Last week, as I wandered the aisles of the National Academies of Emergency Dispatch conference in Orlando, Fla., I came across the Denise Amber Lee Foundation’s booth, where I spoke to Mark and Peggy Lee about legislation passed last week in Florida that would require 911 telecommunicators to become certified throughout the state. The foundation lobbied heavily for the bill’s passage. The reason is that Denise Lee, Mark and Peggy’s daughter-in-law, was abducted from her Florida home two years ago; her family alleges that mistakes made by 911 telecommunicators hindered search efforts. She was found in a shallow grave two days after she vanished.

I hadn’t spoken to the Lees in nearly a year, so I spent a fair amount of time with them. During our conversation, Peggy Lee described what the foundation had experienced and learned as it lobbied not only for the Florida legislation — which Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign into law — but also for federal legislation that would require 911 telecommunicators to be certified nationwide using criteria and training methods that would be consistent from state to state. One of the things that they learned, according to Peggy Lee, is that a pervasive attitude seems to exist amongst those in government that the role of 911 telecommunicator isn’t a profession.

This was not the first time I heard this, so I wasn’t shocked — but I was disturbed. How can anyone think that what goes on in a public-safety answering point isn’t a profession and, by extension, those who handle those tasks aren’t professionals? The PSAP is the hub of the first-responder wheel. Nothing happens until a 911 telecommunicator fields an emergency call and dispatches the proper personnel and equipment to the scene.

Part of the problem is that 911 telecommunicators in many states aren’t paid anywhere near what they’re worth. In some states, they’re paid as low as $8 an hour, I’ve been told. That’s ridiculous. I’m guessing that the kid who slaps together my Chicago-style hot dog makes about as much. But the difference between him and every 911 telecommunicator out there is that if the kid screws up my order by not adding the celery salt or by adding relish — egregious as those errors are — nobody dies. The same can’t be said for 911 call-takers and dispatchers. From where I sit, the fact that lives depend on the decisions they make and on how well they do their jobs automatically puts them in the category of professional.

This situation presents quite the Catch 22 for the 911 sector. There are those who won’t perceive telecommunicators as professionals until they’re paid like professionals. But that will require the funneling of more money to the sector — a task made much more difficult by the fact that some of those who control the purse strings don’t view 911 call-takers and dispatchers as professionals.

This is more evidence that the 911 sector needs to promote itself better. Just about the only time the sector is covered by the mainstream media is when there’s a snafu. That’s a shame, because the number of such incidents is dwarfed by the occasions when telecommunicators perform admirably, and even heroically. Lives are saved every day because they are able to think quickly, act decisively and make the correct decisions, all under enormous stress. It’s not a job that everyone can do, much less do exceedingly well. They deserve more respect, and they certainly deserve more pay and better training. Telling their stories is one way to get it for them — and to change an entirely unfortunate and erroneous perception in the minds of some.

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