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Arizona 911 dispatchers, the ‘first of the first responders,’ win treatment for PTSD

Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, an AFSCME member, speaks at a public signing ceremony for the PTSD bill for 911 dispatchers. Photo: Aaron Gallant/ AFSCME.
Arizona 911 dispatchers, the ‘first of the first responders,’ win treatment for PTSD
By Pete Levine and Aaron Gallant ·

PHOENIX – AFSCME 911 dispatchers in Arizona are celebrating the passage of a bill that extends counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder to them. The bill recognizes the sacrifices those public safety professionals make in the line of duty and their role as first responders.

State Rep. Melody Hernandez, an AFSCME member who is also a paramedic, sponsored this bill. It expands the traumatic event counseling program for public safety employees to include 911 dispatchers who are exposed to traumatic events in the line of duty.

Previously, counseling was made available to first responders who had witnessed traumatic events or experienced them, such as police officers or paramedics. However, this bill also recognizes the lasting effects of having heard a traumatic event.

Gov. Katie Hobbs, an AFSCME member and a former social worker, signed the bill into law in May, but held a public signing ceremony in late August. AFSCME members participated in the public ceremony.

Hernandez described how crucial this bill is for those suffering from PTSD.

“Once they leave the call, [911 dispatchers] are left with the pain of those calls,” Hernandez said. “Like many of them, I am also diagnosed with PTSD. It is one of the most difficult diseases to heal from.”

Hernandez described the solidarity among labor groups and legislators who supported the bill.

“This was a bipartisan, powerful effort with labor … with every possible entity that you could imagine,” she said. “As interesting as the stories about the legislature can get, there are very beautiful moments like this.”

Frank Piccioli, president of AFSCME Local 2960 and a former fire emergency dispatcher, said, “911 dispatchers every day deal with issues of life and death and those decisions can wear on their souls. These needed resources will help deal with PTSD issues so prevalent in this group. They are truly the first of the first responders.”

For Louisa Pedraza, a retired police 911 dispatcher in Phoenix who served for more than 30 years, the inclusion of 911 operators with other first responders has been a long time coming.

“I knew what a toll it took on me physically and mentally. It was a benefit that had to be given to all the 911 emergency dispatchers,” said Pedraza.

Pedraza had testified before both the Arizona House of Representatives and Senate about 911 operators’ need for counseling. At the bill signing ceremony, she thanked Hernandez for sponsoring this important legislation.

“Although [being a 911 operator] is mentally and physically difficult, it’s very rewarding,” Pedraza added. “It’s a way to give back to the community and be a part of public service.”

Pedraza noted that the job has become even harder since she retired, with more vacancies and fewer dispatchers to fill them. However, that problem isn’t specific to 911 dispatchers, nor to Arizonans.

There’s a nationwide shortage of public service workers. That’s why AFSCME launched its Staff the Front Lines initiative and bus tour, which aims to recruit qualified professionals to work in public service and invest in the essential workers who keep our communities running.

The bus tour stopped in Phoenix earlier in August, and will be making stops in other cities to hold job fairs and to spread the word about public service jobs and the union difference that comes with them.

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