Fire Dispatch: A Seat at the Table

Nov. 14, 2022
Barry Furey tells how the problem of recruitment and retention of dispatchers correlates with the lack of recognition of their role as first responders.

Although 9-1-1 performs a critical function, it’s an often-overlooked branch of public safety. The dichotomy might be evidenced in break rooms of many communications centers: Consider one poster that reads, “You may know where you are, and God may know where you are, but if your dispatcher doesn’t know where you are, you and God had better be on good terms,” and another that’s right next to it that reads, “I feel like a mushroom, because I’m kept in the dark and fed fertilizer.”

In the midst of this identity crisis, dispatchers have embarked on a national campaign to be duly recognized as first responders. The battle won’t be easy. It challenges dispatchers’ historical comparisons to secretaries, while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a first responder as “a person (such as a police officer or an EMT) who is among those responsible for going immediately to the scene of an accident or emergency to provide assistance.”

The fact is, unless the emergency call is answered and properly processed by a dispatcher nobody goes anywhere. This led to the birth of the term “first first responder,” which conveys the importance of the event-processing link in the response chain.

Furthermore, there remains an ongoing malaise concerning appreciation of the value of communications personnel. Salaries typically are low, and benefits lag. Quite often, dispatchers are kept out of the loop when it comes to both planning and daily operations. They frequently are forgotten when it comes to participation in valuable learning experiences, such as after-action debriefings. Nevertheless, they can become ready targets when finger-pointing begins.

Spelling things out

Over the years, a number of changes in terminology that were designed to better recognize the professionalism of the dispatcher role emerged, but these did little more than apply new labels. The word telecommunicator was coined in the 1980s to replace the dispatcher title, because dispatching is only one of the numerous tasks that are performed. It also was designed to eliminate the frequently heard dismissal of personnel as being “only dispatchers.” In the end, the term did little more than confuse the spell-checker program, and it’s uncomfortably close to “telemarketer,” which is almost universally despised.

Recent endeavors have moved to replace the acronym PSAP (public safety answering point) with ECC (emergency communications center) to further showcase the functionality of these facilities, but this, too, has had minimal effect on daily life, and “telecommunicator” and “ECC” are rarely heard outside of the industry.


Perhaps the most inflammatory issue is the classification by the federal government of public safety dispatchers as part of the Office and Administrative Support jobs category. Firefighters and fire inspectors, for example, belong to the Protective Service Occupations group. However, so do other occupations that are associated less frequently with public safety, including crossing guards and flaggers.

Given this, it’s easy to understand telecommunicators’ confusion and concern. Past attempts at reclassification failed to bear fruit. The 9-1-1 Saves Act, which was introduced in Congress in 2021, would have recognized 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers as Protective Service Occupations, but it failed.

Despite this, some states acted independently and declared public safety dispatchers as first responders. Several counties and municipalities, such as Mobile, AL, followed suit.

Although these actions can be counted as victories, they are moral victories at best and do little to address the underlying issue of compensation not being commensurate with the work that’s performed. If titles alone solved this problem, fixing it would be relatively easy. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case, and gaining the first responder designation by itself is largely akin to receiving an honorary degree. It looks good on paper but doesn’t put food on the table.

This fact isn’t lost on Ralph Palladino, who is second vice president of Local 1549 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees in New York City. During an interview with, he commented on the state of New York’s then-proposed 2021 legislation. “This bill provides no provisions for an increase in pay,” he said. “What it does do if it becomes law is open the door for consideration and negotiation for increased pay for these essential first responders.” The bill passed, but Palladino’s assessment of the end result was 100 percent correct.

Regardless of the desire to gain recognition, benefits or both, the crusade becomes more critical because of the ongoing nationwide shortage of telecommunicators. The general public is acutely aware of understaffing at businesses that they see firsthand. Reduced hours and services have become a way of life. Drive-throughs (instead of sit-down dining) and self-checkouts are two visible symptoms. However, unless citizens experience an emergency personally, the effect of the dispatcher drought goes unnoticed.

Ring times for 9-1-1 calls frequently exceed the standards of the National Emergency Number Association, and processing emergencies takes longer than is specified under NFPA 1225: Standard for Emergency Services Communications. A concern for firefighters is that radio channels, including those that are used for working fires, might not be monitored in the ECC.

All of this adds up to delayed alarms and increased risk.

Progress in recognition for communications employees certainly would help with sorely needed recruitment and retention.

Communities at risk

Having served as a firefighter, dispatcher, fire chief and 9-1-1 director, I can say unapologetically that those who place themselves directly in physical danger should be compensated accordingly. However, that doesn’t excuse the current state of affairs of telecommunicators. I speak from experience when I say that their actions, or inactions, can set the course for the successful mitigation of an event or create additional problems for the incident commander.

As the bridge between the public and public safety, telecommunicators are far from secretaries and clerical personnel. Rather, they are a group of individuals who possess special skills and talents that require a high degree of training and competency. In some communities, the requirements for telecommunicators equal or exceed those for uniformed service, but this remains overlooked in their paychecks and pensions.

Until these issues are resolved, both the public and firefighters remain underserved, and our communities continue to be at risk.

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