A 78-year-old man from the unincorporated Fraser Canyon community of Boston Bar falls from his chair and crumples to the floor. He’s unconscious and barely breathing. His adult son places a desperate 911 call.
All signs point to cardiac arrest. I coach the son through CPR, hoping to buy time until the paramedics arrive.
I am the emergency dispatcher.
On Tuesday, the BC Ambulance Service invited journalists to visit its Vancouver headquarters for a dispatch simulation. BCAS dispatchers are the lynchpin of the province’s emergency-response efforts – nearly every minute of every hour, a crew heads to an incident. The agency is recruiting 40 new dispatchers, some to take the place of retirees.
The simulation is led by training officer Corinne Begg. This section of the training typically lasts three weeks, she says. We get about 20 minutes.
Each workstation is equipped with three monitors. The one on the left is a highly detailed map. The caller’s phone number and the address of the incident is typed in the centre screen. The monitor on the right classifies the call, and explains what to say to the caller.
Ms. Begg takes us through a slow walkthrough, or at least what’s intended to be a slow walkthrough. The acronyms – CAT, PDI, PAI – come fast and furious. I’m distracted for at least 30 seconds thinking about a movie in which Vin Diesel drives an ambulance.
There are three primary questions to ask. What city? What’s the address? What is the phone number you’re calling from?
The last part of the last question is critical, Ms. Begg says. People sometimes call from a phone that’s not their own and, without thinking, provide the wrong information.
The first scenario Ms. Begg reads aloud is that of an elderly woman who is feeling dizzy. After classifying the call as a 26A03 and telling her to sit tight, it’s been 13 minutes and 15 seconds.
A call of that nature should take 60 to 90 seconds, Ms. Begg explains.
My incessant questioning likely doesn’t help. Much of what the dispatchers say is colour-coded and depends on the nature of the call. “Blue is for you,” Ms. Begg says at one point. Noting that much of the writing is in black, I ask if there’s a similar rhyme. I am told there is not.
Ms. Begg stands down after the first scenario. Brinton Deluca, the 25-year-old dispatcher and paramedic who’s been sitting on my right, takes her place.
Mr. Deluca first plays the role of a 22-year-old who has eaten too much. I tell him to rest comfortably until the ambulance arrives.
The third scenario involves the 78-year-old in cardiac arrest. There’s an awkward moment when I appear on the verge of asking the son if he’s also having cardiac arrest. But aside from that, it runs smoothly.
Or at least as smoothly as it can be during a fake call. The headset I have on is purely for show. Mr. Deluca’s has been with him through calls in which the other person is completely panicked.
The calls involving children, he says, stick in your memory. So, too, do incidents in which someone’s committed suicide.
But there are moments of triumph. Mr. Deluca, who’s been with BCAS for about two-and-a-half years, says he’s twice coached callers through childbirth. In one instance, he had the caller tie off the umbilical cord with shoelaces. In the other, the caller used a video game cable.
And with that, my stint as a 911 dispatcher is over. The simulation proves surprisingly stressful, particularly when my computer appears to freeze. I realize operating under a ticking clock in a high-stress environment is not for me.
I then scurry back to the office so I can file my story by deadline.