(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the summer 2021 issue of iConnect, the College of Information Sciences and Technology’s biannual magazine)
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — According to the International City Managers’ Association, nearly a quarter of emergency dispatch personnel experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, and the national turnover rate of 911 dispatchers is more than 17%, according to the University of Georgia.
Penn State College of Information Sciences and Technology alumna Sara Weston, class of 2005, is committed to serving those individuals through a new nonprofit, which raises money to provide mental health resources, training, outreach and other programming to emergency dispatchers. Named 911der Women — pronounced "nine-one-Wonder-Women" — the organization specifically supports the women who fill these roles.
Weston began working with first responders after graduating from Penn State. She worked on projects to improve public safety radio communication as part of the telecommunications and technology division of a State College-based engineering firm.
"It checked a few boxes for me: that I was learning, working with technology and helping people,” said Weston.
As she found herself more interested in how technology could support emergency communications, Weston started working with the 911 division of the company on transitioning 911 communications to IP networks, which is where she found her true passion.
“911 is still run on old copper wiring,” said Weston. “When you call an Uber, they know exactly where you’re standing. But when you call 911 from a cell phone, they can’t track your exact location.”
Weston’s job was to help municipalities and states convert their 911 systems to IP networks so they could more easily find callers in need of help as well as have other benefits of a next-generation 911 system. During this time, Weston frequently found herself in 911 call centers conducting technology audits and talking to first responders. But it turned into more than a job for Weston.
“I got to know these dispatchers personally,” said Weston. “It’s such a difficult, heartbreaking job. Anything can happen when the phone rings.”
She added, “It took me a while to understand that, because they seem so put together and strong. But there's so much going on in their minds.”
Emergency dispatchers are overwhelmingly female, according to Data USA, and Weston began to form a bond with the women she met. They expressed feeling overwhelmed and underappreciated, which Weston could relate to from her own career experience. However, Weston had resources to turn to when she felt like that. These women didn’t.
“I wanted to help connect the dots between these amazing women who are in the trenches, taking calls, helping people and feeling these emotions — helplessness, anger, loneliness — and trying their best every day to make a difference and save lives,” said Weston.
With this in mind, she created 911der Women in June 2019. It started as a small Facebook group, and Weston invited a few of her friends who worked in 911 to join.
“It caught fire,” said Weston. “By the weekend there were 1,000 women in it. Now there are over 7,600.”