Creator of #IAM911 movement reflects on dispatch career, life-changing moments
Ricardo Martinez was 20 when he got his first job as a 911 dispatcher; he quickly found out that the job wasn't going to get easier but harder
By Ricardo Martinez
Imagine your brother wanting to kill himself. Imagine handing him a gun to show him how crazy the thought of it sounds. He takes that gun and shoots himself in the head in front of you. Now imagine you are 911, listening to the aftermath of a tragic mistake. This is what it's like within the trenches.
Podcast episode 126 of "Within the Trenches" begins this way — the first installment of Imagine Listening, an extension of the podcast featuring the stories of the #IAM911 movement.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
What is "Within the Trenches" and what is the #IAM911 movement?
Let’s start at the beginning of my 911 dispatching career.
Frostproof, Fla. – September 2001
I was 20 years old dealing with a bad breakup. I had hit rock bottom and I left Michigan, my home up until then, to visit my mother, sisters and grandmother. I had planned to stay for a couple of weeks to figure out my life and then go back. Well, a couple weeks turned into much longer and after a while my mother asked, “Don’t you think you should find a job?”
At the time, I only had retail management experience. I figured I could find something easy since I had managed two different retail stores, but that wasn’t the case. I was lost and when I was ready to give up my mom mentioned that my cousins' husband knew the chief of police in Frostproof and that they were looking for a 911 dispatcher. I had no prior experience and I had no idea what a dispatcher did besides answer the phone. I thought, “What the hell? How hard can it be?” What a fool to ask such a question, right?
I entered Frostproof Police Department for my interview. It was a smaller agency that had about 11 sworn officers. This included the sergeant, lieutenant and chief. I remember being nervous. Sweat began to sprint down my face and back. I prayed my deodorant would hold and my stomach began to eat itself. The door opened and I went deaf for a moment.
“Ricardo,” asked the Chief.
“Yes sir,” I responded with a crack in my voice.“Nice to meet you, I’m Chief Neal Byrd.”
I shook his hand and proceeded to his office where Lt. Ard was waiting. We all sat down and they began firing questions at me. My sweat poured as I answered each question as fast as I could. Looking back at it now it was their plan all along. See, a 911 dispatcher must think on their feet. Each decision to a given situation is made in a second's notice; they were testing me to see if I could handle the pressure. I welcomed the challenge. It was easy until Chief Byrd hit me with a question I will never forget.
“What kind of skeletons do you have in your closet?”
I froze and then responded with, “What do you mean skeletons?”
The chief smiled and said, “Ricardo … you know what I mean.”
I chuckled and said, “Well, I did steal a car once.”
The three of us had a good laugh until he asked if I was serious, because I had indeed stolen a car once. I explained that it was a civil situation and that I had stolen my own car. We chuckled again and at the end of the interview I felt that I had done well; I did think maybe my stolen car crack was too bold and that I might have messed up my chances of working there.
A month went by and I had not heard from the police department. I was sure that I missed my chance until one day the chief showed up at my home. My grandmother answered the door and she spoke minimal English but understood most of it. I remember her pounding on my bedroom door and yelling that the police were at the front door. She then looked concerned and asked, “¿Qué hiciste?” which in English translates to, “What did you do?”
I began to wonder if I had done something. I met the chief at the door and he asked if I was still interested in the job; I told him yes. He told me that I was to start that night at 10 p.m.
When I arrived that night, I was excited.
I sat with my trainer, Harry, and after watching him take a 911 call it was my turn. I thought he was joking but he said that was the only way I would learn. The next call was a non-emergency but I wanted more.
A few weeks later, I took a 40-hour beginners course and I was hooked.
My first 911 emergency
After months of training, I was ready to be on my own. I worked eight hour shifts with four other dispatchers; this would be my first night shift.
The chief asked a few times if I was ready. I could tell he didn’t want to leave, but I assured him I would be fine. As he turned to walk out, we heard a car squeal to a stop in front of the building. A woman was screaming and the door to the police department opened.
“I found him, I found him!"
She was crying and screaming and the chief tried to calm her down.
“Ma’am, tell me what happened.”
“My husband and I are separated and I went home to tell him I wanted to work things out but I found him hung. He’s dead!”
My heart sank.
The chief knew the address and the residence was diagonal from the department. He told her to have a seat and the on-duty officer, first responders and EMS were sent to assist.
The woman was crying hysterically and I tried to calm her. I asked if there was anyone she needed me to call and she requested some family members. They later joined her.
I remember being in a bit of shock because my first 911 emergency was not over the phone, it was face-to-face. When the officers returned, they had the suicide note. I was curious and glanced at it for a second. One of the officers asked if I wanted to read it. For whatever reason, I needed to know why.
I read the note and the husband was apologizing to his wife. He said that he loved her and their kids and couldn’t be without them, but that he couldn’t live on without her. He wished that they could have worked it out. All I could think was that if he had held on just a bit longer that they would have been together again. It was that first emergency that I knew this job was not going to be easy … that it was only going to get harder.
Back home, school and an idea
After years of working at Frostproof, I moved back home to Michigan with my wife Rebecca.
I worked for a short time as a 911/security dispatcher for a private company but quickly switched to Allegan County Central Dispatch. Allegan was the county I grew up in. I knew that eventually I would take calls from people I grew up with, including friends and family.
Allegan was different. The call volume was far greater than Frostproof and I took all kinds of calls.
The hours were long but working with my second family and helping make a difference was great. I enjoyed my dispatch career, but I wanted more.
During my time at Allegan, I went to college and received three degrees — including an associate in applied science in web development, a bachelor of science in graphic design and a masters in new media journalism.
I had also started to write and blog my 911 calls. I needed a way to get them out of my head.
It was very therapeutic and people could relate to my stories and feelings. As my family, friends and the public followed my dispatch stories, an idea formed. I wanted to tell stories from the 911 world and show people what it’s like within the trenches.
It began as a digital story for class. I recorded the stories of two of my co-workers where they explained how they got into dispatching, their best and worst call and why they do what they do. It was a hit and I knew I had something.
From there, along with my blog, I started working on a podcast. "Within the Trenches" would be the name and I wanted to interview dispatchers from all over the world and share their stories. It exploded. After years as a 911 dispatcher and supervisor, I landed a job with a company that discovered me through the podcast. Much has come from the success of the podcast and my 911 background.
Fast-forward to present-day
I have been in public safety for almost 17 years now. It’s amazing what has happened since the beginning. One of the most amazing moments in my career happened on Aug. 24, 2016. The birth of the #IAM911 movement.
I was in Florida for the national Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials conference and had heard about the reclassification issue that was originally started by APCO. They proposed that the Office of Management and Budget change 911 dispatchers from their current classification under “clerical” to the more appropriate “protective” class, the same as police, fire and EMS.
The initial proposal was rejected and APCO sent out a blast to its members, non-members and the public to help push the issue. The National Emergency Number Association joined the fight as well.
After looking at what both organizations were doing, I decided to insert myself in the fight by focusing on one of the elements that both organizations were looking for — stories. They wanted stories from dispatch to show how they differ from commercial dispatchers and clerical workers.
Since I had been telling dispatch stories for a few years already, I felt it would be a perfect opportunity to assist. For me, however, I wanted it to be an in your face look at what dispatch deals with. I wanted to be blunt and I wanted to strike a chord.
The idea of this movement would be to take ownership of the story being told and in conversation, reach out to the caller to say, “I am the one who was there with you, I am 911.” It would not only be a way to reach out, but hopefully a way to gain some sort of closure by sharing the story.
On Aug. 24, I posted the following story.
This is a mere glimpse into the call I took when I heard this teenagers’ last breath before he died. It’s simple yet powerful. I am reaching out to the deceased letting them know that I am the one that took the call; I am the one that was there for him and the family; I am 911.
I asked others to do the same and share their stories anonymously to our inbox. I wanted to keep the authors anonymous, because I wanted them to feel comfortable in sharing their stories without feeling like they would get in trouble.
Dispatchers don’t always like to talk about their stories. Some of them hold it in for years. I know. I was one of them.
Overnight, stories poured in. I had four Facebook page admins and I quickly added two more to keep up with the inbox. We were flooded with stories on Facebook and I began to receive them on Twitter and see them tweeted and retweeted.
That weekend, #IAM911 hit number three in top trending topics on Twitter. It hit Canada and spread across the pond to the U.K. and even further to Australia and New Zealand spawning, #IAM999, #IAM000 and #IAM111.
The movement had busted at the seams and the most important person you will never see was in the spotlight.
This was needed
The stories were gut-wrenching, with some occasional happy moment. The majority are hard to read, but that’s exactly what I wanted.
Stories also rolled in from the other side, too. These are stories from the callers giving their side of an #IAM911 story.
People were reaching out to the dispatchers who helped them. Even though they would never meet them, they wanted to thank them by sharing their story.
As the movement continued to explode, the news media took notice and everywhere you looked there was a news story on the movement and what it stood for.
For the first time in a very long time, they were reporting on dispatch from a different side.
They showed what dispatchers go through, the calls they take and the stress of the job. This was needed.
Whether it was for the reclassification issue or not it was needed.
I have read message after message from all public safety, not just dispatch, saying that they are so happy about the movement and what it stands for. Others have admitted they have been holding in their stories for years and now have a way to get them out. The movement also shows how real PTSD in the PSAP is.
I have spoken to many dispatchers who have told me that they suffer from PTSD. And even though reading the stories have been a trigger, it has also helped them heal and find closure by sharing their own stories.
The movement has made quite an impact on my life.
Between family, work, the podcast and the movement, I have been busier than ever before.
I have encountered many people and I can’t explain how good it has felt to know that something I started with one story grew to be something meaningful. I don’t think I will ever know how this has touched everyone involved.
I have developed a class for future conferences on the subject as well as a Project #IAM911 meetup for dispatchers to come, network and share their stories. The meetups will begin in Indiana, but will hopefully spread out to other states. I have even added an extension to the podcast called Imagine Listening, which features the stories of the #IAM911 movement.
Human curiosity has kept the movement going, along with the entire thin gold line by sharing their stories. To date, my team and I are still responding to messages from late August 2016. On Facebook, the total engagements regarding the #IAM911 movement surpass 40 million.
I am humbled and honored to be a voice in telling the stories of 911 professionals and I will continue to do so.
There is much more to come, but this is it for now.
The movement continues …
About the author
Ricardo Martinez, the host and creator of Within the Trenches and the #IAM911 movement, has 17 years of experience in public safety. Martinez's goal is to tell the story of every dispatcher he meets. His podcast, which is meant to be informative, humorous, serious and eye-opening to the world of dispatch, can be heard on iTunes, Stitcher Radio, SoundCloud and iHeartRadio.