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Volusia County leaders are tracking bills in Congress and the Florida Legislature that may affect how emergency dispatchers are classified and compensated.

The measures could qualify dispatchers for pay and retirement benefits more like those enjoyed by police officers and firefighters.

In recent years, county leaders have expressed concern that low pay and long hours were making it difficult to hire enough dispatchers to handle 911 calls. In response, the county recently increased dispatchers’ base pay from $13 to $16 per hour.

{{tncms-inline alignment=”right” content=”&lt;p&gt;A bill pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, HR 1629, is known as the &amp;ldquo;Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services Act of 2019,&amp;rdquo; or SAVES.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p&gt;It would designate emergency dispatchers within the Protective Services Occupations, a grouping that includes police and firefighters.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p&gt;The U.S. Department of Labor&amp;rsquo;s Bureau of Labor Statistics now groups 911 telecommunicators under Office and Administrative Support Occupations, a classification that includes clerical workers and office supervisors.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p&gt;In Tallahassee, meanwhile, bills in the Florida House of Representatives and Florida Senate would change the status of 911 dispatchers for purposes of calculating their retirement benefits. They include Senate Bills 744 and 574, and House Bill 511.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p&gt;The proposed measures would change telecommunicators from &amp;ldquo;regular&amp;rdquo; county employees to &amp;ldquo;special risk&amp;rdquo; workers, which would increase the employer&amp;rsquo;s contributions to the Florida Retirement System.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p&gt;Special-risk personnel include police, fire-rescue workers and corrections officers.&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: right;&quot;&gt;&lt;strong&gt;&lt;em&gt;&amp;mdash; Al Everson&lt;/em&gt;&lt;/strong&gt;&lt;/p&gt; ” id=”7dc249e1-489f-465e-8a31-8de748e50e7e” style-type=”info” title=”Proposed new law” type=”relcontent” width=”half”}}

Answering 911 calls in the Volusia County Sheriff’s Office’s central-dispatch center is one of the most stressful jobs one can have, the County Council was told during a presentation April 16.

“They are the true first responders,” Volusia County Sheriff’s Communications Director John Balloni said. “Our communications people face a lot of difficulty. … They get hostile calls. Very nice citizens become very upset during traumatic situations.”

Those situations may include shootings, stabbings, suicides, carjackings, threats of violence, domestic abuse, heart attacks, strokes, wrecks, construction accidents, etc. — and the dispatchers must keep calm as chaos plays out on the caller’s end. They must get the caller to state the address of the emergency and extract critical details while at the same time routing law enforcement, fire and medical personnel to the scene.

“They handle horrible situations,” Balloni said. “These are not clerical workers, as the federal government says. … What these people do cannot be overstated. … They are the forgotten class.”

The council discussed the telecommunicators’ status at the urging of Council Member Heather Post, who noted “the mental and emotional effect that that job has.”

Drawing on his time as a deputy and later as a four-term sheriff, Council Member Ben Johnson agreed.

“This job to me is just about the most difficult job in law enforcement,” he said. “You can train a law-enforcement officer quicker than you can train a telecommunicator.”

Johnson added deputies often have “time to decompress” between traumatic and high-stress incidents, but dispatchers may have to deal with a fast-paced series of emergencies during any one shift.

“The professionalism is so great,” he said. “I’ve watched them. … I think we should reclassify them. They’re out there on a life-and-death mission.”

{{tncms-inline alignment=”right” content=”&lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;&lt;strong&gt;750,000&lt;/strong&gt;&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;The approximate number of 911 calls in Volusia County in 2018&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;&amp;nbsp;&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;&lt;strong&gt;160&lt;/strong&gt;&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;The number of trained and active emergency dispatchers working for the county&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;&amp;nbsp;&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;&lt;strong&gt;12&lt;/strong&gt;&lt;/p&gt; &lt;p style=&quot;text-align: center;&quot;&gt;The number of hours in a 911 dispatcher&amp;rsquo;s typical work shift&lt;/p&gt;” id=”d7502f5e-13ce-49c0-ab8f-360d83225ea2″ style-type=”info” title=”By the numbers” type=”relcontent” width=”half”}}

Balloni said the dispatchers usually work 12-hour shifts. The central-dispatch center handles a daily average of about 2,000 calls, or about 750,000 calls per year.

“The busiest time is usually during the day. That’s when there is more traffic out,” Balloni said. “The most difficult and challenging calls come at night.”

Balloni supervises 160 emergency dispatchers, and has 12 openings. Training a 911 operator takes approximately a year-and-a-half, he said, adding that 40 percent to 50 percent of those who apply wash out before training is over. He thanked the County Council for the recent pay raise.

Council members unanimously decided to send a letter of support for reclassifying the emergency dispatchers as members of a protective-services occupation, rather than clerical personnel.

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