Behind the headset

911 Police Dispatch

2019-11-18 08:22 PST

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Learn more about a day in the life of a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher. Discover why our Police Dispatchers live their passion and love what they do.

In a heartbeat

Ginny always wanted to be in a profession helping people. She had once considered being a nurse, however; she married an RCMP officer and they moved frequently until they settled in Kelowna. She also had two small children who needed her full attention so she took a job at the school district.

Years later, she wanted something a little more challenging, something to get the cobwebs out, something to stimulate her brain.

Her husband heard that the 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre in Kelowna was hiring new recruits. She spent a day at the Centre to see whether it was something she wanted to do. She realized that, at this job, she would be able to fulfil that desire to help people so signed up for the training.

In those days, the training as a call taker was on the job, says Ginny. You were learning as you were taking that calls from the public under the guidance of a field coach.

GinnyHer career as a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher helped to build her confidence and gave her multiple opportunities and challenges.

In the beginning, I thought I would be just answering phones and that’s all, says Ginny. But it is far more.

People who call may not necessarily be reporting a crime or have an issue requiring the police. They may be calling to ask for assistance in tracking down someone who could help them solve a problem. 9-1-1 Police Dispatchers have a wealth of knowledge about the communities they serve and can often provide phone numbers for city services, social workers, mental health advocates, local community centres or schools.

I’ve had some pretty amazing opportunities throughout my career, for which I am so incredibly grateful, says Ginny.

When there was a need to standardize 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher competencies profile, the Dispatch Centre management team asked Ginny if she would join the national Ottawa committee that was looking at defining the criteria that would determine if an applicant had the knowledge and skills required to be employed as a dispatcher.

Ginny later became a field coach, supporting new recruits at the start of their careers. In 2003, she was offered the opportunity to be a facilitator for the new training program that was being held at the Pacific Region Training Centre in Chilliwack for the first time. She worked with the training team to develop the curriculum. At that time, the training was for seven weeks. As dispatching requires very different skill sets, the candidate needs to have a solid knowledge of call taking first.

Today, the training program is very comprehensive with a mix of training and working in the field over nine months. The program consists of:

The Southeast District Dispatch Centre in Kelowna encourages career opportunities and they were receptive when Ginny identified that there were gaps in her knowledge now that she was a supervisor. She recommended that they create a Career Growth Program with training in administrative responsibilities, such as, scheduling, assessment writing, and performance management. This would give future new supervisors the tools needed to manage people. It also gave them an opportunity to explore whether being a supervisor was right for them at this point in their career.

In 2014, Ginny became an Acting Team Leader and one year later, was promoted to Team Leader managing three supervisors and 16 call takers and dispatchers.

She is currently acting in the role of Operations Manager responsible for updating the Standard Operation Procedures and Unit Supplements and reviews the complaints or concerns from the public or from police officers.

Recently, the 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre Unit Commander introduced the Critical Incident Stress Management Program (CISM). The program trains facilitators to help people reduce the impacts of the normal reactions associated to a critical incident and supports them after a difficult call or situation, such as going to testify in court. Before, dispatchers would attend the same debriefing as the police officers who attended the scene. However, the police experience is after the dispatcher took the call and may or may not be relevant to the dispatcher. It is often the call itself that may be the trigger and the officers don’t hear that.

I find this job so rewarding because we are helping people, says Ginny. We’re making a difference. We’re their first contact with the police. What we say or do affects what the police officers face when they attend the scene.

There is one call that sticks with me, says Ginny. It made me want to do this job more that ever.

 Early in her career, Ginny took a call from an elderly woman who had left her small rural home to visit family on the coast. Her husband stayed at their house.

Throughout the day, the woman tried calling her husband a number of times and into the evening but there was no answer.

Close to midnight, the woman called 9-1-1, says Ginny. I reassured her that I would send an officer to their house to check on her husband. Everything turned out to be fine.

When the officer arrived, he found the man safe at home. He had been out for the day and missed his wife’s calls.

The woman was so grateful for the fact that I helped her and that we checked on her husband that she crocheted a little angel for me, says Ginny. It’s that kind of thank you that I find so rewarding.
Every time we pick up that call from the public or dispatch an officer via the radio, we are assisting someone.

Ginny recalls another call that shows the cooperation between all dispatchers.

In the middle of the night, she took a call from a gas station attendant. An elderly couple appeared to want to fill their car up with gas but they seemed disoriented. Ginny sent a police officer to the gas station to find the couple but they had departed before the officer arrived.

Another 9-1-1 call came in another gas station attendant at a community about 60 km from where the first call came in. Another dispatcher took that call but did sound like it was about the same couple. The attendant thought there was something that was not quite right as the couple didn’t seem to know where they were going.

Apparently, the couple turned around and headed in the direction of their home, but they drove right past it travelling south.

Ginny received another call around 4:00 am from someone who had found the couple parked on the side of the road. I asked the man to stay with them until the officer arrived. The officer located them and helped them get home safely. Sadly, the confused couple thought they had to go somewhere but didn’t know where. They had been driving for hours before being located and escorted home.

It speaks to how much we work as a team, says Ginny. I overheard the other dispatcher taking the second call and we discussed it, pieced it together, concluding it was the same couple.

Even though each day can be somewhat challenging, since you never know what’s going to happen, Ginny still enjoys her job 21 years later.

Ginny explains what it takes to be successful.

To be good at this job, says Ginny, you need to be caring and empathetic. With everything I do, I try to be respectful as I possibly can with the public, as well as our police officers.

In a heart beat, says Ginny. I would recommend this job to others. It’s a great organization. We look after our peers. We care about our work family.

Ginny says the people in the Southeast District Dispatch Centre work as a team. If someone took a difficult call, the team discuss it and help the dispatcher process it.

When a caller dials 9-1-1, we are the first voice that they hear, says Ginny. We set the tone. We represent the RCMP. We represent all 9-1-1 Police Dispatchers, and the Southeast District Dispatch Centre.
 

Going the extra mile

It’s something that’s intrinsic to all 9-1-1 Police Dispatchers – the fundamental desire to help people. But it is more than just the desire to assist someone. A dispatcher routinely steps far beyond providing aid. It’s about ensuring someone is safe and protected and doing whatever it takes to find them the help they need to make the situation better.

Dispatchers must have a vast roster of resources: people and organizations in the community that they can call for support. They know the schools, taxi and tow truck companies, emergency and medial services, and often know their staff by name.

One such 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher is Patricia who works at the 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre in Prince George.

Patricia Wicks

I received a call from a mother who had very ill child who needed immediate emergency medical attention, says Patricia, I remember it was in the middle of winter in a bitterly cold ice storm and the highway was closed.

The woman lived in a rural and remote area and needed to get to the large city hospital. With whiteout conditions and the closure of the highway, she took the back roads but ended up getting stuck in a ditch. She called 9-1-1 for assistance. There were no tow trucks were venturing out until the storm subsided but Patricia wondered if there was a highway maintenance truck in the area sanding the roads. She contacted the maintenance company and asked if their truck could go to the area and help get the woman’s car moving again. The company agreed and the truck pulled the vehicle out of the ditch, then drove in front of her car, sanding the roadway until she was safely on her way to the hospital. Patricia stayed on the line with the mother the entire time.

Two days later, there were flowers on my desk from the mother, said Patricia. I didn’t expect that. I was just doing my job. But it made me realize how impactful it was for me to think outside the box to help her to get her child to the hospital safely.

It’s this sense of duty—of going the extra mile—that sets dispatchers apart.

The North District 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre serves all regions of northern BC and the dispatcher must have knowledge of the local geography and the communities they serve.

It is a dispatcher’s job to get as much information as possible, which can be difficult if the caller is frantic.

A quick way to calm the caller down if they are panicking is to give them a small task to do to focus on something else which can de-escalate the stress level.

Once again in a nasty snowstorm, Patricia took a call in the middle of the night from a young girl who was about 18, the same age as Patricia’s daughter at the time. She had driven from Fort St. John to Dawson Creek for a party and was on her way home.

The young girl had taken unfamiliar back roads and her car got stuck in the snow. She didn’t know what road she was on. Having come from a party, she was not dressed for the weather, wearing a light jacket, skirt and ankle boots. She was walking down the road crying.

The cell service in the area was poor and when the call dropped, Patricia was able to ping her cellphone to get a general location. By the time Patricia was able to reach her cell again, she had walked along the road and spotted a farmhouse. She knocked on the door but no one answered. There was no address on the rural property.

I asked her if she saw a vehicle parked in front of the house, said Patricia. She did so I asked her to tell me the licence plate number.

Patricia tracked down the name and address and phone number of the registered owner.

I phoned the residence, woke up the homeowner, and explained the circumstances, says Patricia.

The woman went outside to look for the young girl who, by that time, had gone into the barn to keep warm. The woman brought her into her home to keep her warm and safe.

That’s what I am proud of, recalls Patricia. I knew that the cell coverage was spotty and I really had to leverage what little information I could use to find the farmhouse. The licence plate number was the breakthrough I needed to locate her.

Having the homeowner graciously bring her into her home until her mom could come to take her home, was a blessing.

I just kept thinking that if it was my daughter, what would I want someone to do to help her, said Patricia.

That’s how I have conducted my career, Patricia adds. To provide that high quality of service, I think to myself, ‘What if it was my family member in trouble? What would I want the 9-1-1 police dispatcher do to help them?’

However, not all callers are gracious or grateful. Some really difficult callers can be rude, belligerent or intoxicated.

I’ve had to put myself in to someone else’s shoes and recognize that they are someone’s child, dad, sister, uncle, grandmother, says Patricia. I try to recognize that they are going through a really tough time. When someone calls 9-1-1, we are here to assist them, not judge them.

There are times when something doesn’t turn out as they would like it to.

We can’t fix the problem, she adds. We can only assist as much as we can and know we have done everything we could in our power to assist. That puts everything into perspective.

In her 17-year-career, Patricia has held a number of positions. Three years after she became a dispatcher, Patricia became a field coach to assist new dispatchers to learn and develop their skills. It takes about one year to become a dispatcher so she got to know the new people very well. Then she became a shift supervisor, assisting dispatchers during high priority situations and managing the team.
Along the way, I had some great opportunities, says Patricia. I worked at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the 2015 Canada Winter Games when they came to Prince George.

She was also the Emergency Response Team dispatcher, colloquially known as ERT Comms. ERT receives all the most difficult calls. She would be deployed with these elite, highly trained members would be in the Command Post on scene with the Critical Incident Commander and the negotiators. She was also the scribe, recording what transpired, compiling the information from all sources. She provided the critical link between the officers on scene and the Commander.

It was a privilege to work with this team of dedicated professionals, Patricia recalls.

She has come full circle now in the role recruiter giving the Career Presentation to prospective dispatchers sharing her love of the career.

9-1-1 Police Dispatchers come from all walks of life. They are a varied group of individuals, all with a common goal and purpose. Helping people.

Because we are all different, we bring something unique to the table, Patricia adds. We work as a team to ensure that everything that can be done, will be done to help the caller.
 

Just like playing a video game

Ezra has been a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher for less than three years but his passion for the work spills out as he recalls some of the calls he has taken.

One of the first calls he took as a Police Dispatcher was only five seconds long. Someone was being stabbed. He snapped into action to send police to the scene.

I love being part of something that is so real – so tangible, says Ezra. You know you are doing something that matters.

Ezra sitting looking at computer monitors

The fast-paced environment of a 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre suits Ezra. He likes the ever-changing stream of work. For two and half years, Ezra dispatched at the North Island 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre in Courtenay. He started right after studying Criminology at SFU. Earlier, when he was in high school, Ezra attended the RCMP Bootcamp and he got the policing bug. But a friend’s dad, who happened to be an RCMP officer, told him about the exciting and diverse world of police dispatching. Ezra also likes the fact that the job has mobility built right in. He recently transferred to the BC RCMP Headquarters Dispatch Centre in Surrey.

9-1-1 police dispatching requires someone who is skilled in multitasking. Ezra describes what is required when he deploys the Police Dog Service to a scene where a suspect is on the run.

The RCMP police officer will ask the dispatcher to set up a containment for tracking, says Ezra. We have to bring up the area on our maps, then cross-reference with street-view maps to see what is in and around the area.

The dispatcher places the police officers in different containment points surrounding the suspect. The dispatcher tracks the dog handler’s movements and informs the officers in which direction the dog is moving. The officers move in formation as the dog moves.

It’s called a moving containment, Ezra explains. You have to be fast and accurate. It’s exhilarating. I don’t think people realize how involved dispatchers are in an active incident. We are constantly problem solving.

The dispatcher is truly police officers’ life line.

To excel as a police dispatcher, you need to foresee what the police officer will need before they ask and have it already done. Dispatchers will ping cellphones, run queries on police databases, look for the recent history of the suspect. The dispatcher makes sure the officers have all the information they need to at the scene.

We help the police connect the dots, says Ezra. The officer is dealing with the people at the scene and can’t do the research on the suspect or the area. They rely on us to do that.

In addition to working with the police, dispatchers have to also think who else needs to be informed. When two children wandered away from their home, Ezra researched who their family and friends were for the officers. Then he contacted taxis, schools, BC Ferries, the airport, ambulance, and tow trucks, describing what the children looked like and asking them to be on the look out for the pair.

Multitasking is only part of it. As a dispatcher, you have at minimum three sources of input coming to you all at once. You could be taking a call from the public, calling for the ambulance, all while the officer is talking to you on the secure radio channel.

You learn to have a split ear so you know what is happening in the Dispatch Centre, what the officer is saying on the radio, and what the caller is saying on the phone, says Ezra.

In addition to listening to several channels, dispatchers must monitor multiple screens showing who are on shift, where the officers are located, the maps of the region, search databases, and the public calls to 9-1-1.

We know that 9-1-1 police dispatchers play a critical role in helping those often calling in their darkest hours. Ezra recalls some of the highly impactful calls that left quite an impression on him.

The most frightening thing for a dispatcher to hear is a 10-33 call over the radio, says Ezra. Because one of our greatest roles is to ensure officer safety.

A 10-33 call alerts dispatchers and police that an officer needs help—immediately.

When an officer presses that button on their radio, an alarm goes off at all the desks in the 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre and every officer in the area hears the alarm.

In this incident, the traffic officer said, I’ve been hit.

My heart stopped for a second, says Ezra. I could feel my adrenaline kick in. I had to take a second and take a few deep breathes so I could hear everything the officer said. I also slowed my voice down so he could hear me clearly.

He confirmed who the officer was and his location then told the officer, Help is on the way. We are sending every officer we have in the area. I’ve called fire and ambulance. They’re on their way, too.

The first responders arrived quickly and helped the officer whose vehicle had been rear ended at a high rate of speed. He was safe.

Nothing could be more confusing than to have a shooter in a crowded mall but when Ezra got the call reporting that there was man planning to shoot someone, he jumped into action.

The mall was packed and the possibility of injuring others was very high, says Ezra. Mall security was trying to help but they didn’t know where the shooter was.

Multiple police officers and dog teams arrived and the mall was put in locked down or hold and secure.

Ezra called the Fire Service and BC Ambulance Service and contacted the local bus service as the mall also served a major commuter hub. He then set up a moving containment with the police including a police dog and its handler.

The police teams followed the shooter out of mall and located him with an replica firearm and arrested him.

Unfortunately, not all calls end positively. Ezra had difficult call from a local residence who said his wife was choking.

I transferred the call to the ambulance service, but I stayed on the line, as I knew where they lived was fairly remote and it would take a long time for the ambulance to arrive, remembers Ezra.

The emergency medical services dispatcher instructed the husband what to do, but regrettably, his wife died before paramedics could reach her.Dispatchers have to figure out what would bring them comfort after these types of calls. And there is no harm in asking for help. Dispatchers support one another like family.

In addition to being physically active playing volleyball and bouldering, Ezra is a couple’s photographer.

I take engagement photos and portraits, says Ezra. It’s a way to meet people before they get married.

He likes to photograph the couple outside in the natural light where he can be more creative and artistic.

Rather than talking to people on their worst day, says Ezra, I am photographing people on the best day.

When he first started, he asked a supervisor what dispatching was really like and he said it was just like a video game.

As a 9-1-1 police dispatcher, says Ezra. you are responsible for maintaining officers’ status timers, running queries, calling external agencies for multiple officers on multiple radio channels, all while dispatching the officers’ calls for service. We also are taking both emergency and non-emergency calls.

As in a video game, there are multiple moving pieces, each with inherent challenges that must be conquered. Dispatchers can boost their self-esteem as they learn to master it all.


Your day will get better

Annu

Twenty-four hours, seven days a week, police officers are out on patrol working hard to keep us safe. But they can’t do it alone. On the front lines of law enforcement are the people that have a major role in keeping communities, and the police, safe: 9-1-1 Police Dispatchers.

The 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher must be composed and skilled in calming people so the caller can provide all the vital information the police need to understand the full scope of the incident. It is precisely because of their ability to quickly decipher the essence of a situation that they can dispatch the police to the scene quickly and safely. Seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

We save lives, says Annu, a BC RCMP 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher. It’s exciting.

Still, it’s not a job for everyone. Dispatchers often take calls from people in life-threatening situations. It takes a special kind of person to want to be involved in another person’s crisis. 9-1-1 Police Dispatchers are the critical link between a person in distress and the police who are there to help them.

Knowing that you are talking to people on what could be potentially the worst day of their lives, says Annu, makes me want to do the best that I can to help them during the immediate situation.

Prior to being a Dispatcher, Annu was working with Victim Services providing emotional support to people after a crime and connecting them to the resources in the community that could help.
Knowing what happens after of the crisis occurred, Annu wanted to know what happens before the incident, when the initial call is received.

I have a degree in Criminology from Kwantlen Polytechnic University, says Annu. I was always interested in policing and wanted to see how frontline officers respond to an incident.

As a South Asian woman, I had lived a sheltered life in Metro Vancouver, living with my parents until I got married, says Annu. I felt the need to get out of my comfort zone. I wanted to try something out of the box.

After completing her degree, Annu moved to Edmonton in 2014 and worked as a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher at the Dispatch Centre located at the Alberta RCMP Headquarters.

From the beginning, she adapted well to the shiftwork of four days on, four days off. It soon became just normal to her.

After a few years, Annu learned that she was pregnant. She continued to dispatch throughout her pregnancy and maintained her fitness regime and healthy lifestyle.

From cardio, yoga, and meditation, exercise figures prominently in Annu’s life and she is committed to going to the gym every shift.

It’s one of the first conversations I have with trainees is, ‘what do you do for stress relief,’ says Annu. This job is going to come fast and you need to know what you are going to do to look after yourself. Exercise is so important for Dispatchers.

You have to find that workplace balance, adds Annu. You have to work at it. But it is attainable. You can remain healthy, resilient, and happy doing the work that we do.

She decided to go back to BC to be with family for the delivery. A little girl joined her new family in 2017.

Soon after, she felt it was time to go back home among family and to challenge herself to learn a new system at another Police Dispatch Centre. RCMP offered her the opportunity to transfer, and in August 2018, she joined the 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre at BC RCMP Headquarters in Surrey, one of the four Dispatch Centres in BC.

The BC 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre is quite intricate and very sophisticated, says Annu. All police agencies are seamlessly linked through PRIME, the record management system, allowing for interagency cooperation.

The BC RCMP Headquarters 9-1-1 Police Dispatch Centre supports Federal, Provincial and Lower Mainland District units and integrated teams, such as the collision reconstruction, explosive disposal, or the dog service. This is in addition to serving six Detachments. They are also the Centre that sends out provincial Amber Alerts and Tsunami Warnings.

Whenever I speak to police officers, I ask them which unit they are with, says Annu. Then I ask them to tell me what they specialize in. It’s just intriguing how many resources are required for effective policing and with the support from all these specialized units. I learn something new every day and I’m challenged.

She was the only South Asian Police Dispatcher in Alberta and the North West Territories RCMP. If they needed a Punjabi-speaking Dispatcher, she was the one.

At the RCMP everyone is interested in your culture and is to willing to learn, says Annu. They hear me speaking Punjabi on the 9-1-1 lines and they are so grateful that they have someone on the team who can help. People are very respectful and accepting.

Dispatchers know that they must support one another in this sometimes challenging and stressful environment.

Annu remembers an experience when she had a very tough call from someone who was in crisis.
I’m pretty good about keeping my voice modulated. But not with this call, recalls Annu. I know that everyone around the room knew that I struggled with that call. They could hear it. My supervisor and a colleague swung their chairs over and said, ‘I’m here if you want to talk.’

Understanding how much it impacted her, as soon as the officers were on scene, the Dispatcher turned to her and said, The RCMP members are there and they have him.

We are all apart of it, says Annu. Knowing that that person got the assistance he needed was so important. And afterwards, seeing the comradery, just blew me away. My supervisor said, ‘That person is fine. You asked the right questions.’

No one is going to call 9-1-1 on the happiest day of their life. It’s more likely the worst day of their life and Dispatchers understand that.

The way I look at it is when we answer that call, we have a conscious choice to make, says Annu. To make that person’s day, just a tiny little bit better. You can insert a tiny bit of positivity. I like to say, ‘I hope you have a better day’ and I truly hope their day improves. I genuinely wish that from my heart.

You never know the impact you have on someone until you speak from the heart, says Annu.
Annu was recently selected to be the face of the new BC RCMP 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher Recruiting Campaign theme: Live Your Passion. Love what You Do. It is Annu’s ability to speak from the heart that shines through in every photo. It’s her authenticity. She’s the heart behind the headset.

It’s exhilarating, says Annu. It reaffirms why I’m with the RCMP and so happy to be a part of the Force.

I’m so honoured to be featured, says Annu. My parents are so very proud and my Mom is sharing the Facebook posts with her friends and family. My university colleagues have seen it and have reached out. Even my neighbour and daycare teacher commented on it. My cousin saw it and is now applying to become a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher.

If you are interested in learning more about the role of a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher go to the BCRCMP911.ca website. You can take the self-evaluation questionnaire, Is this Career Right for You? which will help you determine if your experience matches the responsibilities of the job.

Choosing a career as a 9-1-1 Police Dispatcher may be one of the most rewarding decisions you will make. The position offers many opportunities to make a positive difference in the lives of others.

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