911 CARES Surviving And Thriving
December 20, 2021
Kevin Willett was ready to board a plane when the inconceivable happened. Terrorists flew commercial jets into New York City’s (New York, USA) Twin Towers and the Pentagon, killing scores of people and—as a result—drastically shifting the naivety of Americans’ thinking. We were not immune from outside attack. Changes in the way Americans were protected needed change.
Willett immediately recognized the impact on emergency services. The stress of the number of calls coming in to 911 centers compounded by desperate callers unable to escape the burning and collapsing towers meant emergency dispatchers were exposed to the trauma of confusion, fear, agony, and victims knowing their last words would be spoken over a 911 line. A sense of helplessness prevailed. As much as emergency dispatchers wanted to help, they could help very few.
Willett knew there had to be a way to change how the “unsung heroes” were recognized and supported. He had an idea. The gravity of Sept. 11, 2001, and the effects on 911 professionals prompted a project—911 CARES—that Willett expected to last one year. Well, 20 years later, the program thrives. From coordinating a show of camaraderie reaching across the country involving a catastrophic singular event, 911 CARES continues to support emergency dispatchers in the “we’re all in this together” embracing spirit it was started.
The name hasn’t changed and neither has its objective.
While 911 centers might be considered disparate entities operating solely in the interest of a municipality or region, Willett said the offshoot of the 911 CARES “pay it forward” approach has created a chain link affect. It ties them together. “We think of each other,” he said. “We’re doing the right thing by helping individuals in our profession.”
Calculating the number helped is impossible, especially when the question is posed during a buyers’ rush at the Public Safety Training Consultants (PSTC) and 911 CARES booth at NAVIGATOR 2021. Willett is PSTC’s CEO and instructional coordinator.
“Incredibly, we’re known for this [911 CARES],” Willett said. “But it’s not about us. It’s about reaching out to help.”
The first step is notifying 911 CARES about a dispatcher’s personal need, such as an illness or property loss due to wildfire, for example, or an event, such as an active shooter or hurricane, that
compromises an entire communication center. The 911 CARES email list goes out to a total of 64,000 individuals and centers requesting access.
Activations are listed at facebook.com/PSTC911CARES. Individuals can choose to donate to a specific activation or give a donation that benefits the program, in general. A percentage of profits from 911 Cares product sales goes into the program’s budget and that goes toward monetary and product donations (care kits). Individuals interested in donations can go on the 911 CARES Facebook page for specific information, including GoFundMe notifications set up independently of 911 CARES.
While at NAVIGATOR, Willett took a break to post the 911 CARES activation for an emergency dispatcher who lost everything—house, garage, car, personal belongings—in a wildfire. Colton and Cameron McCormack opened a GoFundMe page (https://gofund.me/6ba6e939) to raise $10,000 after a fire erupting in a nearby field swept their property.1 Colton is a former volunteer firefighter and Cameron is an emergency dispatcher for Owyhee County 911, Murphy, Idaho (USA). Their son, Kevin, is two years old.
“The home burned down while she was at work,” Willett said. “Soon as I heard, I was up in my hotel room working with her agency.”
As Willett indicated, the program continues to evolve. A recent addition is sending personalized plaques commemorating an event requiring all-hands on deck at the communication center along with the traditional handwritten note acknowledging their efforts.
Where does 911 CARES go from here? Who knows? Another 20 years and the baton might pass to the next generation of 911 telecommunicators. Whatever happens, Willett believes caring for the 911 callers and those answering their calls will remain as part of the profession.
“To stop would break my heart,” Willett said. “There’s always going to be a need to fill.”
1 “Nampa fire destroys home of dispatcher and former volunteer firefighter.” KTVB Boise. 2021; July 25. https://spotonidaho.com/boise-region/489933/nampa-fire-destroys-home-of-dispatcher.html (accessed Aug. 9, 2021).