ARAPAHOE COUNTY, Colo. -- There is a movement across the county to make dispatchers first responders instead of clerical workers. Arapahoe County just joined the movement, becoming the second county in the state to classify dispatchers as first responders. Pitkin County was the first.
Arapahoe County dispatchers answer some 300,000 calls every year.
Vanessa Wolny is an Arapahoe County dispatcher.
"It's hard being told we are basically secretaries. We are the first ones to hear the screams, what's really going on," she said.
The new classification aims to change that perception.
“We are doing this because we have always known our dispatchers are truly the first, first responders. Our dispatchers manage crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, giving life-saving measures over the phone to save our residents," Arapahoe County Sheriff Tyler Brown said.
Arapahoe County set aside $180,000 to make the switch, putting them on par with police, firefighters and paramedics.
Cathy Raley, the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office communication manager, said, “On a daily basis, our dispatchers take on the role of protector, counselor, friend, confidante. They do this while relaying critical information to responding units.”
The job is stressful, as dispatched often have to deal with life-and-death decisions.
The reclassification means higher pay, more training and benefits.
“Because they deal this kind of trauma, it's critical they receive the mental health benefits that are provided with first responders," Raley said.
Dispatchers are thankful, saying they have just one goal for their fellow first responders.
“My favorite part of the job is making sure everyone is safe and go home to their families at the end of the day, making sure they are safe doing their job by me doing my job," Wolny said.
Kelli Christensen, the Denver Department of Public Safety director of communications, said, “Denver 911 call takers and dispatchers are not currently classified as first responders. According to the FLSA classification, they are considered administrative. We are supportive of the national push to change the classification to first responder and applaud Arapahoe County’s Board of County Commissioners for taking this step. I know our Denver 911 leadership would like to, but that is a bigger conversation within the city that has not yet begun.”