The Veterans of Foreign Wars awards outstanding first responders every year, but this year was the first year the organization decided there was another type of first responder deserving of recognition.
Dispatchers are seen as secretarial positions, but that is starting to change, as the VFW awarded Melissa Tonseth, a level III telecommunicator within the Garland County 911 Communications Center, with a National Dispatcher Award.
"I think it's about time," said Gina Wright, dispatcher shift supervisor. "I think it's great. I mean, we work hard and work hard for the community, and sometimes, it hurts when we're just considered secretarial. And we do a lot of stuff that people don't know about, and I appreciate that we're being recognized."
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"Our dispatchers are the true first responders to every incident that happens," said Corky Martin, director of the Garland County 911 Communications Center.
"We like to call them our heroes to the heroes because they truly are.
"They're the first ones on the line, they're the first ones asking the questions, getting instructions, preparing everyone else for what they're getting into when they get there. And so, it's time that they get the recognition that they deserve as a first responder, and hopefully, this could be a steppingstone into moving into bigger and better things as far as getting them recognized as first responders on the state and federal level," he said.
Martin and Wright decided to surprise Tonseth with an award presentation on Monday, but they told her it was a training event. When she realized she was actually being presented with an award, it brought tears to her eyes.
"You put so much into a job helping people, and the state of Arkansas doesn't recognize us as first responders," Tonseth said.
"We are considered secretarial. So, for the VFW to not only recognize that we are the first first responders, but to also give you an award, which I made it to the national level, is completely just humbling, for one.
"But, it's emotional because you do work so hard and the things that you go through on a day-to-day basis to keep our officers and deputies safe, to ensure that we're keeping the public safe, to ensure that everybody goes home," she said.
Wright nominated Tonseth for the local award, which led to her winning a state award and then a national award.
"She's an amazing dispatcher," Wright said of Tonseth. "She has the officer's safety at heart. That's her whole goal in life is that the deputies go home safe every night, deputies and firemen both. Every time there's a call, she goes above and beyond to look at past calls and previous stuff, see if there are any weapons in the house. Even if they're not telling us on that exact call, she's always looking, digging for stuff.
"Also, when we have lost people, she's an amazing person at getting coordinates, getting LifeNet out there, getting fire out there. She does an amazing job, and I just felt like she deserved it."
Tonseth started her career as a dispatcher around five years ago, she said. She started out in the medical field, she said, but with family serving in law enforcement for many years, she decided to become a dispatcher.
"I'm very honored to receive this, but it shouldn't be just me," she said. "It should be the whole department. It should be every dispatcher in the nation. The job that we do is more of a calling than a job. We don't get the recognition that we deserve. Nobody sees us. We're easily forgotten. But, we never forget the calls that we take, so I think that this is amazing that they gave this award."