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No Shortcuts to Respect

To my friends who dispatch EMS crews, have you heard about the 911 SAVES Act (Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services)? It’s a bill before Congress (H.R. 1629) that would reclassify communication specialists as first responders instead of clerical workers. One of the bill’s cosponsors, Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), a former dispatcher, said, “This legislation will give our 9-1-1 operators the resources, benefits, and recognition they deserve.”

If only it were that simple.

I’m a big fan of dispatchers. I even married one. Dispatchers were there for me every shift I rode as a paramedic. If you need a testimonial about the wonderfulness of dispatchers, I’m your huckleberry.

Legislating respect for dispatchers is another matter. The 911 SAVES Act argues that public safety telecommunicators should be reclassified as a “protective service occupation”—an administrative distinction lawmakers concede is “designed and maintained solely for statistical purposes.” So how does unfunded wishful thinking turn into higher pay and better benefits for rank-and-file employees? It doesn’t.

As for recognition, you telecommunicators can queue up with other workers who believe they’re underappreciated and underpaid. I mean, when was the last time you heard a wage-earner say, “I make much more money than I’m worth”?

If I were tasked with justifying the existence of dispatchers, I wouldn’t start with any of these reasons you’ll find in H.R. 1629:

  • They respond to reports of missing, abducted, and sexually exploited children.
  • They negotiate with hostage-takers and suicidal people.
  • They coach callers through first aid during shootings.
  • They take calls from police officers, firefighters, and EMTs who are being shot at.

That’s like portraying prehospital care as eviscerations and breech births. Those things happen, but they’re hardly routine.

If H.R. 1629’s authors want to accentuate the value of 9-1-1 operators, why not focus on what you folks do every day? The way you interpret and prioritize needs at a distance, then make sure the right rescuers get to the right people is pretty impressive. If that’s not enough to boost your compensation, maybe the problem isn’t with your government job classification.

Gaining respect usually involves more than rebranding. Take EMS providers: What are the chances the interminable debate over what we should call ourselves will lead to parity with degreed clinicians? About as likely as your next call being an evisceration or a breech birth.

Respect follows professionalism, not vice versa, yet many of us in the essential services look for shortcuts around that reality. Instead of seeking parity with first responders like me who can’t get through a week without being called “ambulance drivers,” “attendants,” “EMS people,” “cot pushers” or “stretcher fetchers,” aim for real gains—the kind that follow prerequisites like college. I mention education because it’s generally accepted as an element of professionalism and doesn’t require an act of congress. Plus, you learn stuff.

Don’t settle for “first responder.” You can do better.

Mike Rubin is a paramedic in Nashville and a member of EMS World’s editorial advisory board. Contact him at


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