Homeland Security and Public Safety

911 Call-Takers Are the Real First Responders (Opinion)

In some cases, it’s the call-taker who helps a frantic person on the other end of the line administer first aid by giving instructions over the phone.

When we say the words “first responder,” it conjures up a mental picture of fire, law enforcement and emergency medical service (EMS) responding with lights flashing, sirens blaring, racing to the scene of an accident, a medical emergency or some other event that has injured people or threatens to injure people.

The term first responder is jealously guarded by the above professions. I recall being in a fire chiefs meeting where it was being debated as to who exactly a first responder is. If I recall the debate correctly, it involved what role public works plays in responding to an emergency. The definition was argued based on who is called first and then how long it takes for them to respond to an incident. The definition being discussed was one that was designed to be exclusive and not inclusionary to other professions.

While I agree with the common definition of first responders I have to take exception to it being exclusionary to fire, police and EMS. In my mind, the “real” first responders who have the first contact and dispatch the “second responders” are the 911 center call-takers and dispatchers. They work in centers that receive the calls from citizens and others determining what the situation is and then sending the appropriate response resources to the scene. In some cases, it’s the call-taker who is helping a frantic person on the other end of the line administer first aid and CPR by giving instructions over the phone.

Yes, these people are generally safe and snug inside buildings with all the comforts to keep them warm or cool with regular breaks. But they provide an invaluable service to the system we have developed to orchestrate the proper dispatch of people and equipment to the right location. It is not an easy profession. You are literally tethered to a workstation and there can be hours of boredom in some cases punctuated with a hysterical call from someone watching in horror as a loved one is in distress and in need of assistance. 

If it were an easy job, the washout rate for people who get selected as call-takers would not be upward of 50 percent from the time they start their training to the time they are fully trained and past their probationary period. 

Most 911 centers have what is called the “cry room,” where after a particularly harrowing call or shift, one can go and decompress and let it all out.

Every year I attend two Red Cross Heroes events in my region. There, we celebrate the responses of everyday people who stepped in to help another person. In most cases, they don’t even know the people they are helping. 

These citizens are the true first responders. When you look at who survives after an earthquake and was “rescued” from buildings, the majority of people pulled from collapsed or semi-collapsed structures were rescued by other average people who saw a need and jumped in — sometimes putting their own lives at risk — to help their fellow human beings. 

I take my hat off to all first responders: those in uniform, those in the 911 centers and to the average Joe and Sally who take the time to render care to others. Remember, each of us can be put in the position to help someone else and we need to be prepared to do so.

Eric Holdeman  |  Contributing Writer

Eric Holdeman is a contributing writer for Emergency Management and is the former director of the King County, Wash., Office of Emergency Management.

He can be reached by emailTwitter and Google+.