Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Terese Garcia has wanted to be a dispatcher since she was 10.
She was inspired by the docudrama “Rescue 911,” which featured reenactments of situations leading up to 911 calls and the way emergency dispatchers communicate with people in the worst moments of their lives.
Garcia, 31, has been visually impaired since the day she was born. But the voice that dispatchers use – guiding panicked callers back down to earth to get the information first responders need to help – drew her in.
She resolved to go for it, with or without the ability to see.
It took her over 20 years to chase down her dream. But, in May, her day finally came when she became the first visually impaired person to work as a dispatcher in Central New Mexico Community College’s security department.
“You can dream about what you want to be forever, and you can just sit there and (say) ‘I wish I was this,’ or, ‘I’ve always wanted to be a dispatcher,’ ” Garcia said on Tuesday. “But you have to make the first move. Because nobody’s going to make that move for you, unless you do it yourself.”
Many doors are presumed to be closed for the visually impaired before they get any say in the matter, Garcia said, noting that she’s had to convince many along the way that blind dispatchers do, in fact, exist.
One of those people was CNM Chief of Security John Corvino, who told the Journal he’s never worked with a blind person in his 34-plus years of law enforcement and public safety, and that the security department has “never had a blind dispatcher.”
So, when he was told by one of his dispatchers, who met Garcia on a “safety escort” through campus, that she wanted to apply for a job in his department, he had some reservations.
“When he told me that, I was like, ‘No way, how could we do that?’ ” Corvino said, remembering his conversation with the dispatcher. “(But) then I was thinking – ‘Why not?’ ”
So, Corvino got ahold of Garcia and invited her to the dispatch office to get a feel for what the job would entail. Mostly, he wanted to know if she thought she could handle it.
Her answer? An emphatic ‘yes.’
“I was determined to prove to him and the staff that it was something I could do,” she said.
That was all Corvino needed to hear. He told her to fill out an application and eventually scheduled an interview, and, when it came time, he said Garcia nailed it.
He asked her to leave the interview room so he could speak with others in the department, but there wasn’t much to discuss. Figuring there was no reason to make her wait to hear back, they quickly brought Garcia back into the interview room and offered her the job.
Her childhood dream coming to fruition, Garcia broke down into tears when she got the news. She told her mom, who was waiting for her in another room, and then started “calling the whole world” to tell them she had done it.
Six months in, Corvino said Garcia’s still a little green. But that’s ordinary for any new dispatcher, he added, noting that she’s a good employee who’s always on time and is dependable, even if she’s reliant on others for transportation.
There are some things she can’t do, such as review surveillance video, but none of that poses a major problem, Corvino said. Garcia’s coworkers, he added, are always willing to help lend her a hand when she needs it, although it’s sometimes Garcia who’s helping out the new dispatchers.
And she has many workarounds for the things that might seem difficult at first. She has braille shortcuts on her work landline, a braille notetaker – held together by duct tape – that she’s used for 10 years and a program that reads everything she types back to her in an automated voice.
“People have their definitions of blindness and a lot of it is old-fashioned,” she said. “Even though it’s 2022, their mind is still in that era of ‘Oh, I didn’t know that could be done.’ ”
The biggest challenge of the job that Garcia spoke of is the fact that being a dispatcher forces her to separate her emotions from her work.
But she also has life experience – having lost people to such things as gun violence and DWIs – that give her a frame of reference for what people are going through in emergency situations. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s an easy gig.
“I no longer have to prove it as much that I can do the job,” she said. “But there are still times that I have to prove it to myself.”