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Public Safety Now: What the 911 SAVES Act means for public safety telecommunications professionals

In this podcast, we talk to Ricardo Martinez, creator of the popular podcast Within the Trenches and founder of the #IAM911 movement, about the 911 SAVES Act and what it could mean for Public Safety Telecommunications Professionals.

JW: Hi, and thanks for tuning in to Public Safety Now on HxGN Radio. I’m your host, John Whitehead, VP of sales for the U.S. Public Safety at Hexagon Safety and Infrastructure Division. We got a really exciting topic, I think, for telecommunicators’ week. This is just an exciting time for me, right, as being someone who has actually sat in the chair and rode the chair, as I think the industry term is now. I think this is going to be a great topic to be able to talk about. And our guest today is someone that I actually respect. He started the IAM911 movement and the Within the Trenches podcast, and if you haven’t heard that yet, it’s just a great podcast, just real-life dispatchers talking about things that affect us in the telecommunicators’ world. So, I’m excited about this discussion. Ricardo Martinez, welcome. Thank you very much for joining us.

RM: Hey, thank you for having me on.

JW: I ask you here today to talk about a topic that’s going on. I guess the U.S. Representative Norma Torres of California, her and Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, they’ve introduced this new bill called 911 SAVES. I know there’s a long federal name for it, I’m sure, but 911 SAVES Act is what we’re going to talk about. And it’s all about reclassifying 911 call takers and dispatchers from support staff, being office- and administrative support occupations, to having them in the protective-services occupation. So, this is something that’s coming up, I know it’s something near and dear to your heart, and can you kind of tell us a little bit about what this 911 SAVE Act is and what your involvement is with it?

RM: Yeah. So, as you said, it’s called the 911 SAVES Act, and it’s spearheaded by Congresswoman Torres and Congressman Fitzpatrick, and Torres herself, being a former 911 dispatcher, I believe maybe 17 years, around there, with the LAPD, and then Fitzpatrick is former FBI. So, they got together and started working on this bill. It would require the director of the OMB, or the Office of Management and Budget, to review and make revisions to the—it’s called a Standard Occupational Classification System. Right now, currently, 911 dispatchers are categorized as clerical workers. They’re in there with administrative staff as well as commercial dispatchers, or taxi service, as well as semi trucks and such. But with this new bill, if it’s passed and all, which we’re all hoping that it does get passed, it would move them over to the protective-services class, and that includes police, fire, EMS, even lifeguards and such are in that as well.

For the Act itself, for the bill, my involvement in that part of it really was just the fact that I was the one who got to make the announcement during NENA’s—that’s the National Emergency Number Association—for their 2019, 9-1-1 Goes to Washington conference that they have. And it was just the day after I had spoken to Congresswoman Torres in her office. We did an episode—I believe it was episode 236—of Within the Trenches, and we were talking about this bill. The next day, in the afternoon, I got the chance to be standing right in front of the Rayburn Building, which is across from the Capitol. And I went live on both Facebook and Instagram to announce that this bill was coming out. At the time, I didn’t know the name or anything like that. They just gave me minimal information that I could give out at the time. But it was the coolest thing to be there and say this and announce it over there. And that video exploded. It blew up, and it was shared over and over and over from people because this is something really big that’s been going on. So, with the bill itself, I didn’t have much involvement with what they were doing to put it together. But when you talk about raising awareness for the issue of reclassification, in that sense, I played a big role.

JW: Nice. Very nice. Well, and that’s why we said we’ve got to get this guy on our podcast, right? I mean, especially for telecommunicators week. I mean, he’s the one on the video. He’s the one that made the announcement. So, congratulations for having that honor. I mean, I think it’s a great thing.

You know, what’s fun about this is I remember back in the ’90s and sitting there at the desk. And as a dispatcher, there’s no doubt in our minds we know that we are a huge part of that process, right? I mean, I firmly believe we are the “first” first responders. You know, when someone’s calling 911, you’re the person picking up the phone, you’re the one that’s listening to the worst time in that person’s life, or at least in that week, their worst time.

And I always thought it was kind of funny as I read articles over the years talking about professionals, that that’s really what these types of things are for—professional firefighters or professional police officers. I mean, and it’s funny, right, because we think of that word, and I know, being from my side of the microphone, I know that 911 personnel are professionals and that what they do is an intense job and needs to be that. Why do you think that it’s taken so long to kind of bring this to light? Has it just been not really pushed in the background, or is there opposition somewhere on this deal?

RM: Well, I think that’s one of the big things. You know, you’re talking about the word professional. You know, you look at doctors, lawyers, or teachers and such, and if you look at that occupation, and even if you’re including those that are out in the field—police, fire, EMS—doctors, they save lives; lawyers, whether they’re saving an innocent person from being put away for something they didn’t do, or they’re putting someone away for something they did do, and they’re ultimately helping either the victims or anybody who might come in contact with that person who had committed a crime or something, they are ultimately saving lives as well. You look at teachers. They guide. They’re the voice of reason. Some of the stories that people say about teachers that they met growing up, if they were a troubled youth or something like that, they say, “This teacher, they really taught me something. They taught me how to do this or that, and that person saved my life.”

Now, you look 911 dispatchers, and they do all of that. If you’re looking at doctors, lawyers, teachers, those types of occupations, 911 dispatchers do that all combined and more. So, dispatchers, too, are saving lives. You know, you’ve got a domestic that is coming in. And at that time, especially myself, I was a dispatcher for 13 and a half years, and I remember taking a few domestic calls, where I was talking to both parties. I had the husband and the wife, or boyfriend and girlfriend, or whichever, on. And now I’m a marriage counselor. And I’m trying to figure that out as well, you know? So, all of that, that is the definition of being professional.

And I think one of the reasons that it’s taken so long, really, is because people have had that old-school mentality where 911 dispatchers are note taking and sending out the information. They don’t really look at the fact that they’re doing all of these different occupations in one, and it’s all at a split second and under stress and everything is crazy. But it’s a new day.

JW: I love that— “It’s a new day”—because that’s absolutely correct. Years and years ago—I know this is anecdotal and everybody knows these stories, but, you know, dispatch, “Oh, that was the place that the injured firefighter or the injured police officer—let’s go ahead and put them in there. Oh, you know, we’ve got that one officer who’s ready to retire, probably doesn’t need to walk the beat, but let’s go ahead and put him into the radio room.” So, let’s say that’s where it started. Let’s say that’s not anecdotal, that that is how it started. And from that, I know the time and the effort that it takes, the certifications, the training. I mean, the degree programs that are available out there. The word professional absolutely fits in the 911 dispatch world, and, like I said, I am very proud to have been a part of that and continue to be part of that and doing that, just moving this forward and helping out anywhere we can.

So, let’s switch gears here just a little bit. How does this advance the industry? So, this type of bill going through, you know, okay, check the box. Let’s say it passes through, and it happens. The 911 SAVE Act gets passed. How does this help advance the issue and advance our industry as 911 dispatchers?

RM: It’s all about recognition, right? There’s a lot of different levels of this coming in that this will end up affecting. And most of it, I believe—I don’t know how all of it works in the back end. You know, let’s just say specifically for the federal level, I’ve heard so many different things of how this will help advance dispatching in 911 industry and such for those who are doing this job, whether it be different pay scale, hours worked, they’ll have the ability to switch from just eight hours to 12 hours if they want because some dispatch centers don’t do more than eight hours. Benefits for mental health and wellness, any training, even the retirement age, which I think is more of a state level if you’re looking at advancement in that sense where you can switch from having to work 30 years to 25 years. But again, if that is actually how it works, then, yeah, this has definitely needed to be done at the federal level, both that the resources the dispatch centers will end up getting, whether it be for training or the wellness of their people. That is huge, and that alone is going to help advance the industry in that sense because you look at all the phone calls that people take. And up until recently, maybe three or so years ago, you would kind of hear that PTSD was alive in 911 dispatch, but people kind of pushed it off, or if there’s any debriefings or anything, dispatch was always left out. People didn’t really know what dispatch was doing. And also, the dispatchers don’t stay, because there’s not training opportunities. There’s no other benefits that end up coming with this. So, to advance the industry, and for something like this to get passed, and if it works at that level, this would be enormous.

JW: Yeah. I remember back when I was there, when I started, I guess they’re known again as the industry grew and people started understanding a little bit more, they put us on similar schedules as the sheriff’s department. So, we were when I started working three 12-hour shifts one week and four 12-hour shifts the next week, and it was a grueling schedule. At some point, someone got legal involved. Next thing you know there was this issue of, well, you’re clerical, and you’re working more than 40 hours, so you should have clearly been receiving eight hours of overtime on that second week. And it’s kind of bizarre because at the time I was a dispatcher, I really wasn’t kind of paying attention. Oh, great; my schedule’s going to change. But as I look back now, it almost seems silly, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, but I think right now, my old center is working three 12-hour shifts and one four-hour shift, to where they’re keeping within that 40-hour zone. And again, I’m not sitting here saying dispatchers should work all this over time and not be compensated. We’re not going to go down that road. But what I am saying is just those little things, I’m excited that those things are going to be taken off the plate. Let’s let the dispatch world focus on what really matters, and to your point, the certifications and the things that they need to be focusing on because it truly is an area where I shouldn’t have to worry about, did they work 40 hours this week or 36 hours this week, and I need to focus on just allowing them to do their job.

All right. So, let’s say some other people that were listening to this, and it’s not just all about dispatch for a minute. What can the public or other 911 stakeholders do? Our friends in the police world and the fire and EMS world, emergency services in general, what can others do to help?

RM: You know, people need to learn more about 911, so whether you’re coming from the public or public safety, those out in the field, take the time to learn a little more about 911 dispatchers, what they do, why they do it. For those in the public, if there’s a citizen’s academy that’s going on, go ahead and join that up because that part of the citizen’s academy brings you through dispatch. I remember being in dispatch, a lot of people would come in, and they would see what was going on, and they would say, “Wow. This is completely different from what I thought it was.” And I remember we would ask and say, “What’d you expect to see?” And they would mention whatever they saw in movies or TV or something, these huge screens, and maps where you’re able to pinpoint everyone. I would say, “It doesn’t work that way. It makes for good TV, but we can’t pinpoint people that well. There’s so much to it.”

A good example for those that are out in the field is, when I first started doing the podcast, I think I was maybe on, even just, it was either episode four or five—wow, that was a long time ago. I’m on episode 241 now—but one of the deputies that I worked with, he sent me a message, and he ended up saying, “I’ve learned more about 911 dispatch, listening to the podcast and the first three episodes than I have in my entire—“ I think he was working 12 or 13 years with the sheriff’s department. And he goes, “More people need to learn about this because now I know why you guys send me off to another channel and tell me to stand by. It’s not because you guys are slacking or anything; it’s because you’re doing 20 things at once.” And I could say, “Thanks, man. I appreciate that.”

So, I think that’s one of the biggest things is educate yourself, learn more about 911 dispatch and what it is that they’re doing, and if you call 911 and you get put on hold, it’s not because we just want to put you on hold. I know people think, “Well, I’m calling 911. Why am I being put on hold? I have an emergency.” Well, you’re not the only one who has an emergency. There are several people who have emergencies going on. So, that’s probably the biggest thing: education.

JW: I agree. And I think that what they’ll find is that they’re going to be very surprised and kind of like that emergency-service person that reached out to you. I think they’re going to be very surprised at what they’re finding and in making sure that they’re understanding the industry a little bit more. It’s not just dispatchers as support staff, right? They’re actually a critical partner, and they’re part of that first response, from the initial phone call into when that officer or firefighter gets on the scene. I mean, these are people that are there, virtually holding the patient’s hand or virtually being with the person tucked in a closet as someone’s breaking into their home. I mean, these people go through that.

Back in the day, we used to do—I’d go, and I’d volunteer firefighting, and we would have a bad call, and we’d all sit down and do the stress debriefing. But then I’d go to work, and I’d be up at 911, and you’d get off the phone with someone who had just lost one of their loved ones at whatever age, and you just kind of sit back and go get a cup of coffee and off you go to the next phone call. And I found it very ironic back then—and again, you’re doing the job. You’re not really thinking about it—but I found it very ironic as I look back now the differences. The difference of being out there live and the difference between out there virtual, I personally believe it’s almost tougher to be on a phone call with somebody because—and I’ve described it this way—you got a four-chapter book. You get to read the first three chapters and then close the book, and someone else has to finish the book for you. That can be almost as stressful.

So, understanding what these people are dealing with, the fact that they’re handling these types of calls, hanging up, going right to another one, that is just a bang-bang type of mentality, if you will, that the dispatchers, I just have a lot of respect for in the industry, for sure.

So, let’s just change gears here a little bit. As you know, being with Hexagon, what can the vendors do? What can we help with? We’re trying to get out there, we’re trying to educate and make sure that people understand what’s going on, but what can we as vendors do to help address some of the challenges that the 911 community’s facing?

RM: There are many things, looking back now as to when I was in dispatch, but I’ll say this: to continue to promote the hard work the 911 dispatchers do. I’ll give an example here. As I was the keynote speaker for the North Carolina conference last fall, and when I was there, I did a session called Imagine Listening. And that session gives 911 dispatchers the opportunity to tell their own IAM911 stories. And I had gotten up on the stage, and the crazy thing about this is that not only was this a live-audience episode that I did for the podcast, but this was also in the same room—it was an amphitheater—and all of the vendors were there as well. I didn’t realize at the time that my session was going to be in there with all of them. So, what I said to them was, “For all of you industry partners that are here, that are about to listen to this, if you don’t know what dispatchers do, you’re about to find out, and it’s going to get a little intense.” And almost halfway through—actually before halfway through—the first few stories that were told, the majority of the industry partners that were there in the vendor hall were standing right in back of all the dispatchers who were pouring their hearts out, telling their stories. And in that session alone, those industry partners were learning way, way more than they had ever known before. And I say this because later on during one of the receptions that they were doing, several of them came up to me and said that that was an amazing session, that they knew about dispatch, they knew certain things, but they didn’t know how intense it was until they were listening to those stories. So, continuing to promote, continuing to learn as an industry partner, but also to create and offer services that work well and work the way they’re supposed to in order to continue to help and make the job easier for those who are using whatever products that the industry partner is putting out there.

I gave a talk to some people who had come in from a community college here in town, and they were doing a tour of the building here where I work at INdigital, and they were coders. And I told them all the funny stuff about dispatch, but then I told them also some of the harsh stuff about dispatch. And I told them, “When you’re building the software, when you’re coding all this stuff, you need to make sure to take the extra time to figure out what you’re doing and make sure that it’s right, because those who are going to end up using this, if it messes up, if something happens, something is screwed up in the code or whatever that you had put in there, it could potentially either cost a life or it’s going to make the time go down to where dispatchers won’t be able to move as fast as they can when they’re putting in, just say, for example, a cat complaint or something.

JW: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. Years ago, when I started here, we would get ideas from different dispatchers, and dispatchers said, “Well, you need to have this feature in the product.” And we’d come back, and we’d be excited about the idea, and we’d tell our developer about it, and developers—plural—would sit there and say, “I think we could do that,” and they’d put together their thoughts, and they’d put it in, and all of a sudden there’d be a new button or a new feature within the product. And what we found is okay, that works. You move forward listening to the people that are using your products, but it became, all of a sudden, where there was a lot of features and a lot of functionality.

And over the last several years, we brought in what we call a user-experience team. And it’s one area where I challenged vendors to do exactly that. It is going in and doing sit-ins, it is going in and understanding why is it bad that someone has to click the button two times instead of just once? We took it down, actually, to a scientific level, and I’m really proud of this team. They actually put eye tracers and things on the actual computer that says when a dispatcher sits down, their eyes go to this part of the screen. When officer calls out in a traffic stop, their immediate reaction is to grab for this side of the screen. It was extremely interesting to see the scientific data come out of that and then be able to roll that out into products that can assist 911 dispatchers. To me, that’s where the vendors got to go. And back to your original point, it is standing in the back of the room, it is listening to what they’re doing live every day, it is doing the sit-ins and the ride-alongs, and truly understanding the industry that we’re working with. To me, that’s absolutely critical as far as being a vendor and in this community.

So, I know that there’s a lot of things, and we’re kind of wrapping up here, coming down to the end of this, but I know that there’s a lot of dispatchers out there. You briefly mentioned it a little bit ago. Turnover is happening, attrition rates of 25%, that they’re always turning over and trying to fill those positions. Do you have any advice, as you’re out there talking to some of the 911 professionals, how this bill may help? But if they’re discouraged about their current lack of recognition, do you have any advice for those types of people?

RM: Yeah. I mean, I chuckle because I’ve spoken to a lot of people who said, “We go into work, and we’re gung-ho for what we do. This is a calling. This is what we love to do. But sometimes the environment can be toxic.” And I just keep telling people, “Don’t let it stop you.” When you’re going in, especially new people, when you’re going into this, know that it’s a thankless job, but what you’re doing is amazing. You are the most vital piece of 911, of public safety, of that whole emergency process. It all starts with dispatch. But also, with that sense when those are discouraged, if there’s any directors or assistant directors that are going to be listening to this as well, it all starts with you. It starts from the top. And if we’ve got directors that are not showing or promoting their people or focusing on them and helping them out, it’s going to create chaos. That’s why you’ve got such short staffing. And that’s one of my big things, or my beliefs, rather. You know, it’s just me speaking. That’s one of the bigger issues with short staffing is there are some dispatch centers that I know of that really do it right, that say they don’t want that recognition because they’re doing their job; they love what they do. But every now and then, a little bit of encouragement can go a long way.

JW: Yeah, I agree. We’ve got one of our customers, and I was out there visiting him just a few months ago, and I’m just going to—I’ll say their name, El Paso. And El Paso 911 has really stepped up. And as a past dispatcher, I mean, I was in awe as I walked around. The thought process that they put into building their new center, just the lighting itself, they put in ambient lighting that kind of goes with the time of day. It’ll brighten up, and it’ll dim down, based on the time of day. It’s bringing in skylights, it’s bringing in different types of hardware in different types of desks to make sure that the dispatchers are in an environment that is going to allow them to do this job over and over and over again for hours and hours every day.

And to your point, it does start at the top. It is all about the leaders. And why I’m proud of El Paso is because they actually stepped up and did the research, brought in the people that said, “Let’s just don’t throw some fluorescent bulbs at a ceiling.” Again, I’m going back to my old days of what was above me. But “Let’s just don’t throw some lighting in and not think about it. Let’s really think how this goes.” I mean, think about the time and energy that we put into what type of fire apparatus, what type of equipment needs to be on an ambulance, what type of gear is going to make an officer out on the street successful? And I see that the professionalism within the 911 center is moving into that direction if it hasn’t already.

And I think the other thing is—here’s the shameless plug—but working with groups like NENA, working with groups like APCO, those are the types of groups that are out there that cannot only provide the support but also the guidance, whether you’re in a leadership position or you’re on the frontline answering those phones every time. So, a lot of good stuff that we’ve talked about today.

All right. Well, we can’t go away, though. We can’t not talk about the IAM911 movement. If we had video cameras here, I could show you my little banner that you gave me last year. I still have that little black IAM911 here. So, tell us a little bit about Within the Trenches and your podcast.

RM: Yeah. So, Within the Trenches is a podcast. The tagline is True Stories From the 911 Dispatchers Who Live Them. And it’s based on the experience of being a 911 dispatcher. The earliest version of this I started in 2010. I was getting my bachelor’s degree in graphic design and working in dispatch, all at the same time, and there was a project that had come up about digital storytelling. And I had been playing around with the idea of telling dispatch stories, so I took this opportunity to put it out there. A couple of my co-workers joined me, and I did some still pictures, added some music and narration for them, and I wanted them to tell me a few things. I wanted them to tell me how they got into dispatching, their best call, their worst call, and why they do what they do. And that was the earliest version of what now is Within the Trenches. I ended up getting into blogging, and I always loved writing, so I was writing all the time and posting up different stories. Well, then, I started a written segment called Within the Trenches, and it was all of my own personal stories about 911 dispatch and the experience, what it was like to take a phone call like that. I wanted to use that as an opportunity to educate the public because I realized the public has no idea what dispatch does. So, I had done that.

And then during my master’s program for new media journalism, they introduced us to podcasting, and I fell in love with that form of storytelling. And from there I ended up getting the green light to do it, and I’ve been telling dispatch stories since 2013. And yeah, I’m on episode 240—actually I just posted episode 241. Episode 242 is next, but it’s just hours and hours of dispatch stories as well as 911 pro organizations and industry partners, but there are  dispatchers from the United States, Canada, Australia, as well as Ireland that are all in there.

JW: Man, that is awesome. You are doing some great work. We’re at the opposite end, right? This, I think, is going to be our second episode here. And I’m proud that you’ve joined us on our second episode as we kind of kick this thing off, right?

I just want to wish everybody a happy National Public Safety telecommunicators week, depending on when you’re listening. This is April 14th through the 20th of 2019. Once again, I’m proud of everything that all of our dispatchers do. This 911 Act and the 911 SAVES Act, I think, is a key bill. I wish our U.S. representatives luck as they push this H.R. 1629 through. And a big thank you, Ricardo, to you as our guest. I appreciate the time that you’ve given to us.

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