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911 Operators: ‘The First of the First Responders’

National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week is a moment to honor and celebrate the work of 911 operators across the country.
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By Pete Levine ·
911 Operators: ‘The First of the First Responders’
Renee Putman

While the work they do is unseen to the public, 911 operators are a vital link in the emergency response chain. Whether dealing with a medical, fire or police emergency, the people we call in a crisis deserve our thanks.

During National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, we recognize these unsung AFSCME heroes across the country who dispatch help when help is needed most. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, 911 operators are having to work from a new playbook to keep their fellow first responders and the public safe.

In South Bend, Indiana, two members of AFSCME Local 164 (Council 962), Renee Putman and Esther Salazar, have had to draw on their training and a deep well of adaptability as they field not only their usual calls, but calls from a worried public about the coronavirus.

“We’re handling our calls differently now,” says Putman. “When we talk to the callers, we have to ask questions to see if they’re symptomatic [of COVID-19], so we can inform our responders. Everyone gets screened.”

Putman notes that this additional screening doesn’t delay the amount of time until help arrives, but it does provide vital information for first responders.

Esther Salazar

At the same time, like so many essential workers, Putman and Salazar are having to be vigilant to keep themselves and the co-workers safe, too.

“We wipe down our whole station every four hours: the keyboard, our phones, everything,” says Salazar, who has been a 911 dispatcher for 20 years. “If I have to go near someone to talk to them, I use the hand sanitizer. It’s become second nature.”

Salazar says that fortunately, their workstations are far enough apart that they’re not “right on top of each other” and offer adequate distance between personnel.

Putman and Salazar haven’t experienced the large surge of emergency medical calls that other parts of the country have seen. But they are fielding more calls from worried people.

“Some people are just inquiring about things. Sometimes it’s maybe an elderly person who doesn’t know [when to call 911],” says Salazar. “But it’s part of educating the public.”

Like so many AFSCME members, Putman and Salazar are focused on serving their communities while keeping themselves and their families safe.

“We’re stressed,” acknowledges Salazar. “I’m worried about my children and my husband. It can get overwhelming, but this is the line of work I do. At work, we’ve become a family and we work it out together.”

Brant Keeney

While stress comes with the job, in Phoenix, Arizona, Brant Keeney, a senior lead dispatcher and member of AFSCME Local 2960, takes a roll-with-the-punches approach when answering calls that might be better suited for a nonemergency line. He, too, has seen an uptick in calls related to COVID-19 that aren’t clinically urgent.

“I just remind myself that people are scared. They’re afraid. Our job is to help manage that. I live with that sense of fear every day,” Keeney says.

Keeney works for the Phoenix Fire Department Regional Dispatch Center, which serves 28 cities, and says that they are dispatching fewer fire and emergency calls these days.

“There’s less mayhem in the streets,” Keeney says, a result, he believes, of stay-at-home orders.

Keeney and his colleagues are also being cautious about cleaning and sanitizing their stations and have made adjustments to how they field calls – working at one primary station per day instead of bouncing from station to station.

The coronavirus pandemic has only intensified an already intense job, one deserving of our gratitude.

“It’s such an intricate job,” notes Keeney. “To get through our training program is six to eight months. We can lose people during training who don’t realize it’s so involved.”

Being a 911 operator requires knowledge of so many areas of emergency response, from how to respond to a structural emergency, to a medical emergency, and countless other crises. And the stress is constant. “We’re the first of the first responders,” says Keeney.

Renee Putman also sums up one of the perpetual challenges 911 operators face: “We can’t unhear what we hear on the other line. That stays with us.”

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