Dispatchers could be recognized as first responders, pending governor’s signature

A bill passed through the Illinois statehouse would recognize dispatchers as first responders.
A bill passed through the Illinois statehouse would recognize dispatchers as first responders.(Joe Scanlan)
Published: Apr. 13, 2022 at 12:54 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (WGEM) - In an emergency situation, a dispatcher is often the first point of contact after someone dials 911, but, they aren’t considered first responders like firefighters, police or paramedics.

Legislation that passed both houses with unanimous support last week would consider dispatchers first responders, making them eligible for more benefits.

“Dispatchers are there to answer the initial call on probably, 99% of the time, the worst day of someone’s life,” bill sponsor Sen. Neil Anderson (R-Moline) said. “They not only work to protect (first responders) and keep us safe, but also the citizens of our communities.”

He’s tried to pass this measure several times before, he said. He wasn’t sure why it never has passed but believes it might be because of the cost associated with increasing the benefits to dispatchers.

From the dispatcher’s perspective, 27-year call veteran Scott Ryckeghem, now deputy director of QCOMM911 which serves 11 police and fire departments in Rock Island County, said the variety in calls can make for an emotional rollercoaster.

“It’s not uncommon to go from one end of the spectrum to the next, and then back again,” Ryckeghem said. “You get your frequent flyers, who call just to pass the time, just to have somebody listen to them but don’t really need anything, to the next call you pick up is someone taking their last breaths. You listen to the cries and screams of the family members in the background, and you keep that with you.”

QCOMM911 receives about 10,000 service calls a month from residents, Ryckeghem said. Beyond that, they have more than 240,000 radio transmissions to other first responders monthly. Those calls can range from anything form parade route information to police-involved shootings.

“You just never know what the next call will be,” Ryckeghem said.

Dispatchers often act as the eyes and ears of a situation before the other first responders arrive. Anderson said in his experience as a Moline firefighter dispatchers can give them key logistics such as the nearest fire hydrant, exactly where someone in need is located, exact location of the fire within the house and more.

However, they don’t get the closure of knowing how the situation ends like those on the scene, they just go on to the next call.

“Once it’s done, then you try and process what’s happened,” Ryckeghem said. “We don’t know if the child you gave CPR instructions for made it or the officer who got shot, is he going to go home to his family tonight? When our shift is over, we pack our things up. We go home to our families, and we try and keep it all together.”

The bill also comes during a shortage of dispatchers and first responders overall. House sponsor rep. Dan Swanson (R-Alpha) hopes the bill will bring more attention to the shortage.

“As we shine a light of thanks and appreciation on their hard work, that more people will be called to serve,” Swanson said.

The bill is awaiting the governor’s signature. That could happen in the next couple of months.

The bill would amend various state laws to include dispatchers in the legal definition of first responders, which would make them eligible for benefits available for first responders. It would also include them in the definition of “front-line workers” in the pandemic.

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