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What the new 'first responder' status means for 911 dispatchers in St. Louis County

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St. Louis County Police Department
St. Louis County Police 911 dispatchers will soon be recognized as first responders alongside the paramedics and other emergency workers under a new county law.

The movement to classify 911 dispatchers as first responders is gaining steam nationally. States including New York and Kansas earlier this year passed legislation officially deeming them as such. In St. Louis County, Councilwomen Kelli Dunaway, D-2nd District, and Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, proposed similar legislation, which garnered unanimous support from the county council last month.

Brian Battles, public safety dispatcher III with the St. Louis County Police Department, shared his insights on his field of work with Dunaway and Clancy to help inform them of why it makes sense for dispatchers to be in the same category as firefighters, police and medics.

He joined Thursday’s St. Louis on the Air to discuss what the status change means for him and his department. He explained that legislation passed at the federal and state levels is important, but not as impactful as local governments signing on.

"If it's done at the state level, that kind of tells the city and counties, 'Hey, if you would like to make an ordinance, some legislation to do it at your local level, that's really where you get the bang for your buck,'" he said.

“And the reason being is because we can now lobby through the collective bargaining agreement for greater pay, benefits, training, mental health services, and those things are going to go right back to the county council that voted us as first responders for consideration — and that's why it's a big deal.”

There are currently 12 public safety answering points in St. Louis County. Battles explained that dispatchers at those centers can, on average, answer nearly 200 calls a day.

What 'first responder' status means for 911 dispatchers in St. Louis County

That can be challenging and stressful. “You don't get to dictate which ones are emergency and which ones are not emergency,” he said. “One second, you're taking a phone call providing information to the record room so somebody can get a copy of a police report. And the very next phone call, you get somebody who is suicidal and may want to kill themselves and now you have to make sure that you're handling that situation appropriately.”

Part of the changes on the agenda include providing workers’ compensation to dispatchers who may suffer PTSD from handling a dire situation, similar to police officers who can file a claim when they’re injured on the job.

“Under this classification, it would allow us to fight for the dispatcher who had to coordinate that incident, who might also suffer from some type of post-traumatic stress, to now also file a workman's comp claim as a result of being involved in the incident,” he added.

Another benefit dispatchers can now advocate for because of the status change is more accommodating work schedules. Battles said that could help employee recruitment and retention (a trend impacting police departments across the region and country).

“We're really looking for retention, mostly, retention and recruitment. And that is a way that once you start getting back to full staffing, you can start looking at schedules that benefit everybody and their work-life balance, which is key to keeping people; their quality of work is going to improve,” he said.

“There's a whole bunch of benefits to having a work schedule that is not so demanding on themselves and goes over into their personal life. And that plays a factor in whether they stick around.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Lara is the Engagement Editor at St. Louis Public Radio.

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