More Information than You Ever Wanted about Fixing the Federal Classification of 9-1-1 Professionals

By Mark Reddish

“When a mother is screaming because her baby isn’t breathing, it’s my job to coach her through CPR…”

“When someone has a gun to his head, it’s my job to convince him not to hurt himself or others…”

“But I’m just a ‘secretary.’”

For all the complexity of our campaign to fix an obscure federal data system, it really boils down to the fact that 9-1-1 professionals perform lifesaving work, and labeling them as “administrative” personnel is ridiculous.

The 9-1-1 SAVES Act has been reintroduced. You might be asking members of Congress to co-sponsor the bill and explaining why congressional action is needed. Thus, it’s time for a deep dive on correcting the federal classification of 9-1-1 professionals. Even for those who have been following the issue closely, there’s likely new information here that will be of interest.

Beginning the Reclassification Effort

APCO began advocating to fix the classification in 2014 when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sought public comment on how to revise the Standard Occupational Classification (SOC). At the time, we thought it’d be easy. Show OMB that the classification is outdated and that a common-sense change is warranted. Then we could move on to a “tough” issue, right?

We were shocked to see that the response was a list of arguments against changing the classification, which revealed that the “experts” managing the SOC revision were tragically misinformed about what 9-1-1 professionals do and the SOC itself.

OMB’s Arguments and APCO’s Rebuttals

Rebutting OMB’s arguments for keeping 9-1-1 professionals in the administrative/clerical classification has been like a game of whack-a-mole. Each time we address their issue, they invent another excuse.

  • OMB: The work performed is that of a dispatcher, not a first responder.
    • APCO: The Protective Service group is not a “first responder” group. It includes a broad variety of occupations that are not first responders, including playground monitors and parking enforcement workers. Even if OMB didn’t agree that 9-1-1 professionals are the first first responders, the issue for the SOC should be whether public safety telecommunicators perform “protective” work.
  • OMB: Most dispatchers are precluded from administering actual care, talking someone through procedures, or providing advice.
    • APCO: This is not true. I believe OMB relied on outdated information about what dispatchers are expected to do and wasn’t understanding the difference between call-taker and dispatcher positions, that most job descriptions don’t do the work justice, and the fact that some dispatchers are focused on law enforcement or fire rather than emergency medical dispatch.
  • OMB: Separating them from the other dispatchers in the SOC would be confusing.
    • APCO: The SOC already separates electric utility dispatchers – they’re in a group for Production Occupations, not with 9-1-1 dispatchers and taxicab dispatchers in the Office and Administrative Support group. Far from being confusing, putting 9-1-1 professionals in the Protective Service group would actually better align the SOC with related classification systems. (APCO’s 2016 comments, pages 16-20, demonstrated that correcting the SOC would align it with two Department of Labor systems, a Department of Education system, and an international labor classification.)
  • OMB: Dispatchers are often located in a separate area from first responders and have a different supervisory chain.
    • APCO: This is irrelevant. Occupations are supposed to be classified based on the work performed, and in some cases on the skills, training, and/or education required. The location of the work and supervisory chain are not listed in the SOC classification principles. In any event, even civilian 9-1-1 professionals are often overseen by law enforcement or fire officials.

After we rebutted the initial arguments, OMB invented new excuses: 1) dispatchers don’t face physical risk and 2) hard data is required to justify changing the SOC. APCO rebutted these, too:

Physical risk is not listed in the SOC classification principles, nor was there anything in writing about a policy to require data to justify changes or that other occupations were classified based on data rather than common-sense. The Protective Service category includes occupations that don’t necessarily face physical risk, like the people working in casinos watching camera feeds to catch cheaters and the people giving out parking tickets at expired meters, and plenty of occupations that entail significant physical risk – ex: EMTs – are not in the Protective Service category. In any event, we provided data to OMB showing that the vast majority of ECCs deploy 9-1-1 professionals to the field for certain incidents like major events or SWAT team call-outs.

APCO’s leadership met with OMB staff. We played examples of real-world 9-1-1 calls that brought OMB staff to tears. In addition to APCO’s detailed rebuttals and data about why reclassification is warranted, we found help in a number of champions. There have been letters from members of Congress, letters from FCC leadership, and at least one Senator spoke with the Director of OMB to urge reclassification.

And yet, OMB refused to fix the classification. In 2017, they concluded the SOC revision, deciding to maintain the administrative/clerical classification but agreeing to change the label from “Police, Fire, and Ambulance Dispatchers” to “Public Safety Telecommunicators.”

Congress Steps in: The 9-1-1 SAVES Act

In 2019, thanks to Congresswoman Norma Torres, Congressman Brian Fitzpatrick, Senator Richard Burr, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and others, the 9-1-1 SAVES Act was introduced to force OMB to fix the classification. (APCO collaborated with these offices on the bill language and to create the catchy acronym.) Despite strong bipartisan support, the legislation stalled. Since then, the operative provision of the bill was included in other legislative packages, and our champions have reintroduced 9-1-1 SAVES multiple times.

Why didn’t the legislation pass easily? Based on our conversations with Hill staff, the problem could be that the same faulty logic that led OMB to maintain the status quo spread to key decisionmakers in Congress, or perhaps these decisionmakers simply deferred to OMB which never owned up to the errors of its analysis. Indeed, OMB’s old arguments keep rising up like zombies, augmented by new claims which APCO has rebutted: changing the SOC between formal revisions would be disruptive, and data continuity is important. We could go into excruciating detail on this, but suffice it to say, the arguments about data continuity and ad hoc changes are not convincing:

OMB modifies data resources in between formal SOC revisions. It even maintains a standing committee to perform ongoing maintenance functions and make changes to data collection resources between formal SOC revisions. OMB has not explained why continuity is so important, but fixing the SOC would actually better align it with other data programs because (as mentioned above) the SOC’s classification of 9-1-1 professionals is inconsistent with the classifications in other federal data programs. And shouldn’t the accuracy of the SOC be more important than maintaining continuity with an inaccurate classification?

We’ve also had to deal with confusion about the impact of fixing the federal classification. Whereas state/local classifications might impact pensions, insurance costs, eligibility for grants/services, etc., there is no relationship between those classifications and the SOC. We’ve heard many claims to the contrary over the years, but each time we’ve researched it, we’ve concluded that the only impacts of fixing the SOC would be appropriate recognition for 9-1-1 professionals and making the SOC a more accurate statistical resource. In theory, 9-1-1 professionals could use an updated SOC to argue for subsequent changes at the state/local levels. Ex: “Based on the classification in the SOC, we deserve better pay / earlier retirement / etc.” But there’s no evidence that changing the SOC will result in such changes.

Where Things Stand and 3 Requests

The 9-1-1 SAVES Act has been reintroduced in the House, once again thanks to Reps. Torres and Fitzpatrick, with new endorsements, including from the International Association of Firefighters. In the Senate, 9-1-1 SAVES was packaged with other public safety legislation in a bill called the Enhancing First Response Act. That gives us two complementary bills with different strategic paths to success.

Three requests:

  1. If you haven’t already, please use APCO’s Take Action portal to ask your U.S. Representative to support the 9-1-1 SAVES Act (HR 6319), and share the link with your colleagues, friends, and family.
  2. Invite your Senators and Representative to visit your ECC so they can hear directly from you about the lifesaving work you perform.
  3. Ask your local partners in public safety leadership to contact your Representative to request support for 9-1-1 SAVES. Better yet, coordinate a joint letter of officials statewide. In the past, we’ve helped APCO chapters coordinate joint letters from chapters representing 9-1-1, law enforcement, fire, and EMS officials. That’s the kind of advocacy that gets a politician’s attention.

It’s 2024. Let’s finally fix the classification of 9-1-1 professionals.

As always, feel free to contact [email protected] with any questions.

About the TabletopX Blog

A “Tabletop Exercise,” often shortened as “TTX,” is a discussion-based exercise frequently used by emergency planners. Led by a facilitator using a planned scenario, TTX participants describe the actions they would take, and the processes and procedures they would follow. The facilitator notes the players’ contributions and ensures that exercise objectives are met. Following the exercise, the facilitator typically develops an after-action report and conducts a debrief discussion during which players and observers have an opportunity to share their thoughts, observations, and recommendations from the exercise without assigning fault or blame.

Many of the attributes of a TTX are the same we seek to promote in the discussion generated from our blog posts. The goal is to capitalize on the shared experiences and expertise of all the participants to identify best practices, as well as areas for improvement, and thus achieve as successful a response to an emergency as possible.

TabletopX blog posts are written by APCO’s Government Relations team and special guests.