On an unusually quiet night, well after the sun has set, Saanich police dispatcher Kathy Horsley makes a prediction: “It’ll get busier after 11. That’s when things will pick up.”
Since 8 p.m., only a half-dozen 911 calls have filtered through the communications centre, but nothing significant for a Friday. A landlord-tenant dispute, a pair of mental-health calls and some noise complaints have led to an idle shift – so far – for the quartet of late-night telecom operators.
At 11:01 p.m., as if Horsley knew what the night would bring, the quietness abruptly ends.
Three successive calls come in about a fight in progress near Tillicum Centre. Telecom operator Jasmine Luchuck gathers information from a neighbour watching from a window. A few feet away in the com centre, Heather Fyfe tries to console a mother in hysterics because her teenaged son was jumped.
Luchuck and Fyfe have traded off calls with fellow operator Lindsay Finnigan all evening, and when a flood of calls comes in, these women need to be on their game.
“I’m an adrenaline junkie,” Fyfe explains of why she likes her job.
Just 15 minutes earlier Fyfe received her first call of the night – a patient at a local institution concerned about bounty hunters threatening him while he sleeps.
“I have to talk to him as if it’s true. What if someone is actually doing that? I don’t have the luxury of knowing (the truth), as absurd as (the call) sounds,” says Fyfe, estimating 30 per cent of all 911 calls involve mental-health issues.
Tonight Finnigan, Fyfe and Luchuck receive all the 911 calls for Saanich and Oak Bay, while Horsley dispatches, prioritizes and co-ordinates the officers to ensure every call that requires police presence is attended.
The telecom operators are the first point of contact when there is an emergency or issue someone feels police need to be made aware of. And though intensive training and monitored practice are crucial aspects of the job, each of Saanich’s 30 operators bring their own background and personality to respond appropriately when a call comes in.
Luchuck and Finnigan list off some of the “regulars,” roughly 100 callers who they say they talk to repeatedly on a nightly basis. Luchuck pulls a piece of paper from a folder beside her with the names of the pet dinosaurs one regular calls to chat about.
“This is what we’re here for,” Luchuck says, adding that regulars will typically face charges of abusing 911. “But we’re here to make a difference in someone’s life.”
For each of the operators, that difference has saved lives. They’ve all received calls from suicidal individuals who they’ve been able to talk out of killing themselves.
“If you weren’t there for that person, what would’ve happened?” Horsley says. “You reach out to them, talk to them on a personal level. At the end of the day, we really do care. Because there are calls that stay with us for years.”
For Horsley, one such call was from a person who nonchalantly told her he killed someone. She’ll never forget that conversation, she says.
Earlier this year, the telecom operators were put under the microscope when police did not attend a youth mental-health facility after a call came in about an at-risk teen who ran away.
The 16-year-old girl was found dead two hours later.
Saanich police investigated internally and found the operators followed protocol, but said steps could be taken to improve service.
“It’s easy to be on the outside looking in and say there might be a problem, when there isn’t one,” says Finnigan, who was on shift when the call came in from the youth facility.
“As per our policy, we didn’t do anything wrong. It’s unfortunate it ended the way it did, but we only know what we’re given and we can’t assume otherwise.”
Since the incident, the procedures between telecom operators and the Vancouver Island Health Authority have changed so the organizations have clearer communication with one another.
On a day-to-day basis, one of the job’s biggest challenges is dealing with callers who have a subjective understanding of what ‘emergency’ means. A lot of personal theories related to unsolved homicides, or complaints about a landlord, come in on a line that’s meant for only the most urgent of calls.
“You learn in elementary school that 911 is supposed to be for life and death emergencies,” Finnigan says.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, they get people calling the non-emergency line after being robbed at gunpoint.
Another daily niggle is the number of pocket dials – upwards of 60 times per shift. Sometimes operators will hear inappropriate, offensive or funny conservations. Other times, as in one instance a couple years ago, they’ll wind up sending hostage negotiators to a location, only to find out the threatening conversation overheard in the background of the pocket dial is just dialogue from an action movie.
“As the first point of contact for probably 90 per cent of our activities, they are incredibly important to our organization,” said Chief Const. Mike Chadwick. “I think people underestimate just how much help these folks provide sometimes. I think (residents are) surprised at the widespread nature or advice they can be provided with, or the steps the telecom operators will go through to try and help them solve a problem.
“At the end of the day, they help keep members of the public and our (officers) safe. They’re the conduit for that. And they are very much dedicated to making sure everybody is safe at the end of the night.”
For the foursome of telecom operators on shift, they say the job is exciting, unique, rewarding and tough. Though it’s taxing and emotional work, the thrill of the uncertainty about who they’ll help next is what keeps them loving the job.
“When you come to work, it’s never the same thing twice. It’s always something new,” Fyfe says. “You just never know what’s coming when that phone rings.”