Broadband: With Jessica Rosenworcel
#1052 minutes

California Congresswoman Norma Torres is the only former 911 dispatcher in Congress. She joined Commissioner Rosenworcel to share how one 911 call led her to activism and what Washington can do to give 911 operators the tools and respect they deserve to better serve their communities.

Transcript: 

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Hello, and welcome to Broadband Conversations, the podcast where I get to talk to leading women from across the technology, innovation, and media industries, and you get to hear what they're working on, what's on their minds, and what they think is the next big thing.

My name is Jessica Rosenworcel. And I am a commissioner at the Federal Communications Commission. And today's guest is a total dynamo who I have had the privilege to spend some time with back home in California. You see, she's California Congresswoman Norma Torres.

And people may not know this, but in addition to her duties on Capitol Hill, she is someone with a really unique background. She is the only former 911 dispatcher serving in Congress.

Congresswoman, welcome to the podcast.

MS. TORRES: Thank you so much. This is so exciting for me to be on with you once again, Jessica. It was so wonderful to have you in California and visit with you at my former 911 center. So, I'm excited to be on this podcast with you.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, fantastic. And likewise.

But, here, let's just roll things back a little bit. And give me a sense of how you got to where you are today. What was your path to Washington?

MS. TORRES: Most people don't, you know, it's hard for them to believe that, this story, that how I got involved in politics was actually, you know, because of a 911 call that I took very, very early on my career at LAPD as a 911 dispatcher.

This was a very tragic call where a little girl died, was murdered at the hands of her uncle. She was shot five times point blank. And, unfortunately, I, her murder unfolded in my ears. I was the one that answered her call for help that night. And as tragic as her story may sound, I think what was most tragic for me and was very personal to me was the fact that she waited 20 minutes for me to answer the phone before we can send her help.

And because of that, that call, it really threw me into the limelight of a political world that I never wanted to be a part of. And taught myself to lobby, you know, our local city council and work through the process of engaging the command staff at LAPD to change the way we answer 911 calls, to ensure that there was a priority system for people that spoke a different language so that they could get immediate help and not have to wait the way this little girl waited for me.

That call resulted in my running for local office in my home city of Pomona, eventually running for state office in the state assembly and as a state senator.

It took me 14 years, Jessica, to get to Congress, but here I am. And now I can make more changes to help our first responders save more lives.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, that sounds really good. I mean, most people don't think about 911. But that one time they might call it, it will be the most important call they ever make.

And I know, I think you spent 17 years as an operator. I'm just wondering if you can describe what a typical day is like for someone who takes in 911 calls?

MS. TORRES: Yeah. The typical day for a 911 dispatcher -- and you're correct, I did that for, you know, 17 and a half years -- for me, I, I love, I love the job. I love the excitement and the adrenaline of a good police pursuit or answering, you know, any call for help from the general public.

But it is, it is something that makes you very callous, too, to emotions. It changes your personality and the way you think about the world and how people could, you know, hurt others, and the violence that happens every single day all around us. That we are really not privy to that information that comes out sometimes on T.V. or in the radio. We hear about it. You know, the 911 dispatchers are intimately close to those, those callers.

They're not dialing 911 because they're having a great day. It is possibly the worst day in their entire life. And you have to be prepared for anything and everything, from someone calling asking directions to Disneyland, to the next call being, you know, a shooting in progress as the call that I took, to a suicide caller.

And, you know, suicide calls come in in many different ways. Sometimes they're angry and they want some way to lash out. And, you know, from that perspective then your priority is to keep them on the phone so while you're talking to them they're not hurting each other possibly.

Other types of callers, they call in because they want you to send someone to pick up the body. They don't want their family member to pick up their, you know, to be the first to see that they have killed themselves. So, you know, they dial 911 and the first thing that you hear or the only thing that you hear is a gunshot.

Those are very tragic moments for someone. And 911 dispatchers never get closure to the incidents that they handle every single day.

I had a focal point. You know, for me it was Kellogg Hill. And for those people that live in L.A. County or the Inland Empire, they're pretty familiar with that. I knew that if I was going east I had to be a different person. And if I was, you know, going west I had to put on this shield, a thicker skin to be able, you know, to handle those types of callers that I had to deal with every single day.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. I mean, it's a job with enormous pressure just to maintain this level of calm that you need in order to organize police, and fire, and emergency medical response. So, you had this system of deciding how to manager yourself as you went east or west.

What do most 911 dispatchers do to manage the pressure of the job?

MS. TORRES: Everybody has a different way to deal with their personal pressures, depending on the types of calls; right? And we see it manifest in, in so many different ways from, from the uniforms that we wear. You know, at LAPD we have a very difficult time getting uniform companies to contract with us because we're either a size zero, you know, or a pretty large size because we were either starving our way through our stress, or eating our way through our stress.

In LAPD, thank God that, you know, the department saw that this was an issue for us, and we needed to do better by our personnel. They developed a program of training the dispatchers to be the counselors so that we could seek help from each other if we wanted, needed somebody to talk to. We didn't have to go into a building classified as a mental health, you know, type of building. We could, you know, go into a small office within the 911 center and participate in peer counseling with one of our colleagues.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Wow.

Now, I know in addition to the emotional toll that the job can take there are also challenges with technology. And I know during your time working in the Los Angeles center and then in the California state legislature you did some work to modernize the 911 system.

I'd love to hear a little bit more about that, and also about the improvements you think technology will make and how we respond to public safety events in the future.

MS. TORRES: Absolutely. For, you know, for me going back to the night when I answered Yahida's call for help -- Yahida was the little girl that was murdered -- the way we, the intake of 911 calls, the way it happened is if you dial 911 a dispatcher would answer the call. And if you spoke Spanish you got transferred to the Spanish line and you just waited, and waited, and waited your turn until, you know, an operator was available to answer the call.

Now, if you spoke English obviously, you know, they would, the 911 dispatcher would have, would have a couple of questions for you. If it was a true emergency they would handle the call themselves. If it was a non-emergency call then they would get transferred to a non-emergency dispatcher. Or they could wait until a dispatcher was available.

I was able to get a $350,000 grant from the L.A. City Council to make some improvements to the programming system, the computer system that we were utilizing in order to prioritize those Spanish callers. So, they would automatically have a dispatcher available. As soon as the call came in and got transferred into the Spanish line there was someone available, readily available to take that call.

If it was a non-emergency then, you know, again, they would get transferred to wait for someone that would be available, you know, soon. But if it was an emergency, their call would get handled immediately.

And I think something so simple like that we took for granted for many years.

Technology is there and is readily available for us. But if it's not available for the people that need it the most then they can't help those customers or the people that we represent.

I can't imagine text to 911. I think it's good for certain populations that may not be able to speak what the issue is in those situations. I think, you know, it is, it is a good option for them to utilize. But I have to also caution callers that if it is a crime in progress, that 911 call is your only witness to what is happening. And while we may not be able to see it, we can hear it.

We can hear people walking, if there's a weapon that is discharged. We can hear if people are talking, how many people are talking. All of that information is critical for the officers that are responding to the crime scene.

If you choose to text to 911, then the dispatcher doesn't have that information. And if it ends up into a murder, let's say, there's nothing there to be used as evidence other than your text, what you wrote, what you were able to write.

So, I would say call when you can. Utilize that service when you can. If you absolutely cannot speak then, you know, resort to utilizing the text to 911.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right.

MS. TORRES: I'm, I'm very scared to video to 911.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh my gosh, it's going to change everything.

But I think the point you're making is that there's, like, this hierarchy now. We have so many ways to communicate.

MS. TORRES: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But you want to call first because there's a back and forth that's organic if you can. But if you can't, texting is available. But to prioritize calling if you're capable.

And in the future, of course, I think what you're starting to allude to is we're going to be able to send video of a fleeing suspect or pictures of someone who's been injured. And I think that's an amazing reality in the digital world and it's going to make us safer. But it is also going to impose a deeper burden on those who take our 911 calls as they sort all of that incoming information, some of which is going to be extremely sensitive.

MS. TORRES: Absolutely, the trauma. Can you imagine --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know.

MS. TORRES: -- having to see, you know, gory scenes, crime scenes, crime in progress, injuries, fatalities that happen.

I can't imagine my colleagues or my former colleagues having to work 8, 10, or 12 hours with that kind of -- in that environment where there is no closure.

So, if we are moving forward and pressing, I know that there is a lot of excitement around video to 911, I think that we can't walk away or turn away from the responsibility of caring for those workers. That will need counseling. That would need some closure as to, you know, the pictures and that information that they will now be able to visually to see.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I agree.

And I, you know, you're describing this really serious job that you did for more than 17 years. I feel it's making legislating on Capitol Hill sound easy.

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.) Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But I do want to talk about legislation because you have some bipartisan legislation you've been working on that's really well informed by your experiences but is an effort to try to give 911 operators the professional status they deserve. Because, as you know, right now the Office of Management and Budget characterizes them as clerical workers. And what you're describing, just there's nothing about it that feels clerical.

So, I want you to talk a little bit about that legislation because, obviously you can reflect on your own experience, but where --

MS. TORRES: Right.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- it stands and what might happen next.

MS. TORRES: I, I'm really excited about the 911 SAVES Act. I am so excited that my colleagues, in a very bipartisan way, are embracing this idea of looking at this profession and finding ways to modernize the system not just, you know, from the perspective of software and hardware, but from the human perspective also.

And I think the first step to ensure that 911 dispatchers get the proper training that they need is we need to recognize that they are not clerks. They're not clerical staff. They are not just call takers, you know, at, at some, you know, office type of environment. These people are, you know, critical, a critical part of our first responder community.

You cannot get a fire truck, and an ambulance, or a police officer at your door without first talking to someone. And we want to make sure that that person that answers our call during our most vulnerable moments of our lives have some, you know, the most training that they can possibly get. And that's where, where, you know, this idea of, of ensuring that they are reclassified to a classification that is more reflective of what their duties, their every day duties, you know, are.

And where this bill stands is we're waiting, you know, it's members are signing on as co-authors at this point. And it will be taken up before a committee, hopefully within the next couple of months. And from there we move forward.

But I want to encourage people, especially the 911 dispatchers, don't be shy about the work that you do. Share with your local community some stories about the calls that you take every single day.

The PSAPS out there, it is you have a great opportunity coming up in April during Telecommunicators Week. Utilize that time to embrace the media. Welcome them at your 911 center and show them that, you know, the face behind the voice of that caller or of that officer that is receiving orders from a dispatcher to respond to a call, an emergency call.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. What you're saying is so important. We have to bring this community out of the shadows --

MS. TORRES: Yeah.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and tell people what they're doing every day and how over time, I mean, their work has become so integral to first responders and all of our public safety. And, you know, there's a lot that can divide us right now, but what I love about your legislation is it's really uniting people from all different corners of the country who are getting behind this idea that we have to give these professionals the dignity they deserve.

MS. TORRES: Absolutely.

And they're taking it personally. You know, from I was at a school this morning and the students there were asking about that. And I, you know, I'm really happy that people are looking at it from a personal perspective is this is not just about, you know, the person working at a 911 center, this is about me and the ability for me as a victim of a crime, or a witness to a crime, to be able to dial 911. And do I deserve to have a professional answering the phone on the other side.

And to that, you know, what is the answer to that question? And I say, absolutely yes. You know, you have a right to have, you know, the most professional person answering your call to help you through a very difficult time in your life. And one way that we can ensure they get the proper training that they need is by ensuring that their job classification is equal to a first responder, not an office secretary.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, you bet.

You're going to have to keep us posted because, I don't know, I'm optimistic about this one. It's one of those things that I, I think that it's within our power to change it. And I think it will make us all safer all across the country.

MS. TORRES: Absolutely.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And --

MS. TORRES: Thank you so much for taking --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yes.

MS. TORRES: -- an interest --

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh.

MS. TORRES: -- and for being a champion on this.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know.

MS. TORRES: Most of all, thank you for, you know, coming to my 911 center. I was so excited.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: It was, it was fun.

MS. TORRES: To walk through that and tour that with you.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I know, you walked through that place like a boss. I mean, you walked in there like, I own this place.

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.) Well, this is my life.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: You know, and you had so many stories. You had so many stories to tell.

MS. TORRES: I know.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: And what I particularly appreciated about the 911 center in Los Angeles that we visited is they have this sweet little museum of the technology --

MS. TORRES: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- and how it had changed over time. And it really is dramatic.

We can do so much more today to work with callers and learn about their locations and the dangers that they face with so much better equipment than existed, you know, just a few decades ago. It's really striking.

I think we can do better still. We've got work to do when it comes to wireless phones and being able to locate every caller with pinpoint accuracy. So, to me there's a lot of work to do on 911.

MS. TORRES: Yeah.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But the dignity of those who answer the phones has got to be a part of that, too.

So, we don't have a lot of time left. And what I'd like to do is talk a little bit with everyone as a close-out with the same series of questions. And now they feel kind of mundane after everything we just talked about that involved life and death.

But I'd love to know what's the first thing Congressman Torres ever did on the internet?

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.) So, when I bought my very first computer it was, I think it was 1990 we bought our home, you know, PC.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. That was an investment.

MS. TORRES: It was quite an investment.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Right?

MS. TORRES: Yeah. So, we, we managed to connect it and plug it in, you know, put it together. And we couldn't find the "on" button.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: (Laughing.)

MS. TORRES: And my husband said -- I know -- he said, wow, if you can't find an "on" button, okay, well now what are you going to do with this thing?

And I looked at him and I said, I'm going to rule the world.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Oh, I like it.

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.)

MS. ROSENWORCEL: I like it.

And look at that, and you weren't member of Congress then but you are now. There might have been truth in what you were proclaiming back in 1990.

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.) No. I, you know, I don't rule the world but I, I certainly have influence in some part of it. And I feel really great about technology and what our children have access to nowadays to be able to, you know, influence so many different things.

And also, you know, what we have to teach them about proper uses and how, how to protect themselves because it really opened up a new world for us.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah.

So, okay, even more mundane, like, you've just got to tell me what's the last thing you just did on the internet. You know, online --

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.)

MS. ROSENWORCEL: -- online shopping, directions, weather? Weather's always a good one. Anything else?

MS. TORRES: I feel, I feel really silly about this because I, I have a family of nurses. And I'm always surrounded by, you know, these medical people in my family. And on my way to the office I was searching, you know, what is the -- what are the common symptoms between bronchitis and pneumonia.

(Laughing.)

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Fair enough.

MS. TORRES: It's something so basic I should know; right?

MS. ROSENWORCEL: No. Are you kidding? You know, I'm regularly looking up features of the common cold. So, I totally, totally understand that.

But all right, let's, let's go really big picture now and say what do you want the future of the internet and digital life to look like?

MS. TORRES: The future I hope that we would have accessibility of the internet for, you know, everyone. That every child has an opportunity to be able to learn, you know, about the world and important things that they can learn on the internet, that it's available.

Currently, depending on where you live you may have access to a computer, you may have access to internet. And I remember those days when I had to use the dial-up option, and how long it took for me to access information, you know, from a home PC. But also the luxury of having that and having my children grow up with a computer in their home.

Many kids that I represent currently do not have access to a computer at home. They do not have that technology. And I think, you know, what the future really looks is that we could empower them to not only utilize it, you know, to educate themselves, but also to ensure that we use it responsibly.

It could be used positively and negatively. And we have seen way too many incidents of hate groups gathering, you know, in chat, in internet chat groups to do really bad things around the world. And those are the things that we need to be made aware of.

And I think children have a -- as parents, we have a responsibility to our children to educate them in all that.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: Yeah. No, as a mother I agree. And also, you know, I, I think we have work to do.

MS. TORRES: Yes.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: But I have some confidence with people like you at the helm we're going to be able to do it.

MS. TORRES: (Laughing.)

MS. ROSENWORCEL: So, before we go, why don't you tell folks where they can keep up to date with you and what you're doing.

MS. TORRES: Yes. So, please, I would encourage everyone to follow me on Twitter @normajtorres. That's my Twitter handle. It, you know, would be wonderful to, to connect with people.

You could also go to my official website, reptorres.com. And, you know, send me an email.

Today, this morning I was at a school as a result of an 8th grader who logged onto the internet, went onto my official website, and sent an email asking me to come visit her in her classroom. And I took the opportunity this morning to do that. That's how I started my day.

MS. ROSENWORCEL: That's fantastic.

I love how the digital world breaks down these boundaries and, you know, you can reach out and you can make things happen. So, good for that 8th grader, too.

And, also, make sure that people check out how the 911 SAVES law moves along because I think that there are great, there's a great future for that.

This wraps up another episode of Broadband Conversations. So, thank you, Congresswoman Torres for being here. Thank you, of course, for the work you do. And thanks to everyone for listening.

Take care.