Interview: Ricardo Martinez on the #IAM911 Movement and Public Safety Technology

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9-1-1 dispatchers and call-takers didn’t always receive recognition as part of the first responder community. Two years ago, Ricardo Martinez, host of the Within the Trenches podcast and Director of Communications at INdigital, started a movement to draw attention to the vital and difficult work of first responders inside public safety answering points (PSAPs).The #IAM911 movement, where emergency call-takers and dispatchers share the highlights and most difficult moments of their work, quickly became a worldwide social media sensation. Ricardo sustained this momentum into a community where “the first first responders” can share their stories and relieve some of the emotional stress of high pressure situations. Within the Trenches is one of the most popular podcasts for 9-1-1 dispatchers and call-takers and offers a forum for the community to tell stories from real 9-1-1 calls. 

We caught up with Ricardo to discuss his inspiration for founding the movement, advice for PSAP staff, and what excites him in public safety technology today. 

You started the #IAM911 movement to support the national decision to reclassify 9-1-1 dispatchers in the “protective class” along with firefighters, EMS, police, and other first responders. Why is it important to you that staff inside the PSAP receive recognition as first responders?

My goal of this was to get the recognition for dispatchers that yes, they are first responders. 9-1-1 dispatchers are the first first responders. Even though they’re not out there in the field, the phone call starts with 9-1-1 dispatch. Without dispatch we wouldn’t be able to send help.

When I started this, I received messages from dispatchers that they’d been holding on to these stories for a long time. They were happy to have an outlet to share their stories, and so that people could learn more about what they do and the emotions that come with it.

Your podcast showcases the extremely upsetting and stressful situations that 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers face on the job. What are some ways that you and others have found of coping with the intense emotions involved in the job?

In taking all these hard calls, dispatchers don’t always get that closure. They don’t always know what happened at the end. You end up moving to the next call right away because 9-1-1 doesn’t stop. When you’re finally done with your shift, then you get to stop and think.

I pretty much held those in; I buried those calls. I didn’t ask for help. You don’t want to look weak by asking for help. You want to look strong. But these calls get buried, and something can trigger the emotions. I didn’t realize this at the time, but that was a bad thing. That’s something I hope the podcast and the movement will start to change.

My way of dealing with the hard calls was writing. I started blogging and talking about my stories. It’s therapeutic for me to do the podcast and for other dispatchers to tell their stories – and to give those in the trenches a voice.

For so long, dispatchers were looked at as the ones at the very bottom. Nobody ever thought about dispatch. Nobody ever thought about how dispatchers were dealing with phone calls. There are so many dispatchers suffering from PTSD. This whole movement has been to show that dispatchers are human. They have these feelings when they take a call. They might sound calm, cool, and collected, but inside they’re freaking out just like the person who is calling.

Given the success of your podcast and the show “9-1-1” debuting this past year on Fox, have you noticed 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers are receiving more recognition for the difficult work they do?

I think we’ve seen a lot of progress. I started this on August 24th, 2016. Over that weekend it exploded. Everything blew up so fast, it was hard to keep track. Canada was sharing their stories, as well as the UK, Australia, and New Zealand. This helped create the unification of the “thin gold line” to support each other and share their stories.

Before, all the media that would appear was about dispatchers that were messing up. You would hear a call where the dispatcher sounded like a drone. In reality, you don’t know what happened before that call. That person could have taken a phone call where they were giving CPR and someone died, or someone called and said they were suicidal and shot themselves right on the phone.

After the movement, there was one story about the quiet room of a dispatch center and the reasons for a quiet room. It’s used for dispatchers to go in and decompress after an intense call. I had never seen a story like that before. As more news stories came out about dispatchers suffering from PTSD and how it’s an emotional job, then you started to see Hollywood moving as well with the early talks about the 9-1-1 show. We saw they cast a dispatcher who was going to play a prominent role.

The dispatcher has always been considered the most important person you would never see, and they’re now in the spotlight. And it’s about time.

In an episode of your podcast, one 9-1-1 dispatcher describes listening for sirens through the caller’s phone off the side of the road to know when to tell first responders to stop. How important is more accurate caller location for 9-1-1 call-takers and dispatchers?

People don’t understand that if it’s a cellphone in a bad area, it’s going to come in as a phase one location, which is the address from the cellphone tower. I’ve had to call the cellphone carrier to see if they can ping the phone to get a better location. But that takes time. In the show, they yell out, “We’re going to ping the phone for triangulation.” And they show it on the map in a few seconds. That doesn’t work that way. I still have to wait ten or fifteen minutes sometimes, and it doesn’t always work.

What RapidSOS does is huge. For me, it’s a breath of fresh air because I’ve been in those moments where you’ve got an intense call going but you don’t have a location. It’s just one more call where you might not be able to get help to someone because you can’t find them. Years from now we’ll look back and say, “We weren’t able to find people, how crazy is that?”

What excites you about working with RapidSOS? 

I was in Elkhart County, Indiana when RapidSOS and InDigital were there doing testing. It was amazing to see a call come in. First we get the phase one location, and it’s two or three miles off. We get the phase two location, and it plots us outside of the building. We look at the RapidSOS location and it plots us in the building, right in the section where we are.

We did another test where they called from a target. With the rebid through the RapidSOS Clearinghouse, we had them on speakerphone, and we asked, “Are you the on the west side of the building?” The location was plotted right over where they were. The dispatcher who was helping us out was blown away and couldn’t believe it.

These news stories where you have someone who says I’m in this location, but 9-1-1 can’t find them – I’m excited for those to be a thing of the past. I’m looking forward to the future because with this kind of location accuracy we can save lives.

What are some of the ways in which a 9-1-1 dispatcher or call-taker can impact the efficacy of an emergency response?

ricardo and karin

The biggest thing is customer service. When people are calling, dispatchers have the greatest impact when they’re really listening and thinking outside the box.

Good customer service, being there to listen and understand, can impact a call more than you think. Being short on the phone, whether you had a bad call before or not, can change the call. If I’m being short with you, you’re not going to want to talk to me or answer any of the questions I ask. If I’m taking a 9-1-1 call and I’m being short with someone, they’re not going to give me the vital information that I need to give police, fire, or EMS – whoever is responding to that call. Just in my attitude and my voice, I can impact the call.

Imagine I have a domestic call going, and I have officers rushing there. It’s a husband and wife and one of them has a weapon. If I’m being short with the person on the phone with me, I’m not going to be able to get the best information for the officers going out there. That puts everyone in danger.

You’ve also got to think outside the box. If you have a little kid call in and they don’t know their address, you think of little ways to figure out where they are. And one of those is to tell them to look for a piece of mail and read the address on it. If they know the road they’re on, what does it look like outside. If you’ve got common sense, good instincts, and a level head, you’ll do great at the job – especially with thick skin.

What advice do you have for someone considering a career or just starting out as a 9-1-1 call-taker or dispatcher?

For someone who’s looking to get into dispatching, one of the best steps is to do a sit-along. When I was in dispatch, there were a lot of people who would ace the procedural stuff, but once they jumped on a phone call they realized they were unable to do it. It wasn’t for them.

It’s important to go in and see the four to five different screens that dispatchers are working off. They’re also taking a phone call, monitoring different screens, typing in all the information –   the narrative, the location, the caller’s name, the phone number – while trying to eat at the same time and listen to the radio.

It takes a special kind of person to be a dispatcher. You’re with someone at their worst time. I have a saying, “Your worst day is my every day.” People aren’t calling 9-1-1 because they’re having the best day of their life. They’re calling because they need help.

Make sure to listen to two Within the Trenches episodes featuring members of the RapidSOS Public Safety Team: Episode 157 with Tracy Eldridge and Episode 178 with Karin Marquez. You can also follow Ricardo on Twitter at @911Podcast.

To learn more about the work RapidSOS is doing to improve 9-1-1 location and add additional rich data to PSAP dashboards, read about the RapidSOS Clearinghouse.