As a young emergency dispatcher, Stephen Martini had to get one thing straight: He couldn’t save everyone. In a seven-second phone call that became a turning point in his career, a caller asked Martini to send a crew to pick him up before his children got home from school — then the caller ended his life.
“If I was under the impression that in order to do this job I had to save lives, man, I would go home depressed after that day,” Martini says. “I didn’t have the chance to [save the caller’s life], but what I did have the chance to do was bring calm to a chaotic situation, bring some order to disorder, bring some clarity to a confusing situation.”
That’s exactly the mission statement of the Metro Department of Emergency Communications, for which Martini has served as director since March 2020: Calm chaos, restore order to disorder and bring clarity to confusion. That mindset has allowed him to stay in the high-octane career for nearly 20 years.
The past three years have seemed especially chaotic. His team responded to a pandemic, a bombing, a tornado, shootings and countless festivals and events during which the center has extra employees at the ready in case of, well, emergency.
As the city of Nashville has grown, its emergency communications department has had to keep up. The Department of Emergency Communications is remodeling its current office near Belmont University’s campus, with the team based out of its backup site in the meantime. Eventually, Martini has his eye on a new location, which the department has proposed at the site of an old Kmart on Murfreesboro Road, so that the Belmont-Hillsboro location can be the backup.
Martini is working to create more layers of redundancy for the system, which could prevent situations like what happened after the 2020 Christmas Day bombing. That day, the bomb took out cell phone service and the non-emergency phone lines in Nashville for days. The new center and backup center is a response to that vulnerability, in addition to connections in the works between neighboring counties that could serve as backup if phone lines fail in the future, he says.
In his time as director, Martini has also seen the HUB Nashville 10-digit non-emergency number fold into the 311 non-emergency line under his jurisdiction. Before the change, 911 operators were fielding around 35 percent true 911 calls and 65 percent non-emergency calls, but now it’s closer to 50/50, he says.
“That’s the challenge across the nation,” Martini says. “Every 911 center right now, their biggest challenge is drowning under non-emergency concerns.”
Many 311 calls can now be answered remotely, but work on emergency calls simply has to be done in-person to avoid the possibility of losing communications capabilities.
In an increasingly remote work world, Martini says the department has had trouble filling positions for dispatchers. During the 2022 Metro budget cycle, the Metro Council approved 40 new positions, reflecting a 25-percent increase in the operational budget. But all 40 of those positions were still vacant seven months later.
“I still have 40 vacant positions now seven months after approval, which is frustrating,” Martini says. “I blame that on the impact of COVID-19 on our society. Folks go, ‘Can I work from home?’”
Another change Martini has seen during his tenure is the introduction of police co-response (Partners in Care) and non-police responses (REACH). It’s a new way to send the right help at the right time, he says, echoing another dispatcher mantra. The next focus is Next Generation (NG) 911, which would allow callers to send text, pictures and videos to dispatchers.
Part of the goal with the remodel is creating spaces to prevent burnout in the workforce. The new facility includes a spacious kitchen and dining area, workout equipment and showers, as well as quiet rooms to decompress after an especially stressful call.
“The reality is, it’s a fight or flight response,” Martini says. “That adrenaline rush you get from ‘I don’t know what I need to do in this moment’ happens to my dispatchers, and dispatchers around the country, 80 to 100 times a day.”
They can’t save everyone, but Martini seeks to equip his team to best take the call.