News : Durham’s 911 Emergency Phone System Marks 25 Years of Helping Residents
Durham, Ontario, Canada, June 3, 2016 -- For 25 years, it’s been there to assist people during their most terrifying moments.
Over the years Durham’s 911 emergency phone system has fielded millions of calls, its staff working calmly to assess incidents and dispatch the proper first response personnel.
"It looks pretty easy when you’re watching a re-enactment on TV," said Durham police Inspector Steve Jones, head of the communications unit. "But when you’re dealing with someone who’s at the worst point in their life, it’s very different."
Established in May 1991, Durham’s 911 system replaced a patchwork of eight seven-digit numbers residents had previously used to report emergencies. The 911 call centre was based in the Durham police station in downtown Oshawa before being moved to a newly built centre in Whitby in 2014.
The centre employs 64 communicators and 12 supervisors who work around the clock, handling a staggering volume of calls: In 2015, 187,737 calls were placed to 911 in Durham. Of those calls, almost 78,000 were handled by police, while others were transferred to fire, EMS and other emergency services such as the OPP.
The job can take a call taker from 0 to 100 in no time flat, said Gord Taschuk, a 911 communicator in Durham for the past 25 years.
"It can be very high stress," he said. "I describe it as hours of boredom surrounding moments of sheer terror."
A cool head and a calm demeanor are essential, Mr. Taschuk said. People calling in are often frantic, and not thinking clearly. The communicator’s job is to help them describe the situation they’re facing, so the appropriate assistance can be dispatched.
"Our role is to try and calm them down as much as possible, and get the right information," he said. "There are several things that work; sometimes, it’s silence. Sometimes, you have to firmly take control and get them to think."
The situations confronted by any long-term 911 worker run a gamut of circumstances, from sudden deaths to serious injury and people in dire emotional distress. They can also be frivolous. But each needs to be handled calmly and professionally, Mr. Taschuk said.
When he spoke at a media event on May 31, Mr. Taschuk was 11 days away from retirement. He could have said he’d seen it all, but he wouldn’t, just yet.
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"You don’t know what you’re going to hear on any given day," he said. "Sometimes, after 25 years, I think I’ve heard everything -- nope."
Inspector Jones said prospective 911 centre workers are carefully screened, going through psychological testing to assess their suitability. Thereafter they undergo intensive training and are paired with a seasoned mentor as they transition into the job. About 50 per cent of new hires ultimately make the cut and remain in their roles, according to Durham police.
The service recognizes the toll the job can take on workers, and has a number of safeguards and protocols in place to prevent excessive stress and burnout, Insp. Jones said.
"They’re a pretty resilient bunch," he said. "There’s a real commitment, a desire to help the community. Sometimes it’s a terrible job, but you do make a difference.
"You’re the first voice a person hears when they’re in distress."
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