(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.”
To Weston’s surprise, she had organized a community. Group members gave each other advice, asked questions in a judgement-free zone and shared challenges about their difficult jobs. After seeing so much success in the group, Weston decided to take it beyond social media. She wanted to not only provide dispatchers with support, but with real, tangible tools and resources. So, Weston decided to launch a nonprofit organization.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” said Weston. “I had never started a business, but I taught myself how to. At first, I thought, ‘I’m not capable of doing that.’ But at the end of the day, I did it.”
Weston, with the help of several group members, came up with a mission statement and programs for the organization, and then began fundraising.
‘I’m a dreamer’
After a 15-year career in the technology industry, Weston took a leap of faith and left her job at a public safety technology firm in December to run 911der Women full-time from her home in Orlando, Florida.
“I did not start out to found a nonprofit; I didn’t even dream that it would be what it is today,” said Weston.
She is currently starting a therapy program for the organization. Therapy costs are increasingly high and often aren’t covered by insurance, said Weston. The 911der Women program will match organization members with therapists that specialize in public safety and PTSD and sponsor members for free sessions over 12 months.
“These first responders have to mentally flip a switch from being at work to coming home after dealing with difficult situations all day,” said Weston. “It’s hard even having an office job to flip a switch when I’m done with work. But the things that dispatchers experience at work are almost impossible to leave behind.”
In addition to therapy and a forthcoming yoga program, the organization focuses on professional development through workshops, mentorship programs and speaker events. Weston wants to take a multi-pronged approach to the organization, focusing on physical and mental health and professional development.
“As women, we often downplay our accomplishments,” said Weston. “We want these women to know that they’re qualified and to believe in themselves.”
She added, “That’s what we’re starting with, but I’m a dreamer. I believe we could save the world. But for now, we’re taking these steps and hoping to make a difference.”
A vision to empower
While there are more women filling dispatcher roles, leadership positions are disproportionately male. Weston wants to focus on this disparity and empower the members to believe in themselves and apply to leadership positions.
“The idea was born from me seeing and feeling injustice,” said Weston, referencing her experiences in the tech industry. “The pain of being treated poorly devastated me and made me feel like I shouldn’t try to advance my career. I want women to have opportunities for advancement and mentorship, and to be taught confidence.”
When Weston entered the workplace after college, she felt lost, she said. She didn’t know how to act or dress as one of only a few women. She wished she’d had a mentor that had gone through the same challenges to help her through her first few years.
“Women have specific needs and challenges, especially as mothers, and even more so during the pandemic,” Weston added. “I’m fortunate that I can work from home, but having my children with me while I’m trying to work is nearly impossible. Dispatchers still have to go to work, so what are they supposed to do with their kids?”
Weston’s hope is that 911der Women will help in this mentorship capacity and empower the organization’s members.
Always an optimIST
Weston grew up in Ohio, but her parents attended Penn State, so choosing the University was an easy decision, she said. As a first-year student in the fall of 2001, Weston wasn’t sure what her path would be. She was more interested in the liberal arts, but the College of IST was brand new and intriguing to her.
“I didn’t become interested in technology until I found the College of IST,” she said. “I saw it as a way to learn about technology and get the skills that I knew I would need no matter what job I went into.”
While Weston enjoyed learning about technology and problem solving, it wasn’t always easy, she said. She often felt behind and was always the last person in the computer lab. But the need for her to work harder than she ever had was an important lesson to learn.
“That set me up for everything,” said Weston. “I started as a consultant at age 22, and it was a sink-or-swim environment, but majoring in IST taught me that I was capable. Even…