911 operator

SEEK RESPONSE: 911 operators statewide, such as this NYPD Communications Technician, would gain emergency first-responder status and, their unions say, increased recognition, according to provisions of a bill passed last month by the state legislature. Unions are now pushing for Governor Cuomo's to sign the bill into law.

The unions that last month successfully lobbied the New York State Senate and Assembly to designate New York State's 911 operators as first responders are now gearing up their campaign to convince Gov. Cuomo to sign the landmark legislation so it can become law.

"Every group that puts a bill in I tell them after it passes the legislature, their job is to get the Governor to sign the bill, so the more people who write letters or speak to the Governor's staff, that's important," said Assembly Member Peter Abbate, chair of the Committee of Governmental Employees, who was one of the bill's prime sponsors.

'Mor aale Boost'

According to Mr. Abbate, first responder status for 911 operators was a long overdue recognition, but it would also help local and county governments to access federal grants, as well as to ensure the workforce is covered by future legislation geared to address occupational health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder.

"There is a lot of stress on this job," Mr. Abbate said. "And the sad part is there are a lot of people on this job who never know the final outcome of what happens to the victim or the patient and they are on the phone with them and they never find out what the outcome is."

A 2012 Northern Illinois University national research study found that dispatchers handling high-stress calls involving suicide attempts, abused children, and fatal shootings were at an elevated risk of experiencing mental-health issues.

A spokesperson for the Governor's office would only confirm that the legislation is under review.

"Our members at 911 are extremely excited after we got the news about the first responder bill passing," said Arisleyda Estrela Skinner, the chapter chair for DC 37's Local 1549, which represents NYPD 911 Operators. "The morale in the building has really been boosted so much because we are getting some recognition for what we do."

"We will be having 911 Operators do post cards and letters urging the Governor to sign the bill and we will also be doing phone calls as well as having members meet with the Governor's office," said Wanda Williams, special assistant to the Mr. Rodriguez, Local 1549's President.

Covers Several Titles

The original bill was the result of a bi-partisan effort between Mr. Abbate and Assembly Member Joseph DeStefano, a Suffolk County Republican, who had worked in police radio communications and was a member of the Suffolk Association of Municipal Employees.

The latest version was sponsored in the Senate by Sen. John E. Brooks. It covers the titles Emergency Operators, Emergency Services Dispatchers, Public Safety Dispatchers and Emergency Complaint Operators.

"Suffolk AME was extremely proud to work with all of our partners in labor to pass this critical legislation on behalf of thousands of essential workers across New York State," said Daniel C. Levler, the president of the AME, in a statement. "Our collective efforts to ensure this message reached our elected officials in Albany were successful because labor supports labor. We urge Governor Cuomo to sign this legislation and give the first responders the recognition and benefits they rightfully deserve."

'An Equity Issue'

As part of the push to get Mr. Cuomo's signature, DC 37 Local 1549 is hoping to raise the visibility and status of a civil-service title they say has historically gone undervalued, even as the more high-profile emergency-service jobs they provide critical support for, like police and fire, claim the media limelight.

"I also looked at this as an equity issue because a significant number of the people doing this job are female, single, head-of-household women of color," Ms. Williams said.

According to DC 37 Local 1549, which represents close to 1,500 NYPD 911 Operators, the starting salary for the title is $20.90 an hour, which translates to $21,059 for the first year. After two years, the pay increases to $26,043. A trained Radio Dispatcher, that's also represented by Local 1549, gets $28.30 an hour.

"And these are the people that actually make the city run," said Eddie Rodriguez, president of DC 37 Local 1549 during a zoom press availability with union officials and veteran operators and dispatchers with the NYPD's 911 system.

For years, DC Local 1549 has been making the case that the city needs to hire at least 500 additional 911 Operators, to reduce the city's reliance on what they maintain is chronic mandatory overtime, which they say adds additional stress to an already stressful job.

"On the drop of a dime you could think you are going home at the end of a shift and they will come over and say you have to do overtime," said Alma Roper, Local 1549's executive vice president. "A majority of our members are women, and they have children. If they are supposed to get off at 10:30 they get told at 10:29 they have to stay. It wears and tears on your body, your family and your life."

'You Hear the Gunshots'

Local 1549 Shop Steward Monique Brown, is a Police Communication Technician with 31 years on the job who worked on 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and throughout the pandemic, which killed eight of her co-workers.

"This is really like no other job," Ms. Brown said. "You can't do this for 30 or 40 years without PTSD because all day long people are crying, people are screaming, people are dying. As a Dispatcher you hear the gunshots white you are working.

Ms. Brown said the department's Communication Techs were still working 12-hour shifts during the pandemic, with little social distancing in effect. "When the world shuts down, we still have to be there," she said.

"We work alongside EMS Operators and when a person is no longer breathing it is the EMS Operator's job to give CPR instructions over the phone," Ms. Brown said. "So, only occasionally in my 30 years would I hear the EMS operator giving those instructions. During Coronavirus it was all around us. All we heard was EMS Operators giving chest compression instructions all day long. It was really hard to deal with."

Police Communications Technician Chrystle Bullock, who has 28 years on the job, recalled the nonstop flood of distress calls when COVID enveloped the city in the spring of 2020.

"The pandemic was really the epitome of this job," Ms. Bullock said. "Because our agency has numerous TVs you see the numbers on the screen as you are taking all these calls from people getting sick and dying...It takes an emotional toll. I have watched so many of my co-workers get sick with various forms of strokes like Bell's Palsy, which has been linked to stress."

Federal Legislation Stalled

Back during the Pataki administration Local 1549 lobbied for and won a provision which permits 911 operators to retire after 25 years of service, without a threshold age requirement.

According to Ralph Palladino, a Local 1549 vice president, the Early Retirement Incentive which recently passed Albany and Mayor de Blasio opted to not offer, was a loser for his local because it mandated that the position of the person opting for the ERI not be filled.

"I think it was like two positions for one," he said. "And here at Local 1549, we have been fighting for years to get more people to work 911. If anything, we should be getting some kind of reward like the premium pay the Federal government is offering [through the American Rescue Plan] to cities and states."

According to Local 1540 Grievance Rep Jim McCloud, there was a national move to recognize 911 Operators as first responders that was initiated by the Association of Public Safety Communication Officials. It passed in the House of Representatives but stalled in the Senate when it was under Republican control.

At that point, Mr. McCloud said the strategy shifted to make the case for the designation at the state level. "Texas, which is not a progressive state, was the first to do it," he said.

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