Devon Clary is wearing a headset, sitting at a console in front of a wall of glowing computer screens. As soon as she answers an incoming call, it is evident that she has the voice for such a position. She’s articulate and her voice is smooth, calming, reassuring.
There is no margin for error in Devon Clary’s job.
As director of emergency communications at the Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, Clary leads a team of 11 full-time emergency telecommunicators in what many might consider a daily endurance test.
Regularly being placed through a headset into life-or-death situations, stress is a regular part of the job. “You need to come to work prepared to handle anything,” she explains.
The lives of citizens and fire fighters, EMS providers and police officers depend on Clary and her fellow telecommunicators.
“People are scared, hysterical or angry when they call 911,” she explains. “You have to stay calm and collected through it all. You’d be surprised at what people say to us and how we sometimes get treated by the very people we are trying to help.”
She knows, however, that it’s not personal. It’s just part of the job.
“Our job is to ask the right questions in order to get help to people as quickly as possible. It’s also to calmly talk people through extremely difficult or stressful situations,” the Gasburg, Va., native explains.
While Clary says the telecommunicators in her center are typically scheduled 36-48 hours a week, she admits that 72-hour weeks are sometimes necessary.
In between phone calls, Clary expresses her love of what she does. “It’s super stressful sometimes, but I love helping people. Even when it’s difficult.”
Sherry Herzing, founder of the LKG-911 Task Force, has gotten to know Clary over the last three years.
“These guys are our heroes, right here,” Herzing says, her voice shaking with emotion as she motioning toward Clary and Trinity Harrison, the other telecommunicator on duty.
“I tear up … because people don’t realize what they do, and how important what they do is. And I just can’t believe that people just don’t know how stressful their jobs truly are. We’ve got to get them help,” she says.
By help, Herzing is referring to the effort currently underway to reclassify public safety telecommunicators from Standard Occupational Classification to Protective Services Classification, alongside police and fire personnel.
“Communications officers, call-takers, operators, emergency dispatchers, telecommunicators — whatever term you want to use — are classified by the federal government as secretaries,” Clary explains.
Headway is being made, Herzing notes. In April of 2021, a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House called for reclassification of public safety dispatchers. The 911 SAVES (Supporting Accurate View of Emergency Services) Act was introduced by U.S. Reps. Norma Torres, D-Calif., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa.
“The 911 SAVES Act has been trying to get through the federal government for several years now,” Clary says. It’s gaining traction each year as more and more states are doing reclassification — although Virginia is not one of them at this time. There is, however, a big effort to try to get there.
The classification fails to give emergency telecommunicators recognition for a job with responsibilities that has grown exponentially over the past decades and skimps on benefits comparable to the Protective Service Occupations.
“As someone who answered 911 calls for LAPD for nearly 18 years, I know firsthand that dispatchers are unsung heroes in our emergency response system,” Rep. Torres says. “Lives are at stake with each call they take — and it’s beyond time that we recognize the high stakes of the job, and the incredible sacrifices these professionals make to keep the rest of us safe. The 911 SAVES Act would not only give dispatchers the recognition they deserve but would also provide validation to the nearly 1000,000 professionals across America who answer emergency calls every single day.”
The work these professionals do is complicated, technical and stressful. “You may have to walk, chew gun, do cartwheels and do back flips all at the same time, all while getting cursed out in your ear,” says Clary.
Brunswick County Sheriff Brian Roberts, however, notes a silver lining in the fact that his locality has been very fortunate to receive grant funding.
Clary elaborates on Roberts’ point: “We write many grants, and we are successful in getting many grants. It helps us with our equipment and training. Last year alone, we had 12,000 in grant funding that really helped us increase training to make sure that our people answering the calls have the best training possible and are as prepared as they can be for whatever situations may come their way. A lot of rural centers, however, do not have the resources to write the grants, knowledge of the grants, and certainly not the funding.”
When asked what is needed to push these efforts into the public eye, Clary says simply, “We need people to listen.”
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