Behind the scenes in Red Deer’s 911 dispatch centre

Service hardly skipped a beat for Ponoka’s volunteer fire department as changes implemented by Alberta Health Services (AHS) required the

Andrea McLean

Service hardly skipped a beat for Ponoka’s volunteer fire department as changes implemented by Alberta Health Services (AHS) required the town to change emergency dispatch centres.

Calls for the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) are now being handled in Red Deer. The building is an unassuming one, housed behind a fire station most passersby would miss if they didn’t know what to look for. But inside the building is a collection of offices and within that, a secure, high-tech dispatch room.

An array of monitors, phones and displays gives those dispatchers important tools to handle emergency calls. To ensure they are comfortable, the room is equipped with high-backed office chairs and motorized desks that can be raised or lowered depending on the dispatcher’s needs.

Mark Boothby, deputy fire chief of communications, says they handle 70 fire departments, eight EMS agencies and their area covers 68,000 square kilometres. The centre is open 365 days a year, seven days a week and his biggest challenge: “There’s 346,000 people in that area and staffing, mapping and keeping the current information for an area of that size.”

As EMS dispatch is being consolidated to three centres in Alberta, Red Deer’s call centre has also taken on Innisfail and Rocky Mountain House fire departments. He is confident they can handle the extra workload using trends in 911 calls. Red Deer is supposed to be finished by the end of December for EMS dispatch. “Although there’s some technology issues going on that might influence that date by a couple months.”

A dispatcher’s goal is to take a call within two rings.

Andrea McLean, team lead for Red Deer Emergency Services, wants to ensure the fire departments they have taken on know how they operate. “So we don’t have one fire department that’s different from another.”

She travelled to Ponoka with Boothby to plan Ponoka’s changeover and feels there is always a learning curve in communicating with each other. As long as 911 calls are handled in the appropriate time and priority that is what matters.

“The biggest thing is always making sure the people get the help they need,” stated McLean.

There have been cases where two ambulances were relatively close but from different towns so she made the decision to send both. “It’s all about the patient.”

“Just get someone there,” she added.

First responders are the ones who are generally recognized for their efforts and for dispatchers there is a sense of pride they were able to direct crews to the appropriate scene.

“I think it’s the challenge I like making sure everything’s going well,” said McLean.

Being able to juggle phones, radio, directions and other calls means these workers have to be able to multi-task and be efficient over the phone.

What would make the job easier: “It’s all about mapping.”

Misdialed 911 calls take up much of their time; McLean has seen an increase in cellphone use and people accidentally calling the number. Each time there is a 911 call an investigation ensues to ensure people are safe. Her biggest recommendation for people is to stay on the phone if they accidentally call and explain the situation.

“There is no fine for misdialing 911,” explained Boothby.

For those who abuse the system or prank call 911 there may be some legislation to issue fines. The same day of this interview, McLean handled eight calls from one prank caller.

For those with actual emergencies, McLean recommends callers know directions and address of their location, especially the rural addressing system. “Know your location.”

Dispatchers do not know what each day will bring, sometimes they can be busy handling different emergencies and dealing with someone in panic takes a certain skill. Boothby says they take control of the call. “We do ask a set of specific questions.”

Their goal is to get information to the appropriate first responders within two minutes. Coping with high stress phone calls takes a certain balance of humour and camaraderie among themselves but there are times calls can be upsetting.

Plans for the future

Boothby says the Government of Alberta is looking at how to standardize emergency dispatch centres in the province. “I’m really excited about it.”

Although he could not give a timeline, setting the same rules for dispatch will most-likely improve 911 dispatch centres. A new text messaging service for the hard of hearing is in the works and should become operational next year.

Despite losing funding with the consolidation of EMS dispatch centres, the province is implementing a wireless levy next year. Some of that levy will pay for administration but Boothby says the lion’s share of money will go to improving dispatch centres. They will be able to ensure staffing and technology updates.

Until that time though he expects to see a drop in the number of dispatchers they have working at the same time. He feels the number of calls will be similar.

“It’s not going to drop off as significantly as some people might think,” explained Boothby.

911 dispatch will still operate and he does not expect to see a drop in the level of service expected in an emergency.

Redundancies in the system

Each computer has a backup and so does the dispatch centre. In the event their operations fail, dispatchers can use the backup centre. At peak times four dispatchers are used and if more people are needed they can work at the other location.