If you saw them in the street, you probably wouldn’t recognize them. They don’t carry a gun or wear a shiny badge. They don’t drive an ambulance, a patrol car, or a fire truck. They are often working when most people are home in their beds. They are missing family functions, dance recitals and school plays, working long hours to keep their communities safe. Their pictures don’t often make the paper, and they rarely make the news. These are emergency telecommunicators, the unsung heroes of the First Responder world.
9-1-1 operators and emergency dispatchers work tirelessly behind the scenes as the first point of contact in emergency response situations. The way an operator handles a call can sometimes be the difference between life and death. Although it can be incredibly rewarding, being an emergency telecommunicator also comes with risks. Rates of depression, anxiety and PTSD are almost three times higher among emergency call takers than they are among the general population.
In Canada, dispatchers and 9-1-1 operators are classified as First Responders under federal law. But in many other regions they are classified as administrative personnel and do not have the same access to mental health supports other First Responders. “I know the public’s perception is sometimes that the role of the dispatcher is that of a phone operator, but we shouldn’t feel that way about ourselves,” Oren E. Rae writes in the Journal of Emergency Dispatch. “The dispatcher is such an important component of the entire emergency process, but so often not recognized.”
For this edition of ‘The Call I’ll Never Forget,’ we’ve partnered with E-Comm 9-1-1, the first point of contact for 9-1-1 callers in 25 regional districts in British Columbia. E-Comm handles over 2 million 9-1-1 calls per year, provides dispatch services for police and fire departments and operates the largest multi‐jurisdictional, tri‐service wide‐area radio network in the province used by first responders throughout Metro Vancouver and parts of the Fraser Valley.
We’ve gathered a collection of true stories from emergency call takers in British Columbia highlighting the good, the bad… and yes, even the ugly. Would you have what it takes to take on this incredibly important job?
DISCLAIMER: The following are firsthand accounts from emergency telecommunicators, provided by E-Comm 9-1-1. Please keep in mind that these stories may be disturbing to some readers.
“My most memorable 9-1-1 call is from when I was a fairly new police call taker. One afternoon, a teenager called in crying and said they had taken a bunch of pills because they didn’t want to live. They immediately regretted their actions and were begging for help. As first responders were en route, I kept talking to the caller to get all the information I needed and continued chatting to try to keep them awake and alert, as the pills were making them drowsy. We talked about everything and anything. The caller shared that the reason they were struggling and didn’t want to live anymore was because their friends and recently immigrated family didn’t accept their sexual orientation. As someone who is also part of the LGBTQ+ community and has immigrant family members, this call really hit close to home.
The teenager went from initially crying, to having calmed down. They were even laughing by the end of the call. Once help arrived, everything ended up working out. Helping that person during the worst moment of their life was so rewarding and calls like this are constant reminders of why I do this job.”
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Kiana
“During a snow storm, I had a dynamic call in the early hours of the morning. A caller was reporting that a person had entered their garage, set off an alarm, and then ran away. The caller did not have much of a description of the suspect, nor did they know which way they ran. Although I figured this person was long gone and police would be unlikely to intercept them, I of course put up the call. As there happened to be some members nearby who were dispatched promptly, they arrived within a few minutes. I still wasn’t hopeful they’d find anyone, but what I had overlooked was that it was snowing heavily.
Almost immediately when arriving on scene, police members saw footprints in the snow. One set of footprints. It was the only set of footprints seen anywhere on the block or surrounding area, as it was the middle of the night and still snowing. Following these footprints for a couple blocks led them directly to the person who was hiding in a corner. The suspect immediately realized their mistake and fully complied with police. Both the suspect, and this call taker, are unlikely to overlook weather conditions in the future.”
— Anonymous E-Comm Police Call Taker
“Someone called 9-1-1 and I could hear yelling in the background. The caller finally made contact with me 3.5 minutes after the 9-1-1 call was placed, at which point the caller asked me to remain silent. ‘Be quiet, you’re going to get me in trouble, they will hear us.’ With them unable to speak, I tried asking them to push a button on the phone to answer yes to any of the safety questions. The caller sounded terrified of what might happen if the other person found out they were on the phone with police, and refused to give their address. The other person would leave the room once in a while and the caller was able to give small amounts of useful information until the other person came back into the room, threatening them more and they were forced to hide the phone again.
We were able to ping the caller’s cellphone and narrow down where they may be since the caller wasn’t providing their address. They kept repeating ‘police can’t stop at my home, they will send people after me.’ The other person eventually left the caller’s home and we were able to have them lock the doors and keep them safe.”
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Meegan
“The most memorable call that comes to mind was the call from a coffee shop staff member reporting what sounded like two individuals pushing each other in the bathroom and then one of them running out the back door. The caller said they saw some blood on the bathroom floor, but wasn’t sure where it came from.
Long story short, police discovered that there were three parties involved: one with multiple stab wounds to the leg, another to the back, and another with a stab wound to the hand. Not sure how it happened, but they ended up closing the coffee shop and had the Forensic Identification Section investigate the incident, which included stopping some buses and searching them. Last I heard, they caught one person and were on the lookout for the other two parties involved.”
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Anthony
“There were a lot of incoming 9-1-1 calls when there was a ‘jumper’ on a bridge. I took one of the calls and actually got the caller who was on the bad side of the railing, wanting to jump. I had to talk them down and get them to start walking off the bridge, towards safety. This individual was crying and sounded like they were in deep pain. They asked me to ‘give them a reason on why they shouldn’t jump today, just one reason.’
I didn’t know what to say because I did not want to trigger them (such as by bringing up family), so I ended up saying, ‘please don’t jump today for me, let’s walk off this bridge together.’ They ended up walking off the bridge, while talking to me, and the police were there shortly after. I feel like I helped them in that one moment, knowing someone cared about them. It was definitely a high stress call, as we don’t usually end up talking to the actual person who wants to jump off the bridge.”
— E-Comm Police Call Taking Team Lead Candice
“One of my most memorable calls involved an elderly individual who was missing from their residence when their significant other woke up. The caller advised me that their partner had advanced Alzheimer’s and very limited mobility. In fact, the missing person had not left their house alone in several years. When the caller awoke to find their partner missing at approximately 01:00hrs, they ‘didn’t want to be a burden’ and instead went out looking for them for several hours in the snow. I worked quickly and got all the pertinent information, while trying to keep the caller calm and reassuring them that we had lots of help coming to look for their partner.
I pulled up the file, inputted the details, and kept the caller on the line while officers looked all over the area for our missing senior. While we waited for members to arrive at the residence to speak to the caller, I tried to get any information about where the missing partner likes to go, who they know in the area, and what they may have taken with them from their home. Being missing in the snow in their condition, and for this long, made everyone involved nervous for the outcome.
Luckily, just minutes after disconnecting with the caller, our missing person was found by an officer – a little chilly and confused, but otherwise remarkably unharmed. The senior had none of their mobility aids with them, yet somehow travelled 12 blocks in eight inches of snow in the middle of the night. They then got a ride home in a police car to their partner, who was anxiously awaiting their return. Everyone involved was very relieved the missing senior was found safe after their late night adventure!”
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Danielle
“When I was first interviewed for the role of a police call taker, I was asked what type of calls I thought I’d find the most challenging and I immediately thought of domestic violence and suicides. I had very limited experience in my personal life to be able to deal with these calls effectively–or so I thought. I soon learned that those calls were actually my strongest. It allowed me to connect with my callers, show real empathy and really try to make a difference for them–whether it be getting them out of a terrible situation or, in some cases, just having someone to talk to.
One of my most memorable calls was when I was a fairly new call taker. I remember the feelings and emotions I was going through so vividly. I received a 9-1-1 call where the caller was having troubles with an abusive partner, who also had an alcohol addiction. There was no physical violence, but there was a lot of mental and emotional abuse. The caller was in their vehicle with their two young children in the backseat. They had moved to Canada for their partner and had no family or friends to turn to in that moment. Their grief was just so real that, while I was talking to them and collecting their information to create a police call for assistance, I felt my stomach drop and tears come to my eyes. In that moment, I knew this job was for me. I also knew that I had a long road ahead of building my resiliency to continue to keep coming back, and to learn to separate my work/calls from my personal life. Nine years later, I’m still here–so I’m guessing I got some of it right.”
— E-Comm Police Call-Taking Manager Sandeep
“My most memorable call was from someone who said that they just witnessed someone jump from a bridge. I got the file posted right away and started my questions. I could hear the shakiness in their voice and was trying to be as comforting and sensitive as I could, as I knew that must have been awful to witness. As I asked them to describe the jumper, I noticed something seemed off.
I trusted my instinct and asked them if they were describing themselves and they broke down sobbing, saying yes. I then realized I was dealing with someone sitting on a bridge contemplating suicide. I felt a connection with them and we ended up having a really beautiful conversation, which officers encouraged us to continue since our rapport was going so well. They made the decision to live and ended up walking off that bridge and meeting with officers, all while we continued to chat. I remember feeling proud of them for having the courage to get help and the pride in myself for being able to help them make that decision. I think of them often and hope they’re doing well.”
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Meagan
“I received an emergency call from a 9-1-1 prefix cellphone (a phone without a SIM card, so we wouldn’t be able to call back). There was nothing said or heard. After about a minute, I was going to disconnect and chalk it up as an accidental call, until I thought I heard a voice faintly say “help.” I attempted to gain voice contact again, with no luck. While keeping the line open, I listened back to the call on our playback software and became somewhat confident that I had heard a voice. I began a file and police were dispatched to the area.
The cellphone mapped over one of two houses. Police went to the first house and attempted to speak with the occupants and were unsuccessful, so they moved to the second. Upon doing the door knock, a couple answered. Police inquired how many occupants were inside and if the well-being of them was known. The couple told the officers that their adult child was upstairs sleeping. Officers went upstairs to check and found that the individual was overdosing in the bathroom on mix of drugs and alcohol. Immediately, BCEHS Advanced Life Support was dispatched and quickly got to the scene to attend to the patient. If I had disconnected even a second earlier, they never would have made it to the hospital.
— E-Comm Police Call Taker Noah
“During my time as a police call taker, I answered a 9-1-1 call from a parent with their teenager on the line. The teen had been a victim of a sexual assault and the suspect was someone known to them – a co-worker. I could hear the other parent in the background, very upset, frustrated and voicing their desire to take matters into their own hands. Along with that, I knew there were two other young children in the house that were potentially overhearing this tragedy play out.
Being a father myself, I empathized with the parent’s feelings of frustration but also recognized that the best thing they could do for their family was to remove themselves and the two younger children from the situation and maybe go for a walk. This allowed the parent to somewhat calm down and I was able to continue dialogue with the caller and the victim to get the details necessary and get a police response to the house.”
— Former E-Comm Police Call Taker & current E-Comm Fire Dispatcher Andrew
With files from E-Comm 9-1-1.
E-Comm is the first point of contact for 9-1-1 callers in 25 regional districts in British Columbia, handling over 2 million 9-1-1 calls a year (99 per cent of B.C.’s 9-1-1 call volume). E-Comm also provides dispatch services for police and fire departments and operates the largest multi‐jurisdictional, tri‐service wide‐area radio network in the province used by police, fire and ambulance personnel throughout Metro Vancouver and parts of the Fraser Valley.