Dispatchers seek emergency responder designation

Chad Frey
The Kansan
In 2018 Harvey County Dispatcher Courtney Becker helped, over the phone, deliver a baby before EMS arrived. He, and other dispatchers, are not legally defined as emergency responders in Kansas — something groups are trying to change.

In 2018, a Harvey County dispatcher helped deliver a baby. A call came into the 911 center from a rural residence near Whitewater — a baby was coming and help was needed. 

Dispatcher Courtney Becker started talking with the caller, thinking an ambulance would arrive and EMS would take over. However, the baby arrived before EMS. 

“I’ve been a dispatcher for 18 years and I think I’ve been involved in just about everything," Becker said at the time. "A lot of those calls obviously have a lot of negative and difficult elements to them."

He worked his entire career in dispatch, just as all the dispatchers in Harvey County, not designated as a emergency responder by the state of Kansas. Despite being the first point of contact for the public in most emergency situations, 911 telecommunicators are not listed as first responders under Kansas statute 48-949.

That is something the state members of Kansas 911 Coordinating Council, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and National Emergency Number Association wants to change. 

"We currently have no definition in Kansas statute for communicators as a first responder, emergency responder or anything," said Don Gruver, director of Harvey County communications. "There are different definitions for law enforcement, firefighters and medics. We believe it is time that we have that definition 

Under statute, an "emergency responder," or first responder, is "any person in the public or private sector who: (1) Has special skills, qualifications, training, knowledge and experience which would be beneficial to a participating political subdivision in response to a locally-declared emergency as defined in any applicable law or ordinance or authorized drill or exercises; and (2) is requested or authorized, or both, to respond."

The statute lists a number of specific positions, including law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical services personnel, physicians, nurses, public health personnel, emergency management personnel, public works personnel and people "with skills or training in operating specialized equipment or other skills needed to provide aid in a declared emergency."

That, in the mind of Gruver — and the Harvey County Commission — is not sufficient. 

"This has come to light with the COVID response of the last year. A lot of times they will say an allocation or benefit would be available to first responders and telecommunicators," Gruver said. We don't fell like we need to add that to the end. We need to be part of that picture to begin with." 

Currently there are five states that have recognized 911 telecommunicators as first/emergency responders, with another 10 states looking at active legislation awaiting a vote. There is also action at the federal level. 

Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., is working on the "911 Saves Act," to reclassify 911 call-takers and dispatchers from “Office and Administrative Support Occupations” to “Protective Service Occupations” in the Office of Management and Budget Standard Occupational Classification catalog.

A potential bill has been submitted to the Kansas Office of Revisor of Statutes. The revisor's office attorneys are responsible for drafting bills and other legislation, staffing legislative committees, publishing the Kansas Statutes Annotated and offering legal consultation to members of the Kansas Legislature. 

For now, Gruver said, the only interest is getting the reclassification. There could, however, be more benefit to dispatchers in the future. 

"Down the road there could be training, or with PTSD there is already some action on the EMS side to try and get PTSD recognized as a workman's comp illness in the state of Kansas. That would cover first responders who want to be included in those conversations," Gruver said.  

A steering committee made up of communication directors and workers across the state have submitted draft legislation to make the change to the state revisor's office. Once they have that back, the group will begin to contact legislators to try and get support for the bill. 

It is unclear if the association will be successful getting the proposed legislative action into the Kansas Legislature for consideration in the current session — but it can be considered in the next session if introduced. 

"We are on a short time frame here," Gruver said. "... I think there is support there but it is about making sure that the wording is is satisfactory to all the parties involved."

The Harvey County Commission came to agreement Tuesday that if the proposal moves forward in bill form that the commission would issue a letter of support. 

Members of a steering committee working on the legislative change include Angela Murphy, Kansas 911 Coordinating Council (formerly Allen County); Kansas APCO president Brandy Grassl, Labette County APCO treasurer; Don Gruver, Harvey County NENA past president; Roxy VanGundy, Lyon County NENA first vice president; Ellen Wernicke, Johnson County APCO/NENA member; Elora Forshee, Sedgwick County APCO/NENA member; Josh Michaelis, Rice County APCO/NENA member; Lori Criqui, Kansas 911 Coordinating Council; and Michelle Abbott, Kansas APCO Executive Council representative.