Strong Message Delivers Help And Safety
June 30, 2022
Tina DeCola is keen on delivering the same message over and over again. It’s not like the Las Vegas Fire and Rescue (LVFR) communication center supervisor and EMD is a broken record. The truth is, it’s a message she finds worth repeating and a message on an everybody-needs-to-know basis.
DeCola is a human rights activist with a laser sharp focus on victim rescue through use of the 911 system. She’s been honing her expertise for going on five years since answering a 911 call from a 19-year-old woman desperate to escape from a sex trafficker. The call and the fear in the captive’s voice were DeCola’s wakeup alarm to the existence of a business that thrives on sexually exploiting adults and children.
“The call grabbed my soul,” DeCola said. “It’s a hard world when you’re helpless, and I had to do something about it.”
While a multitude of national anti-trafficking programs exist at varying levels of engagement, DeCola’s approach was—and still is—unique. As part of a Las Vegas Human Trafficking Steering committee, she and various vice units from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department (Nevada, USA) collaborated in developing training protocols for emergency dispatchers, police, fire, and EMS to identify victims of sex trafficking. LVFR mandates the course for dispatch and response.
Although there are no specific stereotypes or traits to identify the perpetrator or victim, DeCola said research and the education she has received over the past four years taught her ways traffickers operate (force, fraud, and coercion), victim vulnerability (desperate to escape violent or abusive situations), and signs that indicate potential sex trafficking.
In the case of 911, victims placing the call may not speak directly to the situation, DeCola said, or plead for immediate help, as was the case in the call DeCola answered.
“I teach dispatchers to listen for a clue, something that doesn’t make sense,” DeCola said. “It could be a medical issue, breathing problems, and the person doesn’t have a lot of time to talk. That’s not normal. That’s something that doesn’t fit the call.”
A recent “success” story was a call from a woman refusing ambulance transport despite the severity of her COVID symptoms. “Her 12-year-old daughter was in trouble, and she couldn’t leave her alone.” DeCola contacted an advocate—she has many in her network—and the advocate convinced the woman that transport was necessary. “The mom was treated, and the daughter was put in a protective situation,” DeCola said. “Working alongside the victim advocate group is a key component. They are amazing people that dedicate their time to getting the victims legal help, housing assistance, clothing, etc., since most times the victims leave their trafficker with nothing.”
Las Vegas’ reputation for “anything goes” was an initial target that DeCola has since expanded throughout Nevada, outside communication centers, and to places all over the U.S. As an instructor for the Denise Amber Lee Foundation, she offers a one-, four-, and eight-hour training course. In February, she completed a training module for use in every southern Nevada hospital to assist emergency room personnel in identifying patients who are victims of sex trafficking. She has also trained the private ambulance agencies in southern Nevada.
“We all need to be on the same page—the more awareness and training for our dispatchers, fire, and EMS personnel, the better,” she said. DeCola’s goal is to train every 911 dispatch center and their partner agencies across the USA. “I am hoping more agencies reach out for training. This is a horrible crime, and we are the lifeline to getting the victims the help they so desperately need.”
DeCola enjoys the training, although the topic of her training, much like emergency dispatch, can be draining. Her support group includes her spouse and their three children. She’s active in her church. She pedals her bicycle long distances.
“I never thought it would take off like this, but I’m glad to get the word out,” she said. “Dispatchers need this to see beyond what seems to be the obvious.”
Her children’s impression of the work is a big reward, she said.
“They’re proud of me; their mother is a 911 dispatcher,” she said.
DeCola has worked in emergency dispatch for 19 years. In August 2020, she received the inaugural LVFR communication center Impact Award for her “strong effect on the CCC [Las Vegas Combined Communications Center], our partner agencies, and the community in 2019” (LVFR Facebook, Aug. 29, 2020) in honor of the dispatcher and responder-focused human trafficking training.
- U.S. cities that receive the highest number of sex trafficking calls per capita are Washington, D.C.; New York City, New York; Atlanta, Georgia; Orlando, Florida; and Miami, Florida.1
- Sporting events are often cited as common trafficking events. The Super Bowl has long been believed to attract human traffickers from beyond the host city’s borders. However, a statewide effort coordinated by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (California, USA) to crack down on the sex trade, which happened to coincide with this year’s Super Bowl, was about the same as what might be found in the state during any given week.2
- In 2019, the most common type of trafficking in the United States was sex trafficking (8,248 reports), with the most common venues being illicit massage/spa businesses and pornography.3
1 “Ranking of the 100 Most Populous U.S. Cities.” National Human Trafficking Hotline. 2016; June 6. https://humantraffickinghotline.org/sites/default/files/100%20Most%20Populous%20Cities%20Report.pdf (accessed Feb. 23, 2022).
2 Licas E. “Nearly 500 human trafficking-related arrests made in Southern California during Super Bowl week.” The Mercury News. 2022; Feb. 16. https://www.mercurynews.com/2022/02/16/super-bowl-179-prostitution-related-arrests-made-leading-up-to-the-game/ (accessed Feb. 23, 2022).
3 “Human Trafficking Statistics by State 2022.” World Population Review. https://worldpopulationreview.com/state-rankings/human-trafficking-statistics-by-state (accessed June 10, 2022).
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