In most cases, the first person who responds to an incident is never on scene – not in person, anyway – but emergency dispatchers man the literal front lines, taking calls from people facing the worst of life, providing a calm voice in chaos and sending whatever help is needed.
Last month, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature, the state has recognized those emergency personnel as first responders, classified with their colleagues in law enforcement, firefighting and medical services.
When House Bill 1090 goes into effect Sept. 1, Jan Vestal and her staff in Kilgore’s dispatch center will receive recognition of their work in addition to some tangible benefits unavailable in the past. She’s been working for the City of Kilgore 13 years, rising to the rank of Emergency Communications supervisor.
Finally, she says, the law acknowledges the reality.
“I’m thrilled to see that it finally has happened,” Vestal said Tuesday. “It’s not really going to change a lot of things except for people’s perspectives, their understanding.
“A lot of people don’t understand what we do. They think we just take the information, type it in and we’re done. There’s a lot more to it than that.”
According to Kilgore PD Assistant Chief Roman Roberson, emergency dispatch was an administrative position.
“That’s far from what they do. They are first responders – they’re the first ones who get the call. They deal with a lot of the first things any first responders do,” he said. “They’re definitely unsung heroes, kind of out of sight, out of mind, but they do so much for the community.”
The field has evolved, Roberson added, especially in the past 10-15 years with significant technological advances. Similar to their colleagues on the ground in an emergency, dispatchers must now be certified through the State of Texas to work as a telecommunicator.
“Police, fire, ambulance services all rely on communication services,” he said. “We always try to recognize our telecommunicators and ensure they’re part of the team with us … That’s one of the toughest jobs in the police department.”
In particular, the changes to the law will give dispatchers access to mental health services, helping them to deal with the trauma they face – over the line – on a daily basis.
“One of the big issues was access to mental help in dealing with these kinds of tragedies they deal with,” Roberson confirmed. “It gets them access to those treatments that other public safety responders do.”
It takes a toll, and Vestal’s glad for the concrete show of support.
“It can be very hard on a person to take that call and hear that a child has been injured,” Vestal said, “or really anything. It’s very tragic, and it’s very hard. We take it very personally.”
Kilgore has eight fulltime telecommunicators and three part-time personnel manning 8- to 10-hour shifts in daytime, 12 hours at night.
“You think about all they do,” Roberson said. “They’re always kind of behind the scenes and yet they are on the front line.
“When you think about it, they’re kind of the heartbeat of the whole operation. They’re the first one the public talks to. I’ll tell you one thing, I couldn’t do it – you have to have a knack for that.”