GAINESVILLE — As Hurricane Ian swept across the beachfront towns of southwest Florida, when panicked callers to 911 reported they were crouched in attics or standing in high water and fearful they would drown as floodwaters rose, Christine Hodges was a reassuring voice on the other end of the line.
Find a flotation device, Sanibel Island’s lead 911 dispatcher told callers, many of them elderly or handicapped. Tie yourselves together so you don’t separate from family members, she said. You may need to fight for your lives and climb to the roof, she warned them. Then she hung up to take more calls. Sometimes, the calls dropped amid her instructions.
Hodges, who evacuated from her office on Sanibel Island 24 hours before the hurricane hit, said 15-hour workdays for her and three other dispatchers in the Lee County Emergency Dispatch Center blended together for weeks after the storm. So far this month, she has worked 12-hour shifts.
But when Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered $1,000 bonuses in September to first responders — nearly 100,000 of them statewide — Hodges and other 911 dispatchers didn’t get any of the money or any recognition.
“The folks who are wearing the uniform have to run toward the fire and toward the danger,” DeSantis said, surrounded by firefighters in Jacksonville at a news conference just weeks before the hurricane hit southwest Florida. The governor said the $1,000 bonus checks would be delivered throughout the state over the ensuing weeks.
The governor’s office did not respond to emails and phone messages to discuss the subject.
Florida is among 32 states in the U.S. that don’t treat 911 dispatchers as first responders. Efforts failed in the Legislature earlier this year to broaden first-responder workers’ compensation benefits to include 911 operators, and last year a bill didn’t pass that would have formally defined 911 operators as first responders. Another bill in 2019 failed that would have expanded first-responder retirement benefits to 911 operators.
Hodges said as Hurricane Ian struck, some dispatchers heard over the line homes collapsing. They answered calls for hours, stopping only for the bathroom and naps. Some stepped aside to cry, she said. They were the only lifeline while other emergency workers stopped responding to calls in person because of high winds.
Hodges couldn’t sleep. She said she didn’t want to leave the phone. She wondered what happened to the callers, if they found safety, if they lived. Their stories rang in her mind. She got two hours of sleep that first night.
“We were the only people that these people in trouble had to communicate with, so it was very traumatic,” she said.
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Hodges’ home is inland, in Alva. Other coworkers lost their homes.
“It’s like going through heartbreak with all of them,” she said.
In the three days following Hurricane Ian’s arrival, Lee County took nearly 13,651 calls. At the height of the storm, on Sept. 28, Charlotte County telecommunicators answered 2,348 calls. They received about one-quarter of the number, 578, the year before. Emergency calls were five times higher in Volusia County during the hurricane.
Those numbers do not include periods when service was deactivated and operators accepted calls from emergency cell phones, said Laurene Anderson, president of the National Emergency Number Association, the trade group for 911 operators.
Anderson has worked in the field for 31 years with no immediate plans to retire. When she does, she said, she plans to continue working in public safety. She recalled working through Hurricane Irma, sleeping on a deflated pool float.
“They’re sitting there, taking calls for other people, and then they have to worry about, well, what happened to my own home? Did my roof stay on?” she said. “All of this stuff that they go through is very stressful, and they need to be recognized for the work that they do.”
Advocates for 911 operators will ask lawmakers again next year to reconsider classifying them as first responders, said Dan Koenig, former president of the Florida chapter of NENA and the Palm Beach 911 coordinator.
Former Rep. Matt Willhite, D-Wellington, sponsored the 2021 House bill that would have classified them as first responders. It died without ever being subjected to a vote. Willhite, who served three terms in the House, lost a campaign to become a county commissioner in Palm Beach.
“It’s not a sexy profession,” Willhite said in an interview. “It’s not out there where everybody knows who you are. We’re gonna continue to have a shortage of 911 emergency telecommunicators if we keep going the way we’re going.”
Willhite said his efforts never gained support among Republicans who control the Legislature.
“That is the most disingenuous thing that this governor has done, to give police officers and firefighters a bonus, but not the (people) that started the process of it,” Willhite said.
He said it might have been an oversight when 911 operators missed out on bonuses in 2021 but added: “You’re doubling down by making the same mistake again.”
The Florida Telecommunicator Emergency Response Task Force coordinator, Natalia Duran, said she agrees. She wrote last month chiding DeSantis: “I know you respect and appreciate the recognition our 911 emergency dispatchers receive as essential emergency personnel,” she wrote. “Sadly, however, the recognition ends there.”
But she says the problem is beyond DeSantis, with a lack of recognition for years.
For 25 days after the hurricane raged, Duran worked 18 hours a day from her kitchen, sending 211 operators to 10 agencies. They included 50 people from outside Florida.
Duran said Lisa Cahill, the 911 communications manager in Marion County, worked for 20 days in Lee County, where Hodges was taking calls from storm victims in Sanibel Island. Cahill said people slept on cots, air mattresses and the floor. Cahill arrived with water amid a boil notice, which some local 911 dispatchers used to make baby formula when they returned home.
“We were greeted with open arms and tears in their eyes,” Cahill said. “They were exhausted.”
This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can donate to support our students here.