Local Musings: The #IAm911 Movement

This blog is primarily dedicated to news about Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood and surrounding areas, but I wanted to take a moment to delve into a broader topic very near and dear to my heart: the work of 911 call-takers and dispatchers.

Nationwide Movement

The hashtag #IAm911 is currently trending on Twitter. It was started by a 911 worker from Michigan who runs a podcast-based blog called Within the Trenches. The hashtag is a response to the classification by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that 911 call-takers and dispatchers are considered “Office and Administrative” staff, the same label given to secretaries and office clerks.

Recently, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) made a recommendation for 911 workers to be labeled under “Protective Services,” which is an umbrella category for not only police officers and firefighters, but also lifeguards, fish/game wardens, etc. The reasoning is simple: 911 call-takers and dispatchers are specially trained individuals that employ their skills to help protect not only the public, but to ensure the safety of responding units as well. They are, in effect, the first “first responders.” They are the first point of contact the public has during an emergency. They coordinate response efforts involving different types of agencies (police, fire, EMS, etc.) In order to demonstrate that 911 work is much more than simple “clerical duties,” 911 workers around the globe have been utilizing the #IAm911 hashtag on Twitter to promote a greater understanding of the significance of (and sacrifices involved in) their work. They share both heartbreaking and uplifting situations that they have dealt with.

Local Significance

Chicago’s 911 center is a component of the city’s Office of Emergency Management & Communications (OEMC), which also houses the 311 city services request line, employs Traffic Management Aides, and more. To show how this national #IAm911 trend is relevant on a local level, I’d like to highlight some of the work completed by 911 call-takers and dispatchers pertaining to emergencies in Back of the Yards. (Please note that content provided in the links may be disturbing to some.)

Most recently, a call-taker and two dispatchers were recognized by CBS Local after they helped a woman who had gotten lost while taking a shortcut through a large train yard, and ended up falling and breaking her ankle. She didn’t know where she was, she was unable to stand, and she was located in an industrial area far from passerby. The call-taker stayed on the line for over an hour and kept the woman as calm as possible until she was located and rescued. The dispatchers coordinated back and forth with responding fire department paramedics who were searching for the woman.

Last year, there was an incident on the 5300blk S. Aberdeen involving 5 gunshot victims. A pregnant mother and a grandmother were killed. One of the other victims was an 11-month-old infant. Chicago Police officers opted to take the infant to the hospital themselves, rather than wait for the ambulance. In dispatch audio provided by the Chicago Tribune, the police dispatcher can be heard calmly and clearly disseminating information to responding units, throughout the chaotic scene. When the unit announces that they will self-transport the baby, the dispatcher works with her partner to see if any fire stations along the way to the hospital have available ambulances. As it becomes apparent that they don’t, she coordinates police resources along the route to limit cross-traffic so that the officers can bring the baby to the E.R. as soon as possible. During an award ceremony for the officers, it was stated that the infant might have died, had it not been for the quick thinking of the officers and the superior level of coordination involved.

Almost 3 years ago, a mass shooting at Cornell Square Park rocked the neighborhood and garnered national headlines. 13 people were shot, including a 3-year-old child. In dispatch audio provided by the Chicago Tribune, the dispatcher’s calm voices can be heard, punctured by an exclamation of “Jesus Christ” after a responding officer relays that another victim has been just found, and that he’s a toddler.

To me, this is the reason why the #IAm911 movement is so important. Dispatchers are trained to be calm and detached by nature, but they are human, too, and handling life-or-death emergencies can take a toll. Posttraumatic stress and anxiety are commonly exhibited by 911 workers. This clearly sets them apart from other administrative and clerical workers. If the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics actually listed 911 workers under “Protective Services,” which they clearly are, not only they would be getting some much-deserved recognition, but it could also open up opportunities for funding and studies surrounding the resources that are (or are not currently) offered to 911 workers, to help them cope with trauma and continue doing their important jobs to the best of their ability.