The front lines of communication
Prank phone calls or dialing mistakes don’t frustrate local 9-1-1 dispatcher Valerie Campbell, because she never knows what’s going on at the other end of the line.
One day years ago, she tells me, a woman called. As soon as Campbell answered, the woman said, “It’s nothing,” and hung up.
Campbell tried calling back: No answer.
She immediately ran the phone number and associated address through her database, and found that there was a previous case of domestic assault at the house, and that the residents held a registered weapon. Within one minute of initially receiving the call, Campbell dispatched an RCMP officer to the property.
When the officer arrived, the woman who had placed the call was in the house, and a man was holding a gun to her head.
Valerie Campbell has served at the dispatch centre for 30 years, and spent a total of 37 years with the RCMP. She proudly displays the thumb-sized pin the detachment issued to her during an awards ceremony on Thursday night for outstanding service.
Campbell supervises a dispatch centre of fewer than 10 people. They serve as backbone to RCMP field units in Chilliwack, Hope, Agassiz, Mission, and Boston Bar. They also re-route medical emergency calls to the BC Ambulance Service dispatch centre in Kamloops, and fire calls to the local centre on Cheam Avenue.
The 9-1-1 service is set up as a multi-layered emergency response.
“We rely on one another,” says communications centre manager Pat Korum.
RCMP officers on the streets of Chilliwack work alone. When they take on a call, knock on strangers’ doors, or pull over suspicious vehicles they have nothing but the radio connection to the dispatch centre to back them up.
“They are a lifeline,” says Cpl. Deb Drozda.
On a snowy day last December, a woman drove off a farm road, and flipped over in a ditch. Water was flowing in. Hanging upside down by her seatbelt, she called 9-1-1, but was in shock, and had no idea where she was.
“Everything is zeroed in on that particular moment,” says Korum.
One call taker was on the phone with the victim. Another dispatcher was on the phone with the various police officers driving in circles, trying to find the car in the water.
“It’s one of those situations where you want to respond quickly, but you have to get the right information in order to respond quickly,” says Drozda, who was the watch commander that day and made calls to Search and Rescue and Emergency and Health Services.
The team set up an approximate perimeter, and narrowed it as the woman looked around and provided details on the shape of nearby mountains, and of farm houses she passed along the way.
The dispatcher types all this into a computer. Inside every marked police car, officers receive the updates in real-time on their own heavy-duty, touchscreen terminals. A map on the side shows police units represented by a small blue car logo, and fire units with a small red truck logo. The dispatcher also verbally relays the information to responding officers across the shared Chilliwack radio line, so that they can keep driving without staring at a computer screen.
It was “a good 11 minutes” before the team located the woman in the flipped-over car, says Drozda.
“But it feels like forever...The vehicle wasn’t visible from the roadway either. That made it tough.”
Whenever an RCMP officer pulls over a car roadside, she approaches passengers with caution, and reads off the licence plate number to the radio tacked high up on her uniform. Dispatch runs the number immediately.
“They’re not there physically. They can only provide you the information they can obtain. It’s really important for the members [RCMP officers] to understand what questions to ask, as well as what the dispatchers know,” says Drozda.
By the time the officer has walked the 10 feet to the car, she likely already knows whether the car is stolen, who are the registered owners, and whether they have outstanding warrants to their names. If several of these red flags go up, or if the situation feels in any way threatening, such as if the car’s passengers far outnumber the lone officer, the officer immediately requests a second vehicle.
In a seriously dangerous situation, such as a violent response from someone in a pulled-over car, the officer can hit the orange button on top of her radio for a “code 1033.” This mutes the radios of all other local RCMP units for 10 seconds, enough for the officer to explain the situation, and call for immediate help.
It all comes down to officer safety, says Drozda. You don’t know what you’re walking into, unless dispatch does the research.
“All that information, that’s coming from them. That’s what you’re relying on,” says Drozda.
As supervisor of the communications centre, Campbell has four computer screens in front of her. One has a map of all field unit movements, one has a running log of all activity at a city location for that day, one has the notes of all dispatchers, and one is for basic computer functions, such as email.
For every single call that comes to the centre, Campbell runs the full gamut of queries, including address, previous calls associated to the number, and background on the registered owner. If the caller hangs up, Campbell will keep calling until they reply. The call becomes an immediate priority because she is blind on her end of the line, and doesn’t know what is happening. She will also send an officer to the house.
In one case of a pocket dial during my visit, Campbell lent me her headphones to hear the vague sounds of kids playing. Campbell ran the number, but it came back with an error. She immediately called the service provider, in this case Telus, for help. Telus could only track down the nearest telecommunications tower. Nowhere left to go, Campbell abandoned the search.
“I believe it sounded like a pocket dial,” she said, justifying her decision. If she felt something was wrong, she would get the longitude and latitude of the tower, and send an officer to hunt for the source of the call.
A dispatcher’s toughest day can be not knowing what happened to the person who required help and made the initial 9-1-1 call. Cpl. Tammy Hollingsworth worked briefly in the communications centre before joining the field team, and before heading media relations as she does now.
“You don’t get the closure. You’re sending a member, but you can’t follow up,” she says. “I’d always try and picture what happened, what the members were doing when they’re at the call.”
Another tough moment is when somebody calls for help, but no officer is available.
“You want to take off the mic and go,” says Campbell.
The phone rings. “9-1-1. Do you need the police, the fire, or the ambulance?” Campbell says as I pack up my notes.