I-TEAM: Group fights to reclassify 911 operators to give them access to mental health resources

Published: Jul. 22, 2020 at 5:20 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - The I-Team continues to dig deeper into dispatch problems at Aiken County 911. Our ongoing investigation this month has uncovered massive turnover at the department and a lack of medical training for dispatchers compared to other local counties.

This comes on the heels of families coming to the I-Team to say critical mistakes by Aiken County dispatchers cost life-saving minutes for their loved ones.

A dispatcher's job is stressful. You have mere seconds to make decisions as lives are in the balance. Yet we found under federal job classifications, a dispatcher is considered a clerical position and therefore not eligible for the same mental health benefits of other first responders.

Call after call after call captures the heartbreak of being a dispatcher.

The National Emergency Number Association says a lack of mental health resources leads to burnout and turnover.

“Those are the mental health and wellness situations that we have to fix,” said Allison Heinze, an operations director for NENA and a former 911 dispatcher herself.

Take for example, a recent house fire in Aiken County that lead to the death of a small child. Heinze says she feels for the grieving mother and the dispatcher.

"You're not the one who just went out there and fought that fire. You're not the one who just pulled that child from that burning building. But I was. I was the one that just listened to that mom," Heinze said.

But we found mental health services are not readily and easily available nationwide to dispatchers

That's because of the federal government classifies the job of a 911 dispatcher as a clerical or secretary position. That's a different classification than other public safety professionals. This means 911 dispatchers cannot get federal grants for training and mental health like their colleagues in uniform.

"Grossly, grossly ridiculous," Brian Fontes, CEO of NENA, said.

NENA has been fighting Congress to change the job classification -- some states have done so on their own.

Improved mental health services may help retain dispatchers. Nationwide, NENA says about 18,000 911 professionals resign every year. It's something Aiken County Sheriff Michael Hunt knows all too well.

In 2019, every single dispatcher he hired left.

"A lot of folks we hire as dispatchers don't really understand what that job is, and that job is very stressful," Hunt said. "As you're taking in a call for service, you are trying to listen in your ear trying to get in the computer get it dispatched and keep people calm."

Dispatchers answered more than 318,000 calls last year. Sheriff Hunt has lobbied for a 10 percent raise for his dispatchers, but their pay is still below the state average of $33,000 a year and below the national average at nearly $42,000 a year.

"A lot of folks when they're growing up they want to be a police officer or fireman or doctor or whatever," Hunt said. "You don't hear a lot of folks say I want to be a dispatcher when I grow up."

So as the sheriff's office works to train and retain critical help, NENA says the mission for many in the profession is the same.

"They don't get into it because they are going to make a lot of money. They get into it because they want to help people.

And that's why they will keep fighting Congress to get these professionals the help they may need after working through trauma

The 911 SAVES Act which would reclassify 911 operators has been stuck in a committee in Congress for more than a year now with no movement.

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