Steven Henshaw: Statewide 911 operators honored by Pa. officials in Berks who say more help is needed
Apr. 12—You'll never see them on the 6 o'clock news, or read their quotes in the newspaper, those women and men who handle 911 calls around the clock and provide a lifeline in sometimes life-threatening emergencies.
On Tuesday, a member of Gov. Tom Wolf's administration visited Berks County to call attention to the thousands of telecommunicators at 61 county-based emergency call centers who, though invisible to the public, process nearly 14.5 million requests for emergency assistance each year in Pennsylvania.
The press event in front of the Berks County Services Center was part of National Public Safety Telecommunicators Week.
It served the dual purpose of recognizing the nameless, faceless individuals who carry out those duties around the clock, one one hand, and encouraging others to start on the career path to close a labor shortage in the field, on the other.
Jeff Boyle, Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency's 911 deputy, called 911 operators a critical link between someone who needs help and responders who provide fire, law enforcement or emergency medical services
"911 telecommunicators are a key part of the emergency response team who perform important duties such as providing life-saving instructions to callers, coordinating resources to respond to an incident, and monitoring field responders to make sure they have everything they need and for their safety," he said.
In Berks alone, nearly 60 telecommunicators answered more than 420,000 calls for assistance in 2021.
The three Berks County commissioners — Christian Leinbach, Kevin Barnhardt and Michael Rivera — followed Boyle's remarks with a few words of their own in appreciation of the work the 911 telecommunicators do, and the need for more of those workers.
"They are the connector between people in the crisis and the organizations and individuals who can help them in that crisis," Leinbach said. "Often, they are forgotten first responders but if you don't have a 911 operator, you have a crisis that is going to be much more difficult to solve."
Leinbach said the commissioners have a message for anyone interested in becoming part of the critical lifeline: "Berks County needs you."
He said Berks has never had more openings in its 911 center as it does now. He urged anyone interest to visit the couty website, www.co.berk.pa.us, and click the employment tab on the left of the page.
Barnhardt touted the hard-to-beat benefits, including a pension, that 911 operators receive as county employees.
"We're really looking for people who want a career track and dedicate themselves to our community," he said.
The job isn't easy, Rivera said, but it's rewarding.
Sean Hart, deputy director of the Berks County Department of Emergency Services, said there aren't many education or work-experience barriers to becoming a 911 telecommunicator. New hires undergo a training program that includes instruction on answering 911 calls and communicating with first responders.
"We have had great success with people who have no backgrounds whatsoever," Hart said, adding that individuals who have done customer service do well in the job.
Inherent in the job is the knowledge you are making a difference in someone's life.
"Thinking back to last week," he said, "we had one of our telecommunicators assist with delivering a baby."
The role of 911 telecommunicator is expanding, as PEMA implements Next Generation 911 over the next two years, Boyle said.
He explained that the current 911 infrastructure is approaching 30 years old. NG911 will incorporate the full spectrum of network communications — voice, text, photos and video — into 911 calls, among other technology enhancements.
All this week, PEMA will showcase the stories of some of Pennsylvania's telecommunicators on social media using the hashtag #IAm911.
Anyone interested in learning more can check the employment sections of county websites found in the PEMA website, www.pema.pa.gov. Telecommunicator position are also available with state police.