First of the first responders

Before police officers and firefighters arrive at a scene, someone answers the call.

By Anne Mickey, Audrey Jensen and Chloe Jones
Dec. 5, 2019

Video by Chloe Jones

PHOENIX – After nearly two decades, tens of thousands of calls and countless crises, a series of four calls broke Lauren Pacimeo.

 

As a 911 dispatcher for the fire department, Pacimeo is trained to keep her composure on calls and always has. But in November, her 18 years in the dispatch room caught up with her.

 

The first call was a battalion chief’s 14-year-old son with a fatal gunshot wound. Then she responded to a fire next to her aunt’s house. And after that, her friend dialed 911 when her son started throwing up blood.

 

She didn’t sleep well that night, but she had a job to do. 911, she said, is her calling.

 

Pacimeo woke up, went to work, plugged in her headset and answered her first call — a mother whose 6-year-old drowned.

 

Through tears, Pacimeo helped the mother administer CPR. Of all the calls she’s taken, this is the first time she cried.

 

“And I just said, ‘I can’t do it.’ And I’ve never said that before,” she said. “That scared me.”

 

So Pacimeo did something unprecedented in her career: She took a break.

 

Dispatchers like Pacimeo help people on their worst days just like police officers and firefighters, but are classified as clerical workers — not first responders.

 

Most states, including Arizona, don’t see dispatchers as equal to police officers and firefighters, so they do not receive the same benefits, like mental health leave and earlier retirement.

 

But dispatchers are the first people to respond to calls. Without them, police officers and firefighters wouldn’t be able to do their jobs.

"Needed now more than ever"

The workload of Phoenix dispatchers has grown in recent years due to more calls and fewer staff. Between 2010 and 2017, 911 calls increased by 5% while the number of dispatch positions decreased by 9%.

Longtime dispatchers in both the police and fire departments say the dispatch centers have never been fully staffed. They say the positions are tough to fill due to low pay, difficult training, inconvenient hours and minimal benefits.

 

“You can go work at SRP, where people aren’t calling you the c-word, you’re not working nights and you’re not working weekends,” said Michelle Williamson, a police dispatcher since 1999.

 

When Williamson started, her pay was more than double the minimum wage at the time, but her salary has not kept pace with inflation.

 

The intense nine months of training is another barrier, dispatchers say. “Not everybody can do the job,” said Capt. Rob McDade, a fire department spokesman.

 

“People wash out of the class once they’re hired, so we’re constantly relying on the folks that we have here to do a lot of work for us with extra shifts.”

 

Shift selection, overtime and vacation days are determined by seniority, so newer employees are often left with the unwanted shifts, more overtime and working on holidays.

 

But when any shift is short by even one staff member, it affects the efficiency and workload of dispatch. Everyone has to take more calls, there’s less time for breaks and some dispatchers have to take mandatory overtime.

 

There is no national standard for minimum dispatch staffing levels because no two dispatch centers are alike. Many use complex formulas to calculate staffing needs based on obscure factors such as the presence of four-lane highways.

 

Since 2013, city officials have cut funds for about 40 dispatch positions that went unfilled, said Tyler Allen, a supervisor at Phoenix police dispatch. The police department budget increased by $33 million this fiscal year, but the portion for dispatchers decreased by $1.8 million.

 

City officials did not respond to multiple requests for comment by deadline

"I feel like a second class citizen"

Texas is the first and only state to recognize dispatchers as first responders. David Cutler, director of the Houston Emergency Center, said the reclassification has given dispatchers in the state additional benefits.

 

The Texas legislation was modeled after the 911 SAVES Act, a bill that would revise dispatchers’ federal job classification to first responders.

 

It is currently stalled in the U.S. Senate and doesn’t guarantee any other changes or additional benefits, but advocates say the purpose is to shift societal understanding of what dispatchers do.

 

State Rep. Richard Andrade plans to introduce a bill during the next legislative session that would recognize Arizona’s dispatchers as first responders. He said it’s a bipartisan issue, because 911 helps everyone regardless of their political party.

 

“They call us dispatchers the unseen heroes. Well, we shouldn’t be unseen,” said Ginger Bruno, a police dispatcher.

 

Bruno said a first responder title could help people understand the importance of 911 dispatch in emergency situations.

Audio story by Audrey Jensen

"Our job is trauma"

Research on post-traumatic stress disorder among public safety personnel has suggested similar rates among dispatchers, police officers and firefighters.

Nova Southeastern University researchers published a study last year which found that “dispatchers are at increased risk for PTSD and burnout due to limited control over emergency situations.”

Not only do dispatchers have limited control during the call, they also have limited control after the call. They rarely receive closure because they must hang up as soon as units secure the scene.

“A teenage boy called in about his younger brother who had been molested,” said Louisa Pedraza, a former police dispatcher of 33 years. She asked herself, “‘Were the parents working? Was the teenager the one that was supposed to be watching the kid?’”

Pedraza said it was hard to let go of that call. “I just always wondered what happened to both the boys,” said Pedraza.

Both police and fire dispatchers have peer support programs to provide immediate support to dispatchers after traumatic calls. Dispatchers who sign up as peer supporters are not licensed counselors; rather, they are trained to listen, refer and support colleagues in crisis.

In addition to peer support, a city task force of dispatchers, psychiatrists and city officials is working to improve mental health benefits for civilian employees who may experience trauma, like those in dispatch.

The task force is drafting guidelines that would triple the number of counseling visits available to dispatchers. This would bring dispatchers in line with a state law passed last year that increased counseling benefits for police officers and firefighters.

Frank Piccioli, president of the union that represents dispatchers, said the city established the task force in response to dispatchers using a high amount of sick leave, like Pacimeo.

"I'm only halfway there"

Pacimeo is enjoying her time off. She’s spending time with her kids, reconnecting with her husband and seeing a therapist.

Living with post-traumatic stress disorder is a struggle, Pacimeo said, but she hopes to take everything she’s learning in therapy and apply it to her home, work and social life.

If she is ready to return to dispatch after her sick leave, Pacimeo said she doesn’t think she could work the 18 more years she needs in order to maximize her retirement benefits.

Most sworn first responders, such as police officers and firefighters, can retire after 20 years with full benefits. If dispatchers had this same benefit, Pacimeo said, she could retire just two years from now.

But in January, she has to decide: “Do I need money or do I need more help?”