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Missouri 911 dispatchers now qualify as first responders. Here's why that matters

Andre Parker, a St. Louis County Public Safety Dispatcher, takes a call on Tuesday, March 28, 2023, at the St. Louis County Chief William Karabas Emergency Communications Building in Ballwin.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andre Parker, a St. Louis County Public Safety Dispatcher, takes a call in March 2023 at the St. Louis County Chief William Karabas Emergency Communications Building in Ballwin.

Zach Cobb has been a 911 dispatcher for nearly a decade. He switched from freelance photography to emergency dispatching in 2014 because he wanted to help people.

On any given day, he might field calls about a baby’s birth, a major car accident or a shooting. But until recently, he wasn’t recognized as a first responder.

A bill Missouri Gov. Mike Parson signed into law in July gives dispatchers access to expanded benefits, including mental health care services and earlier retirement, by defining them as first responders and allowing jurisdictions to do the same.

Previously, dispatchers were labeled as clerical workers. Cobb, a dispatcher in Blue Springs, said that the new designation helps target the trauma and long shifts dispatchers deal with on a daily basis.

"The more people are looking into the mental health impacts of this job, the more they’re seeing that dispatchers show secondhand trauma and PTSD at a much higher rate than anyone ever thought,” he said. "This designation is them catching up and saying ‘these people are experiencing something unique in a way that wasn’t fully understood or respected for a long time.’”

The first responder designation allows dispatchers to retire at 55, like other emergency service workers. It also designates PTSD as an occupational disease for which first responders can get compensation.

Cobb said feeling helpless because they can’t go to the scene like a firefighter or police officer adds to dispatchers’ trauma.

Zachary Dykes, president of the Missouri Chapter of the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, said that while dispatchers might not face the same scenarios traditional first responders see on the job, guiding someone through emergency situations is traumatic in itself.

“You go from sitting there waiting for the phone to ring to moments of sheer terror where you're so focused in on everything that's going on,” Dykes recently said on KCUR’s Up To Date. “You never know if it's going to be a strict emergency call where your anxiety level, your adrenaline level is at a 10 or if it's going to be somebody who is complaining about the dog next door barking for the 50 millionth time.”

Tom Gebken, president of the Communications Workers of America union Local 6360 — which represents dispatchers in Independence and Jackson County — said the designation finally gives dispatchers the recognition they deserve. "The shift in benefits makes it more rewarding, more lucrative, and it really recognizes what they actually do," he said. "They’re being paid for and the retirement now is for the actual first responder work that they do."

Jamie Taylor, the president of the Missouri Chapter of the National Emergency Number Association, said dispatchers must operate first responder radios, communicate with law enforcement and fire departments and answer calls with empathy. The constant demands mean people don’t often stay in the job for long.

"It does take a special person sometimes to have that empathy and compassion, as well as trying to deal with a multitude of things," Taylor said on KCUR’s Up To Date. "Taking 911 calls isn't the only thing they're doing at that one moment. There's always what we call multitasking occurring. And you have to be able to process all that."

Cobb hopes that the new designation will attract more people to work as dispatchers, and keep them in the job for longer. One day, he’d like to see the federal government change its designation as well.

"All agencies are understaffed, and they’re working at a minimum, which means a lot of people are working forced overtime — and that grind can have an impact on people," Cobb said. "People answering 911, we want them to be healthy and happy. We want their minds to be sharp and we want everybody to be at their best so they can best serve citizens and they can best serve officers."

Savannah Hawley-Bates is a general assignment reporter for KCUR in Kansas City.