Arapahoe County’s emergency dispatchers will receive more money and better benefits after they were designated Wednesday as first responders just like sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and paramedics.
The move for the 36 dispatchers who answer 911 calls and communicate with those racing to emergencies was approved by the county’s board of commissioners, making Arapahoe one of the few counties in the United States to do so.
Arapahoe County is the second county in Colorado to re-classify its dispatchers as first responders, after Pitkin County, and Colorado is the seventh state where at least one county has made the change, Monica Million, National Emergency Number Association president, said. Counties in Indiana, California, Tennessee, West Virginia, Texas and Maryland also have upgraded dispatchers’ employment status.
Until now, the dispatcher’s role was viewed as a clerical one. Under the new status, dispatchers will be acknowledged in the same way as police, firefighters and emergency medical personnel. The improved benefits include better access to mental health care.
Alexis Weisberg, who has been a dispatcher for six years, said her job requires much more than answering phones. Dispatchers must be multi-task, calmly talk to people in crisis and communicate clearly with those on the ground.
“They think we’re secretaries,” she said.
Dispatchers must go through six months of training before they can answer calls without supervision. The dispatchers will be eligible for the status upgrade after a year of employment. A dispatcher’s starting annual salary is $42,173, and the new status will bring the dispatchers a 3.5% pay increase this year.
In Pitkin County, the change came in October. Dispatchers started receiving mental health benefits but the upgrade did not provide pay raises, said Brett Loeb, the emergency dispatch communications director. Since the move, local governments across the country have called for advice.
“Hopefully, if we can make the path a little bit easier for others, that’s something I’m grateful for,” Loeb said.
Adam Gremp, who has been answering calls solo in Arapahoe County for four months, said the job is rewarding because anyone from a child to an older adult may call on any given day for a variety of reasons. Dispatchers must know how to talk to different kinds of people.
“A lot of that also comes with just life experience,” Gremp said. “You have to be able to judge how upset someone is instantly, and then be able to react to that in a way that doesn’t make them more upset and helps calm them down.”
Dispatchers from Arapahoe County were among those to respond to the 2012 Aurora theater shooting and the 2019 STEM school shooting. They are truly the “first first responders,” said Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown.
“Imagine being a dispatcher with a headset on, and you’re listening to the scared voices of teenagers, or gun shots in the background, or the terrified sound of a mom or dad’s voice when their child isn’t breathing,” Cathy Raley, communications manager, said. “Because they deal with this type of trauma, it’s critical that they receive the mental health benefits that are provided for first responders.”
The first-responder status should instill a sense of pride into the daily lives of all 36 Arapahoe County dispatchers, Million said.
The drop-out rate is high among dispatchers due to stress, Gremp said. It’s not unusual to hear a lifetime’s worth of emergencies in one shift. Dispatchers share empathy with each other and for the people on the other end of the phone.
“I look forward to coming to work,” Gremp said. “For every bad call I get, as in someone’s upset and wants to take it out on me, I get two dozen good ones, people saying, ‘Thank you for your help. We really appreciate you. Good job.'”