When Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered $1,000 bonuses in September to nearly 100,000 first responders after Hurricane Ian devastated Florida’s Gulf Coast, he excluded 911 dispatchers and hundreds of Forestry Services personnel, among others.
It’s time for those workers to be shown some monetary appreciation too, according to outgoing Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried.
In a letter sent last week that she made public Monday, Fried called on the Governor to provide identical “relief checks” to other “critical personnel” who worked overtime before, during and after the storm struck.
Florida is one of 32 U.S. states that don’t recognize 911 dispatchers as first responders. In recent years, former Democratic Rep. Matt Willhite introduced several measures to define emergency dispatchers as first responders and extend first-responder workers’ compensation and retirement benefits to them. Every bill died with little to no consideration.
Fried said state lawmakers and the Governor should reconsider that inaction in the wake of Ian. She noted that 245 Florida Forestry Services personnel who either responded to or were impacted by the storm also did not receive bonus pay. Law enforcement officers and incident response teams within the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services who helped with search and rescue efforts “were neglected as well,” she said.
“We can agree that our first responders have performed admirably as Hurricane Ian approached Florida, and in the aftermath,” Fried said.
“I hope we can also agree that Florida being one of thirty-two states in the nation that does not treat 911 operators as first responders is wrong. It is my hope that the bills which have failed in the Florida Legislature to designate 911 operators as first responders will be passed in the upcoming Legislative Session.”
Hurricane Ian made landfall Sept. 28 close to Fort Myers at near-Category 5 strength, bringing torrential rain, tornadoes and massive storm surges that flooded a large swath of the Gulf Shore. A recent NBC News analysis found at least 148 people died due to the storm, one of the most powerful to ever hit the Sunshine State.
In the days and weeks following Ian’s arrival, 911 operators worked overtime dispatching recovery personnel to impacted areas in more than two dozen counties across the state.
Willhite, a U.S. Navy veteran and active-duty captain with Palm Beach County Fire Rescue, told Fresh Take Florida working as an emergency telecommunicator is a vital but not “sexy” profession and, as such, dispatchers tend to be overlooked when rewards are handed out after emergencies.
“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,” he said. “We’re going to continue to have a shortage of 911 emergency telecommunicators if we keep going the way we’re going.”
Florida Politics contacted DeSantis’ Office for comment but received none by press time.