Langford resident Dawn Clarke is one of 30 911 dispatchers that serve the West Shore, Sooke, Central Saanich, Sidney and the Salt Spring and Gulf islands. Clarke answers all emergency and non-emergency 911 calls that come in from the public at the operational communications centre at the West Shore RCMP detachment on Atkins Avenue in Langford. (Kendra Wong/News Gazette staff)

A day in the life of a 911 dispatcher

Langford resident takes complaints, calls about motor vehicle incidents and everything in between

You could call Dawn Clarke the real life Google for the West Shore RCMP.

Armed with her headset, phone and four computer screens, the 911 dispatcher is the lifeline between officers and residents in need.

As one of roughly 30 911 dispatchers that serve the West Shore, Sooke, Central Saanich, Sidney, Salt Spring and the Gulf Islands, Clarke answers all emergency and non-emergency calls that come in from the public at the operational communications centre at the West Shore detachment on Atkins Avenue in Langford.

Taking anywhere from 20 to 120 calls during a 12-hour shift, Clarke answers a variety, which vary in severity. Some are as simple as general information calls and complaints to the more intense calls involving motor vehicle incidents or an active shooter.

When the phone rings, Clarke’s work begins. The first question she asks: Do you need police, fire or ambulance and where is it? From there, Clarke tries to gather as much information as possible from the caller. What’s happening? Are there any injuries? Who is involved?

Every little detail is important and can be sent to police within seconds. Questions dispatchers ask are ultimately to ensure the safety of the public and officers.

“Where is the most important, we can’t send help if we don’t know where you are,” said the Langford resident, noting dispatchers can’t trace a person’s exact location from a cell phone. “It gives us a general range. You have to know where you are if you’re calling 911 … We’re only as good as what people on the phone tell us.”

When it comes to calls of higher severity or calls where people are in distress, Clarke will stay on the line with the caller, until they’ve talked face-to-face with an officer. She had a particularly serious incident involving an early-morning domestic call last week that involved a weapon. The woman was quite upset and was scared. Clarke admits she thought something horrific might happen while she was on the line such as a gun shot, but was relieved to find out in the end the woman was safe.

“You have to let them know that you’re there and you’re not letting go until help arrives,” Clarke said. “That you are staying there. Our job is nothing like the Halle Berry movie, [The Call].”

Having worked as a dispatcher and 911 call taker on Prince Edward Island for two years, after moving back to Vancouver Island, Clarke decided to apply to the local dispatch centre. She started the position in 2014.

Now, three years later, she can’t imagine doing anything else. While she admits some calls can be stressful, not all are bad.

About a year-and-a-half ago, Clarke took a call from a man whose wife was in labour. While they were waiting for an ambulance, she could hear the birth of the child.

“No two calls are the same and you never know what’s on the other side of that phone ringing,” she said. “You start each call with a blank mindset … Once you do this type of work, everything else seems boring … It feels good at the end when you know that person is safe.”

Const. Matthew Baker with the West Shore RCMP said without dispatchers, officers couldn’t do their jobs.

“We only know what they’re being told. For police, they are our lifeline, so when people do call and wonder why the dispatcher is asking so many questions, it’s because our lives depend on it as well as the public,” he said. “They are crucial and vital to everything we do.”

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