Chapter Five: Advancing the Workforce
There’s no 911 without a recognized, supported, professional workforce.
Why is this essential? The wellbeing of the public requires that their calls to 911 be handled by trained professionals who receive support in equitably handling the tremendous traumas of the profession and whose compensation and benefits are reflective of the requirements of the position. 911 professionals make consequential decisions under highly stressful conditions; their decisions have ramifications across the entire response ecosystem. Compensation and clear opportunities for advancement in the field are essential to minimize turnover and support strong agency culture. Other first responders in the ecosystem are under-resourced and require similar considerations: needed minimum training and standards, parity in pay and benefits, and support for experienced trauma. Currently, however, few of these elements are in place, which significantly compromises the entire first response system.
Moreover, Emergency Communications Centers nationwide are facing staffing shortages, with many below 50% of optimal staffing levels. Retaining staff through ongoing support and even retraining will save money over time as turnover is reduced and the need to conduct costly recruiting and training of new staff is minimized. First responders—including 911 professionals—deserve respect, safety, support, and a living wage. Building up a 911 workforce that is dedicated, compassionate, prepared, and supported by internal leadership and the public alike will set us on a path to wellbeing for public safety workers and the communities they serve.
The federal government currently classifies 911 professionals as a “clerical” function. This classification is grossly inaccurate and demoralizes both the workforce specifically and the industry more broadly. Call takers and dispatchers are managing incredibly stressful situations, giving lifesaving instructions, using a vast amount of technology, and managing complex public safety units in the field. As the work tasks have become more complex, it has become difficult to attract and retain top talent. The incorrect classification makes it difficult to justify comparable and competitive salaries and benefits and to provide access to standard and minimum training and services offered to other public safety positions. Several local and state legislative bodies have taken action to classify their 911 professionals as first responders. While these actions are effective and appreciated by those in the profession, federal action will provide momentum for change as many organizations’ base employee compensation and classification on the federal classification.
Consistent service breeds public confidence. To support more consistent services, we must create more robust systems of support for 911 professionals (e.g., call scripts, minimum training standards, etc.) and more surety of the response from other elements in the ecosystem (including non-police on-scene and virtual responders). To inform these systems of support, we must also seek input from the 911 professionals themselves. Their feedback about needed training, standard operating procedures, recruitment and retention strategies, response options, staffing capacity, accuracy of call information, and outcomes can inform call-taking scripts and protocols and procedures for EMS, fire, law enforcement, behavioral health, and other public safety incident calls. Feedback from 911 and other first responder professionals about the nature of each call; available, appropriate, and absent first responders within the ecosystem; and the accuracy of information can support tailoring call-taking scripts and procedures and, overall, be used to provide more consistent, responsive emergency services.
The actions we outline below will make 911 dispatch and call taking more desirable careers and prevent premature burnout of staff, help to equip ECCs with the workforce they need to answer calls in a timely manner and spend adequate time on each call, and build the capacity of other elements of the first responder ecosystem.
1. Formally recognize emergency communication professionals as public safety responders, including local, state, and federal reclassification.
- Advocate for federal reclassification by US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) from “Office and Administrative Support” to “Protective Service Occupation” in recognition that the 911 workforce is composed of public safety professionals.
2. Leverage the visibility campaign (see chapter three on reintroducing 911) to advocate for competitive salaries and benefits commensurate with other public safety service providers to include retirement benefits, medical benefits, and mental health supports.
3. Expand access to the 911 profession.
- Create a professional training track similar to other public safety service providers within colleges, technical schools, and workforce development programs and fund tuition reimbursement and/or loan forgiveness (see chapter nine on national support), as described further under Recommendation 7 in chapter nine.
- For example, the College of DuPage in Illinois has a 911 dispatcher course, and Middlesex Community College in New Jersey has a 911 professional training program. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is also launching a program called “Freedom House 2.0,” which is designed to recruit individuals from economically disadvantaged communities for emergency medical services training. Freedom House 2.0 is modeled after the original “Freedom House Ambulance Service” and associated training program that were designed and operated by Black men and women from Pittsburgh, who served as paramedics. Freedom House Ambulance Service began in 1967 and was disbanded in 1975, when the city took it over.
- Create a credentialing system that doesn’t rely on advanced degrees or years of formal education but that provides minimum standards and appropriate training (see also Action Step 4 in this recommendation, below).
- For an example, see New York’s Credentialed Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Counselor (CASAC) credential from the field of substance use and addictions counseling. The minimum education requirement for obtaining a CASAC credential is a high school diploma. A trainee certification (CASAC-T) is also available after achieving a certain number of training hours for those just starting out in the field.
- Examine and address exclusionary (e.g., criminal history) and required criteria (e.g., traditional educational attainment) for hiring professionals for the entire first responder ecosystem (e.g., 911 professionals, alternative first responders, and hotline professionals).
- Determine and document the opportunities, barriers, and restrictions. Assess their impact and relevance and remediate as possible. This recommendation is addressed in part in chapter nine, Recommendation 7, calling for the creation of a federal grant program run by the National Academy of Sciences panel to bolster, among other things, operational transformation and personnel supports.
- Invest in the talent pipeline to reflect the demographic composition of the communities served.
- A well-known example of this is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS has been in the spotlight for a number of reasons over the past few years, but perhaps one of the lesser known reasons for its success is that the program intentionally recruits people with lived experience from the community, which has allowed them to build high levels of community trust.
- Another example is the Found in Translation program, which trains low-income bilingual women to become interpreters in medical settings. The program is free of charge and is designed to both enhance the medical interpretation field and the lives of women in difficult circumstances. This program also offers a model to advance the credentialing and availability of sorely needed and essential translation services to effectively respond to 911 callers who prefer speaking in languages other than English and the 911 professionals and the systems who require additional support in this area.
4. Take active measures to foster the career development and workplace retention of fully successful 911 professionals, in recognition that reducing turnover not only improves the effectiveness of 911 as a system but also saves money that can be redirected to increase salaries and benefits.
- Develop best and emerging practices elements within the ECC related to employee wellbeing and including employee voices, such as peer support, wellbeing, recognition, and diversity equity and inclusion programs.
- Create a mechanism for employees to provide input on policies and procedures.
- Identify, encourage, and develop career advancement opportunities within the 911 profession.
- See, for example, a recent legislative bill in New Jersey designed to protect the wellbeing of first responders—including 911 professionals—by prohibiting their employers from discharging or discriminating against them for issues related to experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, a risk for many first responders, including 911 professions. Bills such as this are meant to encourage first responders to seek the help that they need without fear of repercussions.
- A strong example of an organization that invests in employee wellbeing is Valley Comm 911 in Washington state, which has an internal peer support and mentor program. They also have a public standard operating procedure on employee wellness that other centers might draw from.
- Invest 911 professionals with power in governance decisions.
5. Ensure that the 911 workforce is equipped for the challenges of today and tomorrow.
- Develop training modules and ECC guidelines to ensure 911 professionals are equipped to address increasing community-level events (e.g., climate emergencies, civil unrest, mass casualty events, etc.).
- Ensure 911 professionals have a deep understanding of the impacts of race and racism on emergency response and understand how to mitigate racism’s negative impacts and view it as a core part of their service to the community.
- Ensure 911 professionals have the training and equipment to interface with emerging technologies.
- Conduct and act on a biannual survey of 911 professionals to
- identify local and national needs for more training and support directly from those taking and dispatching calls;
- understand challenges and develop new career progression and retention strategies, and;
- collect feedback from dispatchers and responders about the options available to them, the scope and nature of information provided from the call, and the outcome of the response; use this to inform call-taking protocols and procedures for medical, police, fire, behavioral health, and other public safety incident calls.
- Implement a certification requirement, similar to certification required for law enforcement, fire, and emergency medical providers that requires periodic renewal.
- Ensure certification includes minimum training hours and standards covering relevant content, including history, language and disability access, context and progression of 911; diversity, equity and inclusion and implicit bias training related to 911 interaction with public, coworkers, and fellow public safety providers; familiarization with the demographic and socioeconomic background of the jurisdiction(s) served; and considerations regarding the fact that 911 professionals are not required to give Miranda warnings, yet their conversations with callers can often be admitted into evidence during prosecutions and other court proceedings.
6. Expand the capacity of other elements of the first responder ecosystem, recognizing the expertise of people with lived crisis experience.
- Highlight and center the knowledge of peer specialists who understand the nuance of particular types of crises (e.g., drug overdose, mental health crisis).
- Hire from within the community. For example, recognizing the need to both support the chronically underemployed and boost its 911 professional workforce, Washington, DC, developed partnerships with community colleges to train underemployed residents to become 311 call takers. The program also offers career ladders such that those trained in 311 can grow into trained 911 call takers.
- Hire staff to be responsible for creating and managing the community’s wellness approaches. For example, Tucson, Arizona, created a Community Safety, Health & Wellness program and hired a director with years of experience working with communities and city government to advance wellness.
- Response teams, including responders such as social workers and conflict mediators, should also be recruited locally and given the training, compensation, and support they need to serve well.
- Another example is San Francisco’s Street Crisis Response Team, which intentionally hires peer support counselors and others with lived experience in order to help facilitate trust, particularly by those who may be skeptical of other city-led outreach efforts.
- In New London, Connecticut, the Department of Health and Human Services is using American Rescue Plan funds to support community wellbeing, especially among those adversely impacted by the pandemic.
7. Strive for consistency and parity with and between all elements of the first responder ecosystem, including 988 professionals and on-scene and virtual responders, professionally and operationally.
- Extend reclassification, training, and recruitment efforts to this part of the workforce ecosystem.
- Ensure all first responder ecosystem professionals have the ability to provide warm handoffs among various services when consent is given.
- Foster sustainable and fair work for all first responder ecosystem responders, including living wages, appropriate benefits, minimum training and supports, adequate breaks and time off, and safeguards against burnout and secondary trauma.
- Consider every professional who responds to 911 calls for service and hotlines as first responders. Recognize that all first responders face the same or similar threats, challenges, and exposure to trauma. Creating distinctions between these responders minimizes the important role of all professionals who make up this ecosystem and may create or perpetuate unproductive divisions.
- Ensure that BOTH 911 and 988 (as well as other hotlines) are sustainably funded. 911 systems have experienced years of disinvestment. As 988 is implemented in July 2022, some states may be tempted to draw on existing 911 funds to close funding gaps for 988. While 988 deserves strong support, this should not come from a 911 system that in many respects is already struggling to secure funding.
8. Create, fund, and require implementation of quality assurance mechanisms.
 Transform911: Assessing the Landscape and Identifying New Areas of Action and Inquiry, https://www.transform911.org/resource-hub/transforming-911-report/.
 Illinois bill classifying 911 dispatchers as first responders; Alabama to recognize 911 call takers and dispatchers as first responders; Longview, WA – Under new law, Wash. dispatchers will be classified as first responders.
 The BLS definition of Protective Service Occupation includes other first responders, such as police and firefighters, detectives, inspectors, corrections officers, specialized police, animal control, security guards, lifeguards, crossing guards, and other similar professions: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes330000.htm.
 See Transform911: Assessing the Landscape and Identifying New Areas of Action and Inquiry, https://www.transform911.org/resource-hub/transforming-911-report/, chapter one, “Professional Career and Supports” for an extensive discussion, summary, and evaluation related to the workforce conditions and trauma exposure of 911 professionals.
 See Transform911: Assessing the Landscape and Identifying New Areas of Action and Inquiry, https://www.transform911.org/resource-hub/transforming-911-report/, chapter four, “Emergency Communications Center Operations” for a summary and assessment of the limited data currently available on this topic as it relates to 911.