E-Comm’s call to duty

E-Comm dispatchers field emergency calls from Richmond, and other parts of Metro Vancouver.  - photo courtesy E-Comm
E-Comm dispatchers field emergency calls from Richmond, and other parts of Metro Vancouver.
— image credit: photo courtesy E-Comm

If you’ve ever dialed 911, and wondered who was on the other end of the call, the answer can be found inside a post-disaster-designed high-tech building across from the PNE in Vancouver.

Though they’re quite a long way from Richmond, teams of highly-trained multi-taskers have forged working partnerships with local emergency personnel, and become very familiar with Lulu Island and Sea Island and the people who live and work here.

The Richmond Review received a tour of the E-Comm building, where Mike Dunbar, director of police services, and Corrie Okell, team manager of training, explained how 911 calls are fielded from Richmond residents and others in Metro Vancouver.

Dunbar said it was during the 1994 Stanley Cup riots and its aftermath, that it was realized that having one radio system for handling 911 calls for police, fire and ambulance was critical. Setting this up would enable emergency responders to communicate directly to one another, an invaluable asset when things are going sideways. So when the riots happened in June of last year, following Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, the system was put to the test, and passed with flying colours in deploying and managing the emergency police, fire and ambulance response, Dunbar said.

Today, whenever someone dials 911 in Richmond, one of the call-takers is among a pod of dispatchers who work in concert and under the direction of a supervisor.

Some 2,300 911 calls are made each day, with E-Comm serving some 2.2 million people in their service areas. At the same time, there are 70,000 accidental calls.

911 calls—by cell phone or land line—are answered by an E-Comm dispatcher who tries to assess the level of the emergency, and initially says: “Police, fire or ambulance.”

When language becomes an issue, the dispatchers have access to more than 170 international languages 24 hours per day, and many of the dispatchers speak more than one language.

During a major incident, when a flood of 911 calls can come in simultaneously, the dispatching supervisors can re-task dispatchers working in a different area to ensure speedier responses.

In the case of Richmond, the 911 calls intended for police or fire, are redirected to somebody who oversees the deployment of police officers, and knows where every Richmond Mountie is at any given time, thanks to global positioning technology.

One of the biggest changes to the 911 system has been the nature of the incoming calls, and specifically, that most emergency calls come from cell phones. And although cell phones provide a general location of an incident, it’s not nearly as specific as when a call comes through from a land line. That’s why it’s so important for those who dial 911 on their cells, to remain on the line for as long as possible, until their location has been confirmed.

Okell said before someone can become a dispatcher, they have to take 176 hours of in-class training, and another 176 hours of training on the floor.

So what does the future hold for 911 calls.

The next generation radio project involves receiving 911 calls via text message, and the ability to send images and video to emergency crews. But that’s many years down the road, Dunbar said.

In the meantime, Richmond receives a high level of performance, technology and professionalism from the E-Comm team, he said.


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