Clackamas Becomes First County in Oregon to Recognize 911 Dispatchers as First Responders

Perhaps one of the few good things to come out of the Covid-19 crisis is the spotlight it has shone on the nation’s essential workers, from doctors and nurses to grocery clerks to first responders, and more.

These are the folks who can’t close up shop or work safely from home, who continue to show up day in and day out — because we need them to.

People generally understand “first responder” to be an all-inclusive term. It includes police officers, sheriff’s deputies, emergency medical technicians and firefighters. But one critical link in the chain is often left out: 911 dispatchers.

Earlier this month, the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners took action to change that, passing a proclamation recognizing the important work of their 911 call takers, dispatchers, technicians, trainers, supervisors and administrators and declaring them “first responders.”

In so doing, Clackamas became the first county in Oregon to honor 911 employees as first responders.

“We are pleased the Board of Commissioners recognized and honored the 911 heroes who respond to crisis situations every day, 365 days a year, and serve our residents in life-saving and challenging events,” said Cheryl Bledsoe, director of Clackamas County 911, known as C-COM.

In a way, the fact that it has taken this long for dispatchers to receive this well-deserved recognition does make a certain amount of sense. In an emergency situation, they are the one “responder” you don’t see. All of their work is done behind the scenes.

If you call 911, they are the voice on the other end of the line, but it’s not them who comes for you or your loved one in an ambulance. If you are in a car accident, you probably never hear from them — or think about them — at all.

And yet, they are a critical part of the emergency response process, ensuring the right resources go to the right places as quickly as possible.

In the past year alone, C-COM answered more than 269,000 emergency and non-emergency calls for residents in the county, while providing support and resources for more than 245,000 dispatch events, including law enforcement incidents, fires and emergency medical services.

All C-COM staff are also trained in emergency medical dispatch, allowing them to offer potentially lifesaving instructions, including CPR, bleeding control, choking, childbirth and airway maintenance over the telephone until paramedics arrive on the scene.

Despite their training and their work, the federal government classifies 911 telecommunicators as administrative or clerical staff, as opposed to a protective services occupation.

This misclassification stems from the olden days, when 911 dispatchers were primarily switchboard operators, who would take a call and simply patch it through to a police or fire station. The job has changed a lot in the past 40 years, but the U.S. Department of Labor hasn’t caught up yet.

Clackamas County has supported a national resolution, the 911 SAVES Act, that would change this designation, but it has been stalled in both chambers of Congress since March of last year.

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