County celebrates 911 call takers

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Austin Montgomery/Beloit Daily News Rock County 911 Telecommunicator Colleen Johns is a 25 year veteran of the county's dispatch service. She is pictured at her desk in Rock County's 911 Communication Center in Janesville.

JANESVILLE - A small group of Rock County employees work day in and day out to be the calming voice on the other end of the phone during emergencies, and an effort is underway to recognize their contributions to life-saving efforts.

The 46 telecommunicators, call takers and supervisors at the Rock County 911 Communication Center help save lives, and help coordinate police and fire responses to Rock County residents who are in need of aid.

As part of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week, which is observed this week, 911 employees from across the country are calling for action to reclassify these workers in a similar status given to law enforcement and fire personnel.

Rock County Director Kathy Sukus said although the current federal legislative push is mostly symbolic, she stressed how important it was to recognize 911 staff.

"It's a respect thing," Sukus said. "Because we are still lumped in with secretaries and clerical workers. There isn't anything wrong with those jobs, but clearly the training involved to be a telecommunicator is more about public safety."

The Supporting Accurate Views of Emergency Services (SAVES) Act would reclassify 911 call takers and dispatchers from office and administrative support occupations to protective service occupations in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) job classification catalog. The bill is endorsed by the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials International, The 911 Association and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Along with the House bill that was introduced on March 7, a Senate companion bill was referred to the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs on April 3, according to federal legislative records.

Sukus said as technology changes to allow callers to send video, text and photos related to a call, more strain will be placed on 911 workers who deal with high stress situations, often with little post incident follow up.

"They will start to see things that officers and firefighters see from these calls," Sukus said. "We go into this blind. That's really a big factor that's not part of the job description currently."

Across the country there are more than 100,000 telecommunicators, with the 911 system starting 52 years ago in 1967.

In Rock County, the system has been in place since 1993 and Sukus, along with telecommunicator Colleen Johns, have spent nearly three decades helping others.

Johns is a Beloit native and has spent 25 years on the other end of the phone line, joining in 1994 after working briefly as a dispatcher in South Beloit Police Department that same year.

She has a calming presence as she speaks, and coordinates calls with ease, seemingly unfazed by the years of work.

"We talk to people in their worst moments, we are their lifeline," Johns said. "No call, no day is the same. It's different all the time."

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