A few days ago, I was reflecting on my journey from 9-1-1 dispatcher and supervisor to Industry Partner and podcaster. It has taken me a long time to get here and the work was hard, but I loved every minute of it and continue to do so. Along the way I made many connections. I will always have my Thin Gold Line family out of Allegan County Central Dispatch in Michigan. I will always have my family out on the road, and I will always remember and cherish the time we had together. It’s something you can’t forget. We sat for hours dealing with the good and bad of 9-1-1. We saw each other more than our own families and when the shit hit the fan we dug in and did what we always do.
Along the way, however, I made other connections. I have met dispatchers from all over the world, as well as, Industry Partners from all kinds of companies involving 9-1-1. But one connection changed my life. One connection, that at the time seemed somewhat small, turned out to be the biggest connection I have ever made and I will forever be grateful because it wasn’t until his death that I found out how connected we were. That all this time, our connection was much deeper than I thought, and that this world is truly a small one. This is a story about how I met the late Gary Allen, former dispatcher of 20 years and former editor of Dispatch Monthly.
Around 2012 I was going to school to earn a Master’s in New Media Journalism. I was working in dispatch full time and attending online courses often completing assignments in between phone calls. I had already started Within the Trenches as a segment of my blog where I shared my own stories. I wanted people to know what it was like to take a 9-1-1 call and how it affected me. The point was to highlight the work that 9-1-1 dispatchers do and why we do it. I also wanted it to be a form of public education so that if someone called 9-1-1 and were put on hold that they knew why this was happening. It was a success and when I was introduced to podcasting, I fell in love with that form of storytelling.
I wanted to create a podcast around my written segment and have dispatchers come on and talk about their own experience as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. At the time I didn’t have the money to buy the equipment I needed so I went to Kickstarter, a crowd funding website, to pitch my idea and raise the money to make my dream a reality. Kickstarter gave me the green light and the beginning of the campaign had gone great, but it slowed down. I was stuck around $656 and I was trying to raise $1,500 for the equipment. I was scared and thought I might not make it since the end of the campaign was getting closer and closer. Kickstarter is an all or nothing platform. If you don’t raise the money you’re done.
I remember talking to my friend Karl in dispatch one night and I’ll never forget this, but he said to me, “I know it seems like everything is going slow, but I have a feeling it’s going to take off and when it does, you’re going to wish it was slow.” I remember chuckling and saying, “Maybe…” Man…how right he was but before that I needed to put out the first episode to give everyone a taste of what this podcast would be like. I scraped up enough money to purchase a couple microphones and an interface to record episode 1 and it turned out to be a hit. My co-worker Whitney was my first guest and I felt it coming together but I still needed to raise the money.
During that time, I was going to 911dispatch.com, the website was for Dispatch Magazine On-line, the Internet version of Dispatch Monthly, run by then editor, Gary Allen. The publication was started by Alan Burton but later passed onto Gary. This is where I got all of my public safety industry news and one day, with 36 hours left, I decided to take a chance and reach out to Mr. Allen. I had just finished up a shift in dispatch and stayed after to write to him. I told him who I was and what I did for a living. I also mentioned my project and that I was not asking for any money from him, but rather, I wanted to see if he would share what I was doing on his website and share my Kickstarter link. After I sent it, I prayed that he would see it and he did. He wrote back saying that he loved the idea and that he wrote a small blurb about what I was doing and added my link.
Within 24 hours I had surpassed my goal. I was on top of the world. People from all over donated and even public safety Industry Partners. It was something that I would have never thought would happen, but it did. That day I was to record episode two at my dispatch center. I got a text from my co-worker Trista saying that she just put me over with her donation. I refreshed the website to see for myself and I remember jumping in the air in my living room and yelling, “Yes!” My daughter was sitting in her high chair and she joined in my excitement by raising her hands and laughing and smiling. I tear up thinking about it right now. When I arrived at work, I was nervous to walk in. Maybe it was because I was trying to hold back my excitement but when I walked in, I couldn’t hide it because everyone stood and clapped and cheered. It was an amazing feeling. From there, episode 2 was recorded and I was off and running.
I wrote to Gary and thanked him. I told him that I felt that if it wasn’t for him sharing my story that this would’ve never happened. He told me that he felt it would’ve worked out one way or another because it was a good idea and I was willing to put my all into it. We kept in touch here and there as I continued to grow the podcast. Things were moving fast, and I was fulfilling the rewards from the campaign for those who donated. T-shirts for the podcast went out, mugs went out, graphic design services were completed and the big reward, an entire website was being negotiated with a company named INdigital, out of Indiana. The President of company, Mark Grady and one of the head developers, Corey, visited me at my center and showed me the earliest version of their text-for-9-1-1 platform. I was amazed and honored to build a website for them.
As the podcast continued to grow in popularity, I was asked to speak at the Michigan NENA conference and record episodes with the attendees. From there I went to the national NENA conference in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was there that I made even more contacts but one afternoon I saw a familiar face in the crowd. It was Mark of INdigital. I had been told by the VP of the company that he might be there and that they might have something more for me, but I didn’t think anything of it since I was going to be doing their website. That evening, I went to dinner with Mark and he offered me a job. I was floored, I was flattered, and I felt blessed. It was a hard decision, but I had always told my wife that if I could find a job that combined my love for design, journalism and 9-1-1 that that would be the job for me. It would be my dream job and it was at my doorstep.
I took a few weeks to think it over. I had been working in dispatch for 13 ½ years and it was my home. I felt guilty for leaving but in the end, it was about my family and I knew that I would be contributing to public safety still in my new role. Plus, INdigital supported the podcast and my passion to share stories from those within the trenches. Shortly after I left dispatch, I made contact with Gary. I told him what had happened, and he was happy for me. We even recorded episode 45 together. It was great to learn more about him and I thanked him again for what he did for me. After the recording we talked about his site and his audio library and he gave me permission to use it whenever I needed to. They were open to the public as an educational resource but if I wanted to use them, to do so.
Years went by and I continued sharing stories. A friend of mine told me that Gary was retiring and closing down 911dispatch.com. He was trying to get a hold of him to see if he could take over the site but was unable to get a response. Gary was a pretty busy guy. Time continued on and one morning I got word that Gary had passed away. I didn’t know this, but he had been sick, and it finally took a toll on him. I remember sitting at my cubicle at work. I remember feeling sad, but I felt blessed to have known him for the time that I did. This one connection with Gary changed my life. He believed in my idea when others said that people might not care. He shared MY story with others, the way I was trying to do for others, and I was grateful.
I sat there reflecting on my journey and as looked back at the Kickstarter campaign, early episodes and blogs posts, Mark walked in and sat at his desk. I walked over and told him that Gary had passed away. He too was sad, and I sensed that they were connected more than I knew. Mark told me that he knew Gary had been sick but didn’t know how bad. What he said next really hit me. “I don’t know if I ever told you this, or if he ever told you this but I didn’t just find you through his website back then. Gary contacted me and told me that I needed to check out what this guy is doing. That you were in 9-1-1 and a technical guy and that maybe something more could come of it, and here we are.”
My jaw dropped and it took everything for me not to get emotional. It’s funny though, because as I write this, I am emotional. I told Mark that I never knew that and that I would be forever grateful. He said, “I know you will.” I sat down at my cubicle and let the tears flow and thanked Gary along with a small prayer. All this time I thought it was by chance that Mark found me, that the blurb is what did it, but it was Gary who reached out to Mark. We live in a world where we make connections every single day. Most of them are online. And although I love face-to-face connections, this one, has impacted my life in so many ways. Gary and I never got the chance to meet in person, but I am happy that we got the chance to record an episode together. It’s a big world but every now and then life hits us with a curve ball and shows us how small the world can be and how connected we truly are.
Episode - 45