While Status for Telecommunicators Starts to Improve, Compensation Continues to Lag
Posted on April 12, 2023 by Jackie Mines
National Telecommunicators Week is being celebrated nationwide this week. And rightly so. Telecommunicators represent the hub of the emergency-response wheel — and this has been the case for a very long time.
When 911 service first emerged in the United States, which occurred in 1968, it was common for a secretary in a sheriff’s office to answer a telephone call for assistance, take a few notes, and then pass the information along to a deputy who then dispatched the response. So, it’s easy to understand why the profession originally was classified with other clerical-type professions.
That no longer makes sense. Today’s telecommunicators work with sophisticated technologies to dispatch the response most appropriate for the emergency in alignment with available resources. They provide situational awareness that helps emergency responders perform their roles optimally and keeps them safer. Most notably, they make life-and-death decisions in the blink of an eye. They no longer are clerical workers — haven’t been for quite a while — but rather are the first of the first responders.
How telecommunicators are perceived is changing, albeit not as quickly or ubiquitously as it should, fueled by the National 911 Program, which launched its Telecommunicator Reclassification Toolkit in 2021. Many states have enacted, or are developing, legislation that would give telecommunicators the same status enjoyed by other emergency responders, chiefly police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel.
Note the use of the word “status” in the previous paragraph. It is not a synonym for “compensation,” especially in this regard. Some states that have reclassified telecommunicators have failed to provide a commensurate increase in salary and benefits. This reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where Jerry rents a car, but it isn’t available when he arrives at the counter. He hilariously, but accurately, points out that holding the reservation is the most important part of the reservation. The same logic can be applied to telecommunicator reclassification — status is nice, but enhanced compensation is better.
It's also critical if the 911 community is going to turn around the staffing shortages that are common from coast to coast. Better compensation is necessary to attract the quantity and quality of professionals needed to ensure that the 911 system performs in alignment with citizen expectations. It’s not the only thing needed. The National 911 Program, in its toolkit, rightly emphasizes the importance of implementing better training and career-development programs, and writing job descriptions that more accurately reflect the current work environment.
Think of this as a three-legged stool — each leg contributes to raising the profile of the telecommunicator profession. This is especially important because being a telecommunicator is a career, not just a job, and it needs to be thought of as such. But the most important leg unquestionably is better compensation that more accurately reflects the contribution of telecommunicators to emergency response and the rigors of the profession.
Some 911 center officials say that they can barely afford to hire any personnel given the current compensation levels, much less increased levels. Lawmakers and other government officials at the state and local levels question how they’ll be able to fund better compensation for telecommunicators and state that it will take time to find the money. This might be true. But they all need to avoid falling into the “penny wise and dollar foolish” trap. The current crop of telecommunicators needs to be rewarded justly for the life-saving service that they provide — to both citizens and emergency responders — and enhanced compensation is required to attract more and better candidates to the profession. If this doesn’t happen, it will be exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, for 911 centers to turn around staffing shortages that have reached the crisis stage in some areas.
It's long past time to accelerate the timeline. A colleague is fond of saying that everything in life comes down to “want to” or “need to,” i.e., if you want to do something badly enough, or need to do something badly enough, you always will find a way. Let’s find a way to finally give telecommunicators both the status and compensation they deserve.
Jackie Mines is a senior communications consultant who supports the National 911 Program. Email her at JackieMines@MissionCriticalPartners.com.