‘9-1-1: Police, fire or ambulance?’

Staff in the Abbotsford Police Department’s radio room are the first in line of the city’s emergency-response operations

The three computer monitors in front of Jay provide information such as the police units on shift

It’s 7:38 p.m. on a Friday and Jay is in his sixth hour of answering 911 and non-emergency calls at the Abbotsford Police Department (APD).

He picks up the next call.

“911. Do you need police, fire or ambulance?” he asks the caller, who says she needs police.

“My neighbour just assaulted my husband,” she starts.

Jay has already opened a file on one of the three monitors in front of him and he begins typing in details, which can be viewed on the monitors of everyone else in the room.

Tina, on dispatch, reviews these details as they come in and determines whether police need to be sent to the scene and, if so, which of the 14 units on shift is available to attend.

The woman says her husband was putting his bike away in the garage when he was confronted by their unruly neighbour, who then head-butted him.

“He got hit hard,” the caller says, and she requests someone be sent out right away. She says the neighbour is sitting on his balcony.

Jay asks to speak with her husband.

“He started f…ing yelling at me … I don’t know why. I didn’t do nothing to him,” the man says. “He just started … freaking out.”

The man says he’s feeling a bit dizzy and light-headed. Jay instructs the couple to stay inside their home until the ambulance and police get there.

Jay is not yet halfway through his 12-hour shift, but the calls have been constant.

Two co-workers in the communications operations centre – more commonly referred to as the “radio room” – are also serving as “call takers,” while another is the dispatcher calling out and assigning police units where needed.

A fifth person jumps in as required, such as sending a tow truck to the scene where a car crashed into a ditch, and checking the criminal record of a suspect.

At times, it’s chaotic, as information is shouted out across the room, fingers fly furiously across the keyboard, and banks of computer monitors spew out information that, to the untrained eye, is jumbled and confusing.

But the crew of five, in the dimly lit windowless second-storey room at the APD, are a smooth multi-tasking team, serving as the crucial first-in-line of the city’s emergency response operations.

Jay (who didn’t want to use his last name) is relatively new to the team, having started about a year ago as a stepping stone to a planned career as a police officer.

He’s standing at his desk – which he prefers to do for most of his shift – as he sips coffee to stay alert through the coming hours. Friday nights can often be long and filled with pandemonium.

20:30 hours (8:30 p.m.)

The man accused of head-butting his neighbour can be seen on one of the video monitors that line a wall in the radio room as police bring him into custody. Cameras record activities going on outside the APD building and in the area where suspects are admitted into the cells. There is no audio with the footage, but the man is clearly agitated and is shouting at officers during the entire admissions procedure.

Once in a cell, located below the radio room, he can be heard yelling. Sometimes, suspects thrash around so forcefully that the radio room staff can feel the floors rattle.

21:15

A woman calls to report that her teen daughter has run off for the fifth time in six weeks. She has been gone since 2 p.m. and family members haven’t been able to contact her.

Jay assures the mom they will try to find the girl. He looks up previous files and finds a contact number for the home where the teen was previously found. There’s no answer.

Jay is only able to take quick nibbles of his sushi dinner as the calls continue to come in  – reports of a group of kids jumping in front of cars near Rotary Stadium, a drunk man in a local church parking lot, and a man who claims his wife smacked him across the face because she has menopausal issues.

21:42

A caller says a woman she knows has been “calling and abusing” her, leaving as many as “five or 13” messages a day, and she wants it to stop. Jay asks for the number of the other woman and says he will call her, but there is no answer. He calls back the first woman and suggests she get the number blocked. He says he will get an officer to call her in a couple of days.

22:10

A woman calls to say the APD phone number had shown up on her call display. Jay quickly pieces together that this is the call he had made at around 9:15 looking for the missing girl.

The woman says her son knows the girl, and the boy is home with his dad, who calls Jay at around 10:30. He says the girl had dinner with them that night and left, saying she was going to a friend’s house. Jay asks them to track her down and call him back when they find her.

22:37

The woman who had apparently left multiple messages with the previous caller reaches Jay. She acknowledges she made the calls, but she’s upset because her boyfriend is with the other woman.

“She wants to know if you will stop calling her,” Jays says.

“No!” the woman says.

He puts the call on hold as his other line rings. The dad he spoke with a few minutes earlier has found the missing girl. Jay phones the girl’s mom, and the relieved and thankful woman agrees to make arrangements to pick up her daughter.

Jay returns to his other call and again requests that the woman stop bothering the other lady.

“No! He’s my boyfriend. I love him. I want my boyfriend!” she says.

“He’s your boyfriend. You can have your boyfriend,” Jay reassures her. He tells her he has to go and the information will be forwarded to police.

23:37

Calls have continued to flow in – a hostile drunk man in the parking lot of a gas station, some drunk men riding a pocket bike around an apartment parking lot, an out-of-control neighbour swearing and slamming doors, three drunken men riding a toy horse down the street.

Jay’s thorough questioning of one of the callers is met with an exasperated response:

“My God. You guys take so much time to figure something out. My God.”

Jay tells her that three officers are on their way, and she hangs up.

A woman reports that her mom just head-butted her dad and she is being drunk and disorderly. She and her brother have intervened and are keeping mother and father apart.

Asked the dates of her parents’ birthdays, the woman is not sure. She says she’s not good with birthdays.

“Do you know your birthday?” he teases her to lighten up the situation. The woman laughs.

00:00

Tina’s shift is over, and Jay moves over to dispatch. His job becomes even more hectic, as he is dealing with all the files as the call takers enter them into the system.

00:34

The radio room receives a call about a break-and-enter in progress. The caller says he heard glass smashing at the home of his elderly neighbours, and he can hear footsteps on broken glass.

All available units are dispatched, and Jay continues to access his on-screen map to determine the exact house in question and provide the information to officers on scene.

Police determine there has been no such incident and surmise that someone might have heard the sound of a breaking beer bottle.

00:50

All available units are dispatched to a local bar, where reports have come in of three or four men trying to fight staff and one of them threatening to shoot up the bar. Two men apparently run from the scene.

01:10

One of the men involved in the bar fight is brought into custody. The others are not arrested.

02:30

Jay’s shift comes to an end. He will do it all again tomorrow – his final shift of a four-day stretch before he has four days off. Although the shifts are long and fatiguing, he looks forward to coming to work.

“I love it in here … it’s always different, always something new.”

100,000 ‘unique’ calls in 2013

It takes a special personality to be able to handle the chaos that often erupts in the Abbotsford Police Department’s communications operations centre, says Const. Ian MacDonald.

He says it’s a “challenging environment” requiring an ability to multi-task, work with a team, be highly organized, and remain patient with callers who can be unruly, upset or difficult.

“At times, you have to be a bit thick-skinned,” MacDonald says.

Jay, 24, who joined the department about a year ago, agrees.

“You can never take anything personally,” he says.

Jay (who didn’t want his last name used) says one of the most difficult aspects of the job is trying to help someone who has called the police but won’t co-operate with the questions the communications operators are trained to ask.

But they need to ask these questions in order to determine whether police need to be dispatched to the scene and, if so, what kind of situation they will be encountering.

People sometimes don’t realize that while the information is being gathered over the phone, police are being dispatched.

The call taker needs to gather the details as quickly and efficiently as possible, and move on to the next call.

For the APD, that amounted to 100,000 “unique” calls in 2013. This number takes into account only one call on a particular incident and does not tally every other related call that comes in.

For example, a car crash or neighbourhood disturbance could result in dozens of phone calls, but each of those counts as only one call.

In 2013, 45 per cent of those calls were placed through 911 – many of which were  forwarded to fire and ambulance dispatch centres – and the rest were on the non-emergency line.

Those calls resulted in about 50,000 incidents being documented as police files last year.

Training to become a communications officer is a process that typically takes about five months, MacDonald says.

An application process determines whether the person is suitable for the job, and they are then paired with a mentor whom they “shadow” on the job for about two months.

They also spend time taking calls independently, followed by a period of close monitoring.

Some classroom training is involved to learn how to use the data systems and to document calls as they come in.

There is no official certification, but a person who passes all the stages is considered “signed off” and able to work as a call taker, on dispatch, or at the front counter – or all three, depending on their skill level.

Jay, who has a diploma in law enforcement from the Justice Institute of B.C., says he enjoys everything about the job.

“I enjoy the uncertainty of what each day brings and working with my fellow employees. Without their support, this job would be very difficult.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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