When the call came from dispatch that there was a vehicle accident on Highway 6, the emergency responders asked how far out of town it was, and in which direction. The dispatcher said it was two kilometres out of town.
“Which way?” the responder asked.
The line was silent, because the dispatcher wasn’t sure.
“Is it toward Burton or New Denver?” asked the responder. Again, silence while the dispatcher talked with the caller.
“New Denver,” he finally responded.
After what seemed to be a very long half minute, the emergency responders were able to rush to the scene of the accident.
In any emergency situation, the fastest possible response is what can make all the difference. Why did the dispatcher take so long to give the correct directions?
It was clearly a case of a non-local dispatcher not knowing local landmarks and directions.
“It is an ongoing concern,” Troy Gross, a BCAS Media Relations officer in Kelowna who had worked with dispatch for years, said, “We are aware of it we therefore pay a lot of attention to geography in our entire region.”
“There are two ways of confirming the addresses,” told me. When an emergency call is made to a 9-1-1 dispatch centre, the legal address information associated with the phone number comes up automatically. For non-emergency calls, the dispatch centre relies on the caller for the address. Gross recommended that anyone concerned that the emergency dispatch centre have accurate address information
“Call town hall, and confirm the address,” Gross said, “keep the information right by the phone.”
The ability to quickly identify the caller’s location may be confounded by the inexperience of a dispatch employee, as well as a caller’s anxiety level.
“It’s not always easy for these folks to think clearly and relay exactly where they may be,” Gross sympathized.
“I have no doubt there has been and will continue to be confusion, but we recognize it’s an issue and we make sure they have the tools at their desk so they can figure out where the location is,” he told me.
Dispatchers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with maps for the region, and over two to three years they become well-informed about the area’s geography. This is an ongoing challenge for the 110-120 employees at the Kelowna dispatch centre, as regional district maps are updated every three months.
“They’re not necessarily experts because there are a lot of communities in the area,” Gross admitted, “but they get familiar with all of them.”
The district runs from Osoyoos to Barrier, rambling from Kamloops to Highway 1 at Golden and Revelstoke, east to Alberta and south to the border. It’s huge, which is why it takes years to learn. And more populated areas are the ones that get learned first.
“Typically they will learn the nooks and crannies of the Kamloops, the Kelownas and the Cranbrooks before they learn the nooks and crannies of Nakusp or Kaslo,” Gross explained, “If you’re not getting as many calls from Nakusp, you won’t learn it as quickly.”
Sometimes, the confusion happens when there is a single incident and a bunch of different people call it in.
“As each employee creates a file, at about the four or five minute mark the employee can see that someone else has already called,” he told me.
If it’s a fire department call or an ambulance call, they are referred on to the appropriate dispatch, where the process will be started again.
When everyone does call in right away, there can be confusion.
“So maybe a police car and and an ambulance and and a fire truck are sent out, and we find out later that we really needed only a police car or only an ambulance,” Gross said, “Until we put the fire dispatch and the police dispatch and the ambulance dispatch all in one place we’re probably never going to be able to prevent that.”
When asked if that is likely to happen, he said the issue was complex, naming different levels of government and labour issues as barriers to an integrated dispatch service being developed any time soon.