Bill granting mental health leave for 9-1-1 dispatchers heads to Governor’s desk

Brazos County Telecommunications Officer Katie Wilson.
Brazos County Telecommunications Officer Katie Wilson.(KBTX)
Published: May. 25, 2023 at 10:41 PM CDT
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AUSTIN, Texas (KBTX) -A bill aiming to provide mental health leave for 911 dispatchers and telecommunicators across the Lone Star State is on its way to Governor Abbott’s desk for his signature.

9-1-1 dispatchers, often referred to as invisible first responders, are the individuals who talk people through some of the most distressing moments of their lives, including medical emergencies, car crashes, and shootings. However, despite the challenging nature of their work, these dispatchers must remain calm and collected.

House Bill 1486 Introduced by District 17 Representative Stan Gerdes aims to grant mental health leave for 9-1-1 telecommunicators and dispatchers. Some telecommunication officers, despite being the first point of contact during emergencies, are currently not recognized as first responders like their peers.

The bill, distinct from Senate Bill 1359, which took effect on September 1, 2021, focuses on creating a mental health leave policy for peace officers who experience trauma on the job. In contrast, House Bill 1486 would require law enforcement and state agencies with full-time telecommunicators to implement mental health leave for those affected by workplace trauma.

The proposed legislation outlines guidelines for granting and utilizing mental health leave, guarantees telecommunicators their full salary and compensation during leave, specifies the number of leave days available, and addresses the level of anonymity for those taking mental health leave.

The inspiration behind this bill stems from a tragic incident that occurred last October in Milam County, where a sheriff’s deputy was shot while responding to a mental health call in Rockdale. Not only was the surviving deputy deeply affected by the situation but so were the dispatchers who took the call.

Recognizing the crucial role played by these first responders, the bill aims to provide them with mental health leave, acknowledging the toll their job takes on their well-being.

“It’s just important that we keep these folks in mind as they are the first line of defense when we’re going through a traumatic experience and emergency situation,” said Rep. Gerdes.

Katie Wilson, a dispatcher for the Brazos County 9-1-1 district, emphasized the toll the job takes on mental health.

“From the moment that we answer the call. You know, there, there isn’t anyone to prepare us for what we’re going to hear,” Wilson said. I in no way envy the other first responders, firefighters, and police officers for what they’re having to experience with all of their senses. But for us, there’s no one to prepare us for what we’re going to experience.”

“Soon as you hit that answer call button you’re thrown into something without any sort of warning and that’s the part that I think takes the most of a toll on your mental health,” Wilson said.

Katie Wilson, Brazos County 9-1-1 dispatcher.
Katie Wilson, Brazos County 9-1-1 dispatcher.(KBTX)

While the Brazos County 9-1-1 district already has policies in place, such as a critical stress management team, to help dispatchers cope with workplace trauma, Executive Director Patrick Corely says there is always room for additional options.

“The items that are outlined in the bill we already address with some of our policies, but we’ll be working over the next several months, obviously, to go through that policy, make sure we’re addressing, not only the compliance aspect of that bill but also what’s best for our employees,” said Corley.

“I think when it comes to mental health, we, we kind of tackle it in a number of ways. We do it in very direct ways,” Corley said. " We have a critical incident stress management team along with other local first responder agencies. We help each other in times of need after a highly stressful event and we also have a kind of less formal peer support groups and then we also do things that are a little bit more indirect by making sure that our employees have access to some holidays and vacations and some time away from the office where they can decompress.”

Brazos County 911 District Executive Director Patrick Corley
Brazos County 911 District Executive Director Patrick Corley(KBTX)

Milam County Sheriff Mike Clore testified in support of the bill in March, highlighting the critical role telecommunication officers play in relaying information to law enforcement officers in the field.

“We count on these individuals to relay pertinent information, guide us into God-awful scenarios, expect them to stay on the line with victims of horrible crimes, hear all the madness, and continue to function without delay,” says Clore. “A lot of people don’t know what the dispatcher does. They don’t realize that as a law enforcement officer, the dispatcher is our lifeline.”

Milam County Sheriff Mike Clore
Milam County Sheriff Mike Clore(KBTX)

Bettyna Cooper, a Milam County Telecommunications Officer who took the call when her colleague was shot says the bill hits close to home. She says she and fellow dispatchers often feel vulnerable in such situations.

“Once they get on the scene everything goes quiet, and you kind of just there like what’s going on, what’s happening. I need to know why I feel helpless, and why can’t I do more. I just need to know, someone, call me to let me know they’re ok,” says Cooper.

Milam County Telecommunications Officer Bettyna Cooper.
Milam County Telecommunications Officer Bettyna Cooper.(KBTX)

Despite the stresses that come with the job, dispatchers like Wilson and the team at Brazos County find fulfillment in making a difference in their community.

“It’s not a very rewarding job because the way in which we help people is not instant gratification in return but I really like being able to be there for someone who is in this time of need,” said Wilson.

May 29 is sine die or the last day of the legislative session and June 18 is the last day the governor can sign or veto bills.