Maria Gilbert of Longview has instructed people on how to deliver babies, give CPR and escape a flooded vehicle, all without being considered a first responder.
Her title is set to change thanks to a new state law which will classify 911 dispatchers as first responders in Washington and create a statewide training and certification for the job.
John Diamond will be the next executive director of the Cowlitz County 911 Center.
The law creates a bureaucratic switch, where 911 dispatchers at government-run centers will no longer be considered administrative support, opening up the possibility of better state benefit plans and earlier retirement, similar to police and fire personnel.
Gilbert said she has been a dispatcher for almost 16 years, and a volunteer firefighter for 23 years. However, at her paid job, where she also helps save lives, the state doesn’t identify her as a first responder, even though she is often the first voice for help someone hears.
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Katy Myers, the president of a state dispatcher organization, said the title change is a more accurate definition of the job.
“They aren’t just answering the telephone and pushing a few buttons,” Myers said. “The true work of these professionals is in the public safety realm.”
Cowlitz 911 dispatchers answer an average of 210 emergency calls a day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Workers dispatch law enforcement, fire and Emergency Medical Services personnel to emergencies, and also empathize with callers and guide them on how to handle life-or-death situations before the boots on the ground arrive.
Myers said the duties require consistent, regular training, which the law aims to create.
The law requires the state’s 911 Coordination Office to form a certification board to establish a statewide training and certification process, similar to how law enforcement officers are required to regularly train at academies for a certain number of hours.
Cowlitz 911 Director John Diamond said there are no required trainings for dispatchers at the state or national level today. He said the training could help minimize onboarding times if dispatchers relocate to other state 911 centers.
The law, which goes into effect June 9, has been a longtime effort for the organization Myers’ heads called the Washington State Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and National Emergency Number Association. The bill passed during the first legislative session in which it was introduced, she said.
Myers said additional training and better benefits could combat the industry turnover fueled by the high-stress job, and also help recruit new hires.
Turnover is common in the field. Of the six dispatchers hired in July, Cowlitz 911 staff said two remain.
The law could lower the minimum age of retirement, Diamond said.
Most employees who work for the state at places like police stations, schools and city buildings are enrolled in the Washington State Department of Retirement Systems. The type of retirement plan they receive is based on how the state classifies their job.
Cowlitz 911 dispatchers are not in the same state-run retirement plans as law enforcement or fire personnel, so their retirement schedules differ.
One state-run retirement plan requires Cowlitz 911 employees to retire at age 65 to receive full benefits, while a plan for law enforcement officers and firefighters allows retirement with full benefits at age 53.
Cowlitz 911 Supervisor Jerry Jensen said the high-stress job takes a toll on workers, who often process the aftermath of calls outside work.
“There’s no way to unhear the things you hear,” he said. “There’s no way to forget.”
He is a proponent of earlier retirement.
“This isn’t a job someone should have for 30 years,” he said. “After time, it’s a lot to ask of them.”