National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week: ‘We are the first, first responder’

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DES MOINES, Iowa — This week marks National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.

In an emergency, a first responder is on the scene to keep the public safe. The dispatcher is the one who directs them where to go when people dial 911 for help.

The Polk County Sheriff’s Office has 24 dispatchers who work around the clock to keep the public safe.

“We hear, we don’t get to see. So in our mind, we have to ask the questions and get the answers to get the officers and first responders there safely,” Charity Richardson, a communications specialist, said, “and so we don’t get to see it live and in person, it’s just in our head from the questions we ask.”

Richardson has been a dispatcher for 20 years. Over the phone, she handles things like CPR instructions, first aid, fire alarms, rescue assignments, and the list goes on.

Telecommunicators like Richardson were once classified as clerical workers in Iowa but now are recognized as first responders. This comes after Gov. Reynolds signed a bill into law in 2020.

“Everybody handles stress and emergencies in a different way, but we all have to handle it the same,” Richardson said. “We have to be the calm voice that calms your mom or your dad or your brother or your sister. We have to calm everybody down to get the information we need to help you. So we’re not just a secretary, we’re doing all sorts of things all the time, and a lot of the times we’re doing all of those things at the same time.”

Richardson said the legislation was a long time coming, and that the first responder classification is helpful because of the benefits that come with it.

“So if you can imagine the stress that’s put on us on a daily basis, you know retirement is important to us and mental health is important because we always have to be on our A-game. There’s not a lot of room and there’s really no room for error in our job,” Richardson said. “Every job is important, but being classified as a first responder because we are the first, first responder is important that we get the recognition that we need.”

Currently, there’s legislation to get this classification for dispatchers at the national level. It’s called the 911 SAVES Act.

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