SAN FRANCISCO — The voice on the phone was distressed. The caller, Tala Rahal, was sobbing and could barely speak as she tried to explain that her mother was in trouble. The girl was 10.
“She has a really bad headache and not really talking to us,” she says on a recording of the call.
On another call, another emergency this time reported by a boy, 11.
“The ceiling just fell on my mom and I’m really scared,” Kieontay said. “Just me and my baby brother are here.”
In both emergencies, Filipinos were the first to respond.
“They calmed them down,” San Francisco public information officer Francis Zamora told me. “They provided some basic medical instruction until help got there.”
Nine, one, one.
You dial it to ask for help. But one can just imagine the stress of taking such a call. Whoever answers must quickly and calmly make a decision on how to respond to a caller who may not be able to explain clearly and coherently what the emergency is about.
In some cases, the caller is a child.
In San Francisco, public safety dispatchers respond to more than a million emergency calls every year. Last week, the Boston Marathon tragedy underscored the importance of these dispatchers and first responders.
This month, San Francisco honored three Filipino Americans for whom 911 means a call to serve.
When Tala Rahal dialed that number, Edgar Velasco answered. The San Francisco native has been a dispatcher for 11 years. He stayed on the line with Tala, giving the girl medical instructions and assuring her that help was on the way.
“Is it okay if we go with her?” Tala asks, in tears, after Velasco told her that an ambulance was on its way.
“Yes, absolutely,” he says. “You don’t have to stay home.”
Velasco asks if her mother is awake, and the girl says, “She’s like half asleep and half awake.”
The girl’s voice cracks as she continues, “My sister and brother keep asking, ‘Mamma, mamma.’”
“Tala, you’re doing a good job,” Velasco says. “You’re helping her out because she’s unable to make the call on her own. It’s good you called 911.”
It was Kim Tuyay who answered Kieontay’s call after the child saw the ceiling of their home collapsed, knocking the boy’s mother unconscious.
Tuyay has been a public safety dispatcher for 22 years. She trained another Filipino, Cecile Soto, when she was starting out. Soto is now the city’s 911 dispatch operations manager.
“The ceiling just collapsed on her,” the boy tells Tuyay on the 911 call. “I’m just really scared. She can’t really breathe.”
“I need you watch your mom, very closely,” Tuyay says calmly. “If she becomes less awake and she throws up, make sure she’s turned on her side, okay?”
“Yes,” the boy responds. A baby is heard crying in the background.
“Is that the baby crying?” Tuyay asks.
“Is the baby okay?”
“Yeah, he didn’t get hurt.”
Tala and Kieontay were among the children who received the 9-1-1 for Kids Local Heroes Award for helping save their loved ones in emergencies. “They saved the lives of their parents,” Zamora said.
A third Filipino, Corinina “Cori” Cruz, was named “dispatcher of the year” for her role in helping police respond to a tragedy.
Cori took the 911 call reporting a suicidal young man who eventually fled, leading police on a car chase through the streets of San Francisco. The chase ended on Treasure Island where a police negotiator tried to intervene.
But the crisis ended tragically: the young man took his own life.
The city of San Francisco said Cruz was involved in “a very volatile incident that had potential risk to the lives of many.”
“Cori handled every aspect of this event professionally, while remaining calm and poised during this unstable and unpredictable scene, coordinating the responses of over 40 San Francisco officers,” the city said in a statement.
The three Filipinos were honored on the recommendations of their colleagues, Zamora said. This is not just about Filipinos, of course. San Francisco is a diverse city served by a diverse workforce.
But “that’s a pretty significant number,” Zamora added, referring to the three Filipinos. He wanted other Filipinos to know of their service. “As Filipino Americans, we should make sure the great contributions we are making in the United States are recognized in the community,” he told me.
“What you’ll find with these three and the others is they are always deferring to their colleagues, talking about a team effort. They’re very humble but they do very important work.”
“When you call 911,” he continued, “they’re the first voice of reassurance that you hear.”
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