclassified under titles that do not reflect the importance of the life-saving work they perform every day. As wildfires ravage our state, the work of dispatchers coordinating our emergency response has never been more critical.”

On the federal level, several attempts have been made to do the same thing. Just this month, U.S. Reps. Norma Torres (D-CA), herself a former 911 professional, and Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA), a former FBI supervisory special agent and federal prosecutor, as well as a considerable number of bi-partisan cosponsors, introduced House Resolution 2531 to the 117th Congress. The Bill – “To require the Director of the Office of Management and Budget to review and make certain revisions to the Standard Occupational Classification System, and for other purposes” will be known as the “Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act” (911 SAVES Act). 2531 will initially be heard by the House Education and Labor Committee before hopefully going on to the House and Senate as a whole.

In its recent press release, the National Emergency Number Association (NENA) noted that “This small but important change – which would cost the taxpayers nothing – would give an estimated 100,000 public safety telecommunicators located in every community across America the respect and support they deserve while improving the government’s data collection and analysis efforts.”

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Rob Lawrence has been a leader in civilian and military EMS for over a quarter of a century. He is currently the director of strategic implementation for PRO EMS and its educational arm, Prodigy EMS, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and part-time executive director of the California Ambulance Association.

He previously served as the chief operating officer of the Richmond Ambulance Authority (Virginia), which won both state and national EMS Agency of the Year awards during his 10-year tenure. Additionally, he served as COO for Paramedics Plus in Alameda County, California.

Prior to emigrating to the U.S. in 2008, Rob served as the COO for the East of England Ambulance Service in Suffolk County, England, and as the executive director of operations and service development for the East Anglian Ambulance NHS Trust. Rob is a former Army officer and graduate of the UK’s Royal Military Academy Sandhurst and served worldwide in a 20-year military career encompassing many prehospital and evacuation leadership roles.

Rob is a board member of the Academy of International Mobile Healthcare Integration (AIMHI) as well as chair of the American Ambulance Association’s State Association Forum. He writes and podcasts for EMS1 and is a member of the EMS1 Editorial Advisory Board. Connect with him on Twitter.