Bilingual Vail dispatcher looks to take the fear, frustration out of calling 911
Fernando Almanza overcame homelessness and a challenging boyhood to become a trusted community voice
February 21, 2019
Fernando Almanza knows the fear people feel when they call him on 911 at the Vail Public Safety Communications center. It's the same fear he's felt as a victim of domestic violence and someone who first came to Eagle County illegally.
Now a legal resident, Almanza, 27, is the only certified bilingual dispatcher at the Vail facility that handles all the 911 calls for fire, paramedics and police in Eagle County. Originally from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua, Almanza first came to the Vail Valley at age 11, crossing into New Mexico from Puerto Palomas on a harrowing 15-hour desert hike.
"There’s always the fear of immigration [agents] showing up at your home if you know you’re here illegally. Regardless of whether Trump is here, or whether it's Obama or Bush, or whoever the president is," Almanza said when asked if he senses the local immigrant community is more hesitant to call police in recent years.
"We don’t call ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] because you don’t have papers and you get in a traffic stop," he said. "ICE won't come and get you, with exceptions, obviously, if they are actively looking for you."
Being listed in the ICE database can trigger a call to local law enforcement once a name is entered into the system, but such calls are very rare, he said.
A hero in the shadows
Almanza discusses that fear factor in his 911 presentations to members of the immigrant community entitled "First Responders: Heroes in the Shadows." He came up with the program while studying community leadership skills at the Family Leadership Training Institute run by the Eagle County branch of the Colorado State University Extension.
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He's now given the talk on a volunteer basis — in both English and Spanish — to 848 people. He’s spoken to diverse groups as large as 50 and as small as just a couple of people, and he carries with him a special awareness of just what it means to call 911 because of a domestic violence incident.
"Sometimes we know that mom and dad have the occasional fights, or that dad gets drunk and hits mom and mom doesn’t call because dad says he’s going to call immigration and the kids are going to go away to a foster home," Almanza said. "I paint that picture because it hits home."
Almanza wound up homeless for a while in Eagle County after a domestic violence incident that placed him squarely between his mother and father, a former Mexican police officer who came to Colorado to escape drug violence and work construction in the booming Vail Valley of the 1990s. His parents ultimately divorced, and Almanza landed with an uncle in Avon.
He credits that uncle with helping him become an adult, and he credits teachers at Battle Mountain High School, where he graduated in 2010, with pushing him to do more with his life, including helping him land an SOS Outreach scholarship that got him into snowboarding.
After high school, Almanza worked construction with his father, with whom he'd reconciled, before taking a big pay cut to work at auto parts stores and garages in Gypsum for a few years. It was then that he found he liked helping people with their car problems and decided maybe he should use his language skills to get outside his comfort zone and really try to help people.
He thought about a police job but had mixed feelings based on his past experiences.
"Just recently I lost the fear for police officers here in the United States, not because I had a bad encounter, but back when I was a kid [in Mexico] they were corrupt because they had no option," Almanza said. "Either you take this money or your family is no longer, and my dad wouldn’t take either, so that’s the reason that we ended up right here."
A passion for helping others
That's when the role of a bilingual dispatcher came to him. While Almanza had to take the test a couple times, he eventually passed and embarked on six months of extensive training. He had been on the job nearly a year and a half when his supervisor, Marc Wentworth, told him about FLTI — a program run by Marc's wife, Glenda Wentworth.
And FLTI led to Almanza's presentation, which has been studied and featured in national police publications such as the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) and is aimed at educating people about what 911 does and how people should be prepared when they call. Knowing what to expect, he said, can strip away a lot of the fear and frustration from a very scary moment.
"I feel passionate about what I do, and I feel that the more educated we are in this matter, at least, the less potential problems that we can have," Almanza said.
Email Almanza at FAlmanza@vailgov.com for more information or to request a presentation of "First Responders: Heroes in the Shadows." Almanza is also involved in a slew of other volunteer programs, including the Special Olympics Polar Plunge.