As an honored and decorated officer with Florida's Miami-Dade Police Department for more than 17 years, Joe Martinez knows the importance of a lifeline to help. His work with the elderly, the disabled and victims of domestic violence gave him a different insight into the value of emergency assistance.

It's what led Martinez to develop a program that would ultimately make a difference in the safety of thousands of people's lives.

Recognizing the Need

Now a Miami-Dade County Commissioner, Martinez based his decision to create the Dial-A-Life program on a need to help abused, low-income, disabled and elderly residents. The initiative is dedicated to collecting used digital cellular phones and then reprogramming them so that at-risk county residents can call 911 immediately.

On July 10, 2001, the Board of County Commissioners approved an ordinance establishing the program, and its kickoff was held on Dec. 2, 2003 -- the date staff officially distributed the first phones.

"People that are afraid to leave their homes, victims of domestic violence, the disabled -- they have limited means. This program is a lifeline for them -- a security blanket," said Martinez. "The program has snowballed. Senior citizens are reaping the benefits, and other counties are getting on board, too."

Organizers continue to set up centers for the collection and distribution of phones. Organizations are encouraged to partner with Dial-A-Life in creating centers or to conduct drives to collect cell phones from employees, the community or other organizations. The phones are free to those who are considered at-risk.

To date, staff have collected 3,168 telephones, and refurbished and delivered 1,216 telephones to distribution centers throughout Miami-Dade County. Although analog phones were initially donated to the program, staff later discovered they were not feasible and had to discard some phones. The county's operating costs run about $100,000 annually.

Growing Strong

The goal is to eventually provide phones to all at-risk Miami-Dade residents. Currently Dial-A-Life advertises through newspaper, radio and television -- with the board continually looking for creative and impacting ways to increase awareness. Some advertising vehicles have included the Dial-A-Life Web site, launched in December 2004, and a Dial-A-Life Program public service announcement aired on the local cable network.

In February 2005, organizers held a Dial-A-Life Power-A-Thon. Partnering with BellSouth, Cingular Wireless and radio station WPOW, the goal was to collect 500 used cellular phones. The end result was more than 600. Other Florida counties, and even other states, have inquired about the program, hoping to start a similar initiative in their own areas.

In late August 2004, 83-year-old Olga Bohourgues, a Dial-A-Life phone recipient, experienced severe chest pains and used her cell phone to dial 911. Rescue units responded within a few minutes and transported her to Kendall Regional Medical Center. That phone call saved her life.

"When I found out about Olga's success story, it brought tears to my eyes," said Carmen Williams, Dial-A-Life program coordinator since February 2003. "Olga actually used the phone to save her own life. There is a great need for this program, and I am happy to be a part of it. I see it as a mission to help people -- and possibly, save lives."

To learn more about the Dial-A-Life initiative, call the program at 305/375-DIAL, or see the Web site.

Kristen P. Wilson  |  Contributing Writer