911 Dispatchers Share Their Stories

When you think of first responders, you probably picture paramedics, emergency medical technicians (EMTs), firefighters, and police officers. But there’s a first first responder behind the scenes who handles things long before those folks get involved: the 911 dispatcher. And while EMTs, police officers, and others most often get credited with handling emergencies, dispatchers ensure 911 callers remain calm and safe, and they do what they can to manage the situation until more help arrives.

In fact, 911 dispatchers are sometimes the only ones to manage an emergency. For Ricardo Martinez, who was a 911 dispatcher for more than a decade before creating the podcast Within the Trenches three years ago, that was the case on one very memorable call.

“I pick up the phone and it’s a gentleman who’s hysterical,” Martinez says. “I finally get out of him that his wife is in labor, I can hear her in the background. I’m telling him I’m going to get everybody out there, I’ve got [his] information, and to hold on just a moment.”

Martinez put the caller on hold to go through 911 protocol and send out emergency-response staff, but in the meantime the caller’s wife was getting closer and closer to giving birth.

After checking back with the caller, Martinez began to give the man advice on what to do if the baby arrived at home. But the man interrupted and asked him to hold on for a minute. “I hear him running, and I’m asking him, ‘Sir, where are you going?’ And he says, ‘I’m dropping off my kids to the neighbors.’”

Shocked but still on the line, Martinez waited for the caller to return.

“I hear him get back and I hear a baby crying,” Martinez recalls. “They had a little girl!”

Martinez didn’t get a chance to hear much more after the EMTs arrived, but he was thrilled with how things turned out.

“We shared some tears of joy [after the baby was born],” Martinez says. “I remember I wanted to ask him to name the baby Ricarda!”

Of course, not every 911 call has such a happy ending. Dispatchers speak to the family members of recent homicide victims, or those hiding from an abusive partner; many of the calls are traumatic, and 911 dispatchers are at risk for PTSD, though researchers have rarely quantified their symptoms. Few members of the public know the ins and outs of the job, though, which is why Martinez felt compelled to create Within the Trenches.

The podcast features interviews with dispatchers sharing their stories from the frontlines; it gives voice to the often-invisible helpers on the line.

“A lot of the news stories that you see are about the bad stuff that happens in dispatch. [But] there’s always a lot more to the story that isn’t provided,” he says. “It could have been that it was the cell phone call that hit the wrong tower, which was why dispatch was unable to get someone to that location fast enough. There are so many different factors, and a lot of blame goes on dispatch.”

A lack of understanding about the job has also led to it being, according to many dispatchers, incorrectly classified. Few people know that 911 dispatchers are classified as “clerical” staff by the federal Office of Management and Budget (OMB); they’re in the same category as administrative assistants and trucking and taxi dispatchers, and they’re not considered agents of public safety. To better reflect the often intense and traumatic work they do, ApCo International, a public safety communications group, launched a campaign this year to get OMB to reclassify dispatchers as “protective” staff — putting them in the same category as police officers, firefighters, lifeguards, crossing guards, and TSA screeners.

It’s a move that Martinez supports. “It’s really a respect as well as a descriptive change,” he says.

To help push the OMB to make this change — and support the campaign by ApCo and the National Emergency Number Association — Martinez launched the #IAM911 movement. It asks dispatchers to share stories on social media of how they’ve participated in frontline care, since the OMB insists that 911 telecommunicators are dispatchers only, and don’t administer aid.

He launched the campaign by sharing one of his own powerful stories — a meme that reads, “I heard your last breath the night you flipped your four wheeler.”

To date, Martinez has received more than 1,500 #IAM911 messages — including text, videos, and memes — and shared nearly 300 meme-based #IAM911 submissions on the Within the Trenches Facebook page. The album containing those images has received more than 30,000 reactions and nearly 7,000 comments.

“It’s become way more than I ever expected it to be,” he says. “There are dispatchers from Britain who are using the hashtag #IAM999, and it has spread out even further to Australia, and they’re using #IAM000.”

Martinez says that he’s also receiving messages from people sharing #IAM911 stories from the other side of the line. “They’re the person who called for help, and they’re thanking dispatch,” Martinez says. “That’s powerful. And for these dispatchers to read stuff like that, that’s huge.”

911-4

To better understand the work of 911 dispatchers, we’re sharing not only memes from the campaign throughout this piece, but a couple stories from Within the Trenches, below. Keep in mind that these stories may be disturbing to some readers as they deal with themes of suicide and death.

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Episode 15: Sabrina of West Palm Beach Dispatch Operations; 15 years in dispatch.

It was October of 2003. God bless the dead. … What I remember so vividly about this particular situation is that I actually was not supposed to be on duty that day. I had come in to work overtime and I had taken a radio channel — I’ve always been fond of main radio [dispatching first responders to the scene of an emergency] and that’s the place I love to be. It was chaotic, it was mayhem, it was so busy — call after call, situation after situation. I sit down, and I mean, this is my meat and potatoes — I’m home, I’m rockin’ and rollin’, I’m pulling units from all over the city, and I’ll never forget it.

911-5

[A police officer] called me on the main radio channel and he said, “Hey, I’m here in the station. I’m on my meal break, but I can hear how busy you are. If you need me to, I’ll clear. I’ll help you, I’ll clear some stuff up and then I’ll go ahead and finish my break.” And I thought about it and I said, “Well, I really don’t want to inconvenience you.” And he said, “No, no, no, I’m gonna stop you. You’re a wonderful dispatcher, you’re doing a great job, but I can help you. So give me a few minutes, I’m gonna go [on the road], and I’m gonna help you.”

So he goes on route, and he’s on his way to a call I dispatched him to in the south end of the city. And about maybe six minutes into his travels, the phone starts ringing off the hook. I mean the dispatch center goes awry. And on my end of the channel I’m getting, “Officer down! Officer down!”, all kinds of accident calls.

In the midst of this . . . I redirected this officer — who I had [just] dispatched — to the accident with injuries where the officer [was] down. I mean, if [there’s an] officer down, everybody in the city goes. It’s just common sense — you send all your resources there. [But] I never heard from him; he never responded. So I’m continuously trying to reach him at this point, and in a few minutes, it’s understood that the reason he’s not responding to me is because he’s the officer who’s been hit.

To make a long story short — and it’s still a very sensitive topic — [there was a] woman, it was a traffic fatality, and she came out of a side street and she blindsided him and his injuries were so severe that he didn’t make it. But you know, I can’t get anyone to understand how many times I’ve revisited that day and [thought], maybe if I’d told him “no,” maybe if I’d told him that I was okay, and maybe if I’d just tried to work it without him clearing his meal break — because he cleared to help me. I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life.

I’ve had to process my way through it and say life is inevitable, some things are just going to be. It wasn’t by design or plan that I happened to be a part of it, and it happened to work out this way. This is just the chain of events. But it did not decrease the hurt, it did not decrease the pain. Your fellow officer is gone. I mean the whole agency, the whole city, everybody who heard about it was impacted by it. But I share my story to help people understand that when you sign up for this, you sign up for that.

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Episode 111: Leslie, telecommunicator in New Hanover County in North Carolina and first recipient of the Within the Trenches continuing education scholarship, which sent her to the National Emergency Number Association annual conference; has been in dispatch for four years.

There’s one call that absolutely changed my career. It did change me as a person, the way I looked at things. It was an unfortunate call. A man called, gave me an address, said he wanted to report a suicide, and he gave me a second address. He said, “My sister’s address is so-and-so.” And I didn’t understand right off the bat, I wanted to clarify — “Sir, which address did it happen at” — he said, “It’s getting ready to happen.” At that point, I hear a gunshot.

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[I was] trying to put in this medical call and my hands are shaking so bad — in fact, the software we use, I should have used one protocol but I ended up just doing the cardiac arrest [protocol] because that’s the fastest thing I could think of — my hands were shaking so bad. I told [the woman behind me] to replay [the call where the man shot himself] while I was on the phone to make sure I heard what I thought I heard. I knew I did, [but] where do you go from there? So I just sat there and I asked, “Sir, can you hear me? Sir, can you hear me?” over and over. Didn’t get anything.

Finally I hear the responders and stuff in the background, so I hang up. I went into the supervisor’s office, listened to it again, came back out to the floor, sat down, took another phone call. Admin came in and tapped me on the shoulder, “Hey, Leslie. You can go home for today.” So you know, I struggled with that for a bit. Obviously I’ve talked about it. But that was hard.

We didn’t have any kind of departmental briefing, though they did allow me to go home for the rest of the day. This happened at 10:12 in the morning, so I had a few hours. They told me not to go home and sit by myself, not to go anywhere by myself. Thankfully [my mom is in public safety] so I could talk to her. I didn’t want to talk to any of my other friends right at that time, I didn’t want to bring them into this — that was kind of my mindset. I was able to be put into a class at the North Carolina Justice Academy that dealt with handling suicidal callers, so that helped me. That particular incident absolutely changed the way I thought of every call coming in. I never expected that.

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If you’re a dispatcher with something to say, or even a 911 caller who’d like to thank your dispatcher, you can share your story using the hashtag and post it on the Within the Trenches Facebook page. The OMB’s public comment period ends Sept. 20, so get your stories in soon.

All images courtesy of Within the Trenches Facebook page

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