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Dispatchers want first responder status

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Dispatchers want first responder status

If the act is adopted into law it would, categorize public safety dispatchers as first responders because the work comes with an extreme emotional and physical impact.

On the second floor at the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office in Summerville, comfortably dressed, dispatchers sit in a small room lit mainly by the hue of large computer monitors. Their headsets, will no doubt, soon erupt causing blinking cursors to scurry, because someone they’ve never met is making the worst call of their lives.

“It was a homicide and suicide, it was awful, it was devastating, it was horrible,” said Lori Henerey-Miller, the Operations Supervisor, about her first call, many years ago.

“One of the worst calls was when I was listening to two children drown with their mother, while playing in a river,” she said. “The hardest call that I have actually taken was listening to an 89-year old man beg me to save his 89-year-old wife that I knew I couldn’t save; we cried on the phone together.”

Another dispatcher, Dee Dee Ellis, has done the job for 17-years, “A child accidently shot his friend in the chest-- and listening to them and giving CPR instructions,” she said, pulling one of countless calls from her memory.

These tragic calls are all in a day’s work for someone classified, by law, as a clerical administrative-assistant. “We should be considered first responders; we respond to a call long before anyone else does,” said, Henerey-Miller. “Just because we don’t make it to the scene doesn’t mean we are not there in some aspect.”

Because of their classification first responders, like those in law enforcement, fire and EMS have access to more thorough treatment and counseling when dealing with traumatic situations that can lead to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At this time, dispatchers are not able to get the additional help and benefits when needed.

“Although we are not on scene and we don’t see it we are still making these the pictures in our minds,” said Ellis. “You’re still going through the same thing and visualizing what they are dealing with.”

The issue has to be changed at the federal level. Bill H.R.1629, 911 SAVES Act, was introduced in March, 2019 in the U.S. House of Representatives and according to the congressional website, Congress.gov, it is still making its way through committee.

The bill has support from both sides of the isle and is co-sponsored by over 100 lawmakers, including three from South Carolina. What’s more, current first responders agree with the plan.

“These folks up here are our partners and our co-workers,” said, Lt. Rick Carson from the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office. “They are not people who answer telephone calls,” he said. “They are people who send me or a myriad of 350 other people on calls whether it be, EMS, law enforcement or fire. They are the people who first respond to the call for help.”

If the act is adopted into law it would, categorize public safety dispatchers as first responders because the work comes with “an extreme emotional and physical impact that is compounded by long hours and the around-the-clock nature of the job.”

“I would love for us to be in the same league as a first responder,” said Henerey-Miller. “I think that’s what we are. If we could move towards that like someone who shows up on the scene that would be great.”