911 operators honored during National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week

There is a push to classify 911 operators and dispatchers as first responders.
Updated: Apr. 18, 2019 at 12:29 AM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - They’re the first people you call when you need help.

911 dispatchers help calm you down in emergency situations, guide you over the phone and get you the help you need quickly.

Since 1981, every year during the second week of April, telecommunications personnel in public safety are honored. This week, MetroSafe is honoring the community’s 911 operators every day.

There is a push to classify 911 operators and dispatchers as first responders. Right now, telecommunicators are classified as clerical employees, but some lawmakers are hoping to change that.

Last month, U.S. Rep. Norma Torres (CA-35), a former 911 dispatcher, and Brian Fitzpatrick (PA-1) introduced H.R. 1629: the 911 SAVES Act. The bill would classify dispatchers as first responders, giving them better benefits and recognizing them as equal to the first responders they dispatch to calls.

“I think we should be classified as a first responder because we have a high level of stress,” Ruth Williams, a MetroSafe 911 operator, said.

Williams has been a 911 operator for 27 years.

“I love serving the public. You know it's not an easy job. It is one that you are able to help people daily,” Williams said. “Sometimes it's very difficult, well most days it’s difficult, but what keeps me coming back every day is knowing that in some small way I've made a difference to at least one person in the time I've been doing this."

911 operators are juggling a lot of things during an emergency call, including finding the location of the emergency, taking notes, and quickly getting the help needed.

“At the same time calming that caller because they're not calling me because they're having a good day,” Williams said.

MetroSafe 911 operators answer about 4,000 calls a day. Only eight to 12 operators are working at a time. While answering emergency calls, they are also answering the non-emergency line.

“The assumption is we are sitting here not doing anything while they are talking to us,” Williams said. “A lot of people don't understand that while they are talking, we are actually typing, doing a plethora of things.”

Williams clings to her faith to get her through some of the tough days. She said she tries her best to leave her emotions at the door before she leaves for the day.

“You’re always going to second guess yourself," she said. "You have to trust your instincts and your knowledge.”

There is one call she’ll never forget.

“That’s the one that haunts me,” she said.

It was about eight years ago. It was graduation time in June. She was working late watch.

“It’s a call with a bunch of teenagers—just gotten a pilots license,” she said.

A man called in saying there was a plane crash in Cherokee Park. Williams was the only one to get a phone call about it.

“The guy I spoke to was so adamant about what he saw. It’s not that I didn’t believe him, it’s that there were no other calls [about it] which was highly unusual,” Williams explained.

Williams said the man who called was crying, telling her he wanted to run and help the children.

“[I told him] we don’t need another victim. I just need you to give me everything you can see: flames, airplane number, what type of plane, what color, how many people do you see? Are they away from the plane? Is it on fire?" she said. "It was just a little small Cessna.”

Williams still doesn’t know what happened after receiving that call.

“That's the one that haunts me because I don't know what happened to those three young men to this day,” she said. “I wish I did. In my mind they're okay.”

911 operators are the first ones to take the call in an emergency, but they rarely see how it ends.

“I know I’m never going to hear the end of the story," she said. "That’s the most difficult part: not knowing what happened to that person unless you see it on the news.”

Williams is urging the public, if someone needs help but it is not an emergency, call the non-emergency line at (502) 574-7111 option 5.

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